1Set up by George Smith in 1860 with William Makepeace Thackeray as its first editor, bound in an orange wrapper with a Renaissance motif on the front cover, and sold monthly for a shilling to a large audience that extended from business people to artisans, the Cornhill Magazine was the foremost journal of its type and ‘dominated the market’ (Hughes 2) for at least the first half of the decade. Presented as a showcase of contemporary fiction, which was interpreted in black and white by some of the greatest illustrators of the period regarded as ‘the Golden Age’ of British illustration (Goldman xvii), the Cornhill beguiled its readers, offering a document that championed good taste in a form combining traditionalism with daring new styles in literature and art. The proposed effect was one of gainfulness; offered as a nourishing source of ideas and visual delight, the Cornhill was supposed to be a ‘harvest perennial’ of ‘kindly fruits’ (Thackeray 161) that entertained and instructed its audience in the best of contemporary culture.
2The richness of the Cornhill’s illustrated serials has been the subject of detailed analysis, with generations of critics exploring the interactions of image and word. Notable among these are studies of the partnerships of Anthony Trollope and John Everett Millais (Mason; Turner; Goldman), Frederick Walker and Thackeray (Burton), and Charles Reade and Robert Barnes (Cooke, ‘A Forgotten Collaboration’; Illustrated Periodicals). By contrast, much less has been written about the journal’s material presentation. Though devoted to the Cornhill, the 1999 special number of Victorian Periodicals Review gives little attention to materiality. The only detailed reading of this aspect of its meaning is Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge’s extended essay of 2008, which considers aspects of the placement of George Du Maurier’s Cornhill illustrations for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864–66); situating the dual discourse of text and image in a theoretical framework, the authors explore the importance of analeptic and proleptic locations of the images and their impact on the process of interpretation.
3Leighton and Surridge refocus attention on the internal organization and complex spatialized interactions of two sign systems, one printed in shapes and forms in black and white and one mediated through the densely printed letterpress. There are nevertheless several other material qualities that have only been the subject of cursory analysis. Most accounts of the Cornhill mention its striking physical properties, yet none has considered the importance of its cover or the significance of its form as it changed from paper ephemera to gift book for the parlour. This oversight is surprising, for Thackeray and Smith were deeply concerned with the magazine’s ‘look’; their success was notable, enabling them to establish the Cornhill within the popular iconography of middle-class taste (as widely defined) and creating a publication that was ultimately as familiar (and as much a part of the domestic fireside) as the visually distinctive Punch. More than any other magazine, with the possible exception of the Yellow Book of the 1890s, the Cornhill’s identity (and success) was the product of its outer as much as its inner surfaces.
4This process of market positioning through the Cornhill’s very materiality demands careful attention, and my aim here is to explore the ways in which the editor and publisher manipulated the magazine’s physical form as a means by which to attract and retain its audiences and to disseminate the journal as effectively as possible. My analysis is framed by consideration of the magazine’s history as well as its engagement with contemporary technology and taste.
5Like all books, the Cornhill was a ‘particular entity produced in a particular time, space and socio-cultural context’ (Van Mierlo 4), and its forms and functions can only be understood in its historical setting. A key consideration is its place within the capitalist practices of mid-Victorian publishing, the publisher’s strategies, and the ways in which it responded to the demands of its audience.
6The Cornhill (fig. 1) was launched at a moment when Victorian reading cultures were developing: more people were literate than ever before, and, like fellow publishers Alexander Strahan and Bradbury and Evans, Smith was keen to exploit the market potential of vast audiences (Glynn 121–22). In direct competition with each other, all three set out to capture this opportunity by launching their magazines: Bradbury and Evans first issued Once a Week (fig. 2) at the end of 1859 (Strahan published Good Words (fig. 3) in 1860), and the Cornhill, which cost a shilling rather than sixpence, appeared at the same time. Each had the attraction of high-quality illustrations in an age when graphic art was readers’ prime means of access to visual material, and each promoted a notion of cultured values. There were differences, however: Once a Week and Good Words were almost exclusively directed at a conventional bourgeois audience, but only the Cornhill aimed to attract literate readers irrespective of social class. Though the other publishers scented money, it was only Smith who realized the potential of his markets, embodying his idea in a credo that Thackeray explained in his promotional ‘letter’ to contributors. Thackeray notes that the publisher aims to attract a ‘large number of readers’, and invites proposals from all of the ‘pleasant ordinary’. The Cornhill, he says, will be aimed at diverse groups unfettered by considerations of ‘rank, age, and sex’, including such readers as ‘a professor ever so learned, a curate in his country retirement, an artisan after work-hours, a school-master or mistress when the children have gone home . . . a Geologist, Engineer, Manufacturer . . . [,] Lawyer, Chemist—what you please’. All that matters, Thackeray suggests, is that the audience will be ‘glad to be addressed by well-educated men and women’ (Thackeray 161–62).
Fig. 1. Front cover for the Cornhill Magazine 32 (August 1862). Designed by Godfrey Sykes and engraved on wood by W. J. Linton. Orange paper, 235 x 150 mm.
Fig. 2. Front cover for Once a Week (22 October 1859) by an unknown designer; wood-engraving by J. Swain. Plain low-grade white paper, 250 x 180 mm.
Fig. 3. Front cover for Good Words 5 (May 1864) by an unknown designer; wood-engraving on brown paper by an unknown engraver. 250 x 180 mm.
7These terms suggest a democratization of taste, and, compared to its competitors, the Cornhill is inclusive. Yet Smith and Thackeray did have distinct expectations of their readers. They claimed that their purpose was to be secular—in contrast to the Evangelical Good Words—in their emphasis on ‘friendly hearts’ of ‘various denominations’ (Thackeray 161), but the magazine was always aimed at those who wanted to be part of an inclusive club of the cultured. In the words of Andrew Maunder, it was offered as ‘a commodity text for a new kind of audience, a collective of people who [were] not simply genteel in the traditional sense’ (247) but unified by their desire to engage with the latest in art and literature and be seen as participants in an elite. This was the Cornhill’s new ‘coterie audience’ (Delafield 81); it denied the significance of rank but asserted the need for ‘rising status’ (Schmidt 58) based on taste, self-improvement, and the acquisition of cultural capital.
8The Cornhill was aimed, in other words, at readers of a certain type rather than a certain class. This orientation was embodied in the magazine’s contents: it offered refined material and it intended to satisfy its audience’s desire to be refined. But the key to making its pitch was the journal’s physical form, especially its covers, which acted, as all bindings do, to orient the artefact in its social setting. The wrapper had to encapsulate the readers’ core values, and it had to present the journal as a prestigious and appealing brand—an object that attracted the aspirational by asserting its elite credentials. It needed, as Spencer L. Eddy notes, ‘to promise a certain style, or attitude, of culture, refinement, and worldly sophistication’ (15); however, representing this ‘elegant’ (Schmidt 203) ‘attitude’ was no easy task.
9The editor tried (and failed) to design an appropriate image for the wrapper and was unable to engage the Punch designer, Charles Keene (Thackeray 162). It was not until Smith procured (for a large fee) the services of Godfrey Sykes, a neoclassical designer at work on the embellishment of the South Kensington Museum under the direction of Sir Henry Cole, that the correct formula was found (Huxley 96). Working together, Smith, Thackeray, and Sykes created a memorable cover that embodied the magazine’s values and projected them into the consumer’s space, creating a point of intersection between the reader’s desires and the journal’s capacity to meet them. There were several dimensions to this project, and the implications of the binding were complicated.
10First of all was the colour: orange was an unusual choice and was selected (perhaps on the recommendation of Sykes, who was an expert in the effects of frieze work) for several reasons. It was probably deployed because it was eye-catching, giving the Cornhill a visual intensity that was far more appealing than the plain white paper of Once a Week and the brown wrapper of Good Words. This colour choice was flagrant marketing, attracting customers by making the product as vivid as possible. It also had other associations that made a calculated pitch at its readership’s aspirational values. In its very vitality, orange suggested the dynamic lifestyles of the business classes who would constitute a part of the audience, and its flamboyance implied optimism and good feeling. At the same time, it associated the magazine with the brightly packaged literature of contemporary gift books; it further rhymed with the green covers of Dickens’s serial parts (Huxley 89) and the yellow wrappers of Thackeray’s, so invoking the high standards of the two champions of illustrated fiction. Colour-coding was thus a subtle means of positioning the magazine within an existing discourse of taste and expectation, and its orange hue on its own was a powerful signifier that would account for much of its success and increase the audience’s sense of ‘belonging’ (Delafield 81) and ownership. As George Augustus Sala remarked in 1868, ‘that design of black and orange [would be] as familiar to English eyes as the green covers of Mr Dickens’s serials’ (113).
11The final coup, though, was the association between the colour of the covers and the magazine’s name. Smith had chosen the title Cornhill in reference to his premises at number 65 Cornhill. Thackeray, by contrast, projected the magazine in metaphorical terms as growing corn, which in British usage meant a wheat crop, approximately represented by the colour of the wrappers; ‘the Cornhill’ becomes the Hill of Corn. Indeed, Thackeray’s notion of the journal as a nourishing organism offering ‘the kindly fruits of the earth’ (161) to those who were themselves engaged in intellectual growth was a brilliant move which invoked the Litany in The Book of Common Prayer; if the magazine claimed to be as essential as bread and to facilitate development and growth, then it was logical to dress it in an agrarian livery. By buying this orange-coloured journal, consumers were immersed in a notion of gainfulness that started as soon as they engaged with its visual conceit. Like the Pre-Raphaelites’ periodical, the Germ (1850)—which was projected originally as the Seed—the Cornhill promised to grow into an impressive crop.
12The notion of the Cornhill as a means of nourishment was further suggested by Sykes’s symbolic design of the four seasons of the year enwrapped in Renaissance foliates and tendrils, with ears of wheat squeezed into panels on the entablature, and cornucopia, the emblem of plenty, spilling from the central panel. Sykes’s design is a vivid depiction of abundance, and its excess is the visual promise of the Cornhill’s reward. Buy me, the design argues, and you will be part of the rich process of self-improvement through which you become a participant in the ‘growing’ of your personal culture; the magazine will engage you with the best and facilitate your growth, like one of the tendrils appearing on the front cover. Yet this reward had to be hard-won, and Sykes’s design specifically appealed to the idea that self-improvement could only be achieved through labour symbolizing the toils of the husbandman who prepares, sows, harvests, and flails his crop. Figured as both a heroic sign and a real British labourer (an image that Sykes based on observation), this archetypal workman is an emblematic self-made man; published immediately after Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), the Cornhill asserts the value of the self-contained industry that was central to its readership. It is only through labour, Sykes insists, that the fruits of culture can be produced and consumed, an idea that appealed, as Thackeray intended, to entrance everyone from the ‘artisan’ to the ‘professor’ (Thackeray 161). The cover of Good Words (fig. 3) pitches at the refined lives of the upper-middle classes, who are shown studying art and science and engaging with the devout, but the Cornhill’s wrapper, with its proletarian figures in motion, suggests that ‘virility [is] derived from work’ (Lawrence 58), linking directly to Smiles’s belief that self-definition is the product of ‘persevering application and energy’ and enables even the humble to rise (15).
13What, then, was the nature of this ‘culture’ for sale? The wrapper’s symbolism exploits the potential buyer’s value system and presents itself as a champion of the dominant ideologies of improvement. However, the quality of the Cornhill’s wares is presented not only as an earnest celebration of industrious study, but as a celebration of the gold standard of the neoclassical. Aimed at elites irrespective of rank, the front cover persuades the audience that it contains material of the quality of the classical world, evoking its values in the form of Renaissance panelling, swags, decorative vases, and other familiar devices. Quite different from the cover design of Once a Week (which presents the idea of leisure in the form of a rustic arbour) and that of Good Words (with its Gothic piety), Sykes’s design is an assertion of sophistication and secular worldliness. This design could be read, as Eddy explains, as an evocation of ‘Virgilian innocence to which the reader might escape in the grime and grind’ of contemporary London (18), but it is likelier that Thackeray, Smith, and Sykes intended the classical reference to invoke the wit and cleverness to which their readers might aspire and which was modelled by the contents. Readers would have been aware of the fact that classical learning was the mainstay of the elite education of the upper-middle classes, and Sykes also manipulates the contemporary taste for the representation of the classical world that was featured in 1860s art, notably in the paintings of Frederic Leighton and Edward Poynter. His front cover makes a distinct link between the magazine and the visual language that he was currently deploying in his decorative friezes on the South Kensington Museum. This was the iconography of knowledge and philosophy, and Sykes uses allusion to position the Cornhill in the same sophisticated space. If reading the magazine was an invitation to engage in self-improvement, then such self-improvement was strengthened by inviting the reader-viewer to participate in the very latest revival of what was widely regarded as the highest form of literary and visual culture.
14The Cornhill’s front cover thus figures as a complex allegory that attracts its readership by engaging with a series of contemporary discourses. Published for the first time in 1860, it embodies the fascination with self-improvement as it emerged in the late 1850s and combines it with the developing taste for the neoclassical. In its imagery, the front cover at once promises the growth of the tilled field and the solidity of the classical temple; indeed, its dynamic and appealing design makes the covers of its rivals, Once a Week and Good Words, seem inert, unengaging and old-fashioned, presenting in their place a piece of pure topicality. The wrapper undoubtedly made a contribution to both the magazine’s huge initial sales—with 110,000 copies being sold, well in excess of its rivals—and the Cornhill’s continuing currency for the rest of the century. Without the careful formulation of its card binding, the vivid sign of ‘quality, innovation [,] [and the] dependability of a brand’ (Schmidt 205), the Cornhill might not have enjoyed such success.
15As I suggested in the previous section, Sykes’s orange blazon was absolutely a product of its time, allowing the magazine to cater for and exploit its multiple audiences. Its outer surface animated its contents, establishing the journal’s identity, enshrining its credentials, and defining its market position. Smith, Thackeray, and Sykes were fortunate in their invention; finding the most appropriate design and colour were central to the magazine’s success, but equally important was material production—the quality of the printing had to be of the highest standards and had to convey the notion of finesse that was implied in the iconography. A magazine offering the best art and literature must be a fine artefact in its own right, and the collaborators were at pains to enshrine their message in the wrapper’s fine surface of inked shapes. Indeed, there is no difference between the quality of the cover’s printing and that of the printing of the fine wood engravings and letterpress contained within; there is, however, a marked difference between the printing of the Cornhill’s wrapper and the relatively crude printing of its two rivals’ covers.
16To achieve this superiority, the collaborators made use of what were already established procedures. In common with practically all illustrated material of the late 1850s and early 1860s, the design was drawn in pen and ink, transferred to the woodblock using photography, made into a proof, and then printed using an electrotype cast taken from the original woodblock. The trick, though, is the fine effect of the end result; although struck from electrotypes, which had to be used because the steam press crushed woodblocks in a long run, Sykes’s design seems as if it were taken from the block. This delicacy probably reflects Smith’s connoisseurship: he personally inspected every proof of every illustration proposed for the Cornhill and knew that the better the proof and original block, the likelier that the electrotype would be almost if not entirely identical with the prime impressions. Smith and Thackeray were also fortunate in securing the services of W. J. Linton, who excelled in rendering light, airy designs. His engraved proof and Sykes’s pen-and-ink drawing survive in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; comparison of the two shows that the engraver’s image is virtually indistinguishable from the artist’s. Linton might thus be admitted as the fourth collaborator in the creation of the magazine’s distinctive look, and like every illustrated publication of the period, the Cornhill has to be viewed as the product of several hands engaged in an interaction of handicraft (the artist’s original design), a designer’s brief (demanded by the publisher and editor), and a highly skilled producer, part craftsman and part technician, who engages with contemporary technology to give the idea its final, physical manifestation in the real world (Cooke, Illustrated Periodicals 192–206). Thackeray and Sykes stress the organic metaphor, the notion of the periodical’s appearance as if it were grown for the delectation of its audience, but in reality it was embedded in the characteristically mid-Victorian mix of craft and industry, bespoke design and mass production.
17The Cornhill’s deployment of electrotypes and conventional printing methods allowed it to be quickly and cheaply printed with no diminution in its production quality. The publisher’s engagement with modern technologies similarly figured in its rapid transit and dissemination through the agency of the railway system. Thackeray may have eulogized the journal’s appeal to retired clergymen, but in practice the main consumers were urbanites, the metropolitan citizens and business people for whom railway travel was a regular event. The Cornhill was promoted in the contemporary press as being available at all ‘booksellers and at all Railway Stations’ (Schmidt 204), and its rustic cover appeared on the counters of many stationers—notably W. H. Smith—on the railway platforms of industrial towns.
18Its currency with railway travellers is an interesting aspect of its appeal, and its material form expressed its functionality as a portable object that could be carried to work or on a journey and returned home without any inconvenience. Having focused on making the Cornhill attractive, Thackeray and Smith made it easy to handle as well: it was smaller than its competitors, measuring just 235 by 150 millimetres as opposed to the 240 by 180 millimetres of Once a Week and the 250 by 180 millimetres of Good Words, and its narrow oblong shape could fit into a pocket or portmanteau as others could not. Its portability was also facilitated by the use of heavy-grade paper for the wrappers, giving it a solidity that meant that it could be taken out and read without being buckled or bent; Good Words and Once a Week, with their light-gauge covers, seem ephemeral by comparison. The Cornhill’s material configuration was deployed, in other words, to extend its range of consumers beyond the fireside; unlike the Leisure Hour or the Quiver, which were too large to carry comfortably and were thus confined to the parlour, its monthly issue could be consumed outside the home. As with the physical form of the wrapper, the arrangement of size and shape were conceived with an apparent simplicity that nevertheless had a dramatic effect, empowering the journal’s diverse audiences to scan its texts and illustrations on the move. The product of steam-powered printing, it catered to those travelling by the same motive force.
19This association confirmed the magazine’s dynamism, fusing the intense activity of Sykes’s husbandman with the industrialized movement of the train. Positioned within this niche, the Cornhill became in the popular mind the epitome of modernity as a rapidly consumed artefact in a febrile world. Frederick Sandys viewed the journal as a lively new fad, amusingly including a discarded copy of the Cornhill in his illustration ‘Until Her Death’ in Good Words of 1862 (312); it is only when the magazine has been thrown away that life is over and death can be confronted. Yet not all were impressed by its versatility. For John Ruskin, its consumption as part of the new railway culture was a degrading example of capital’s pitch at ever-widening audiences. Writing in Ariadne Fiorentina (1876), he laments the pleasures of workers who toil in a steam-driven underworld with nothing to entertain them but the famous orange-bound magazine:
[The] woodcuts . . . [appearing in the Cornhill] are favourably representative of the entire illustrative art industry of the modern press,—industry enslaved to the ghastly service of catching the last gleams in the glued eyes of the daily more bestial English mob,—railroad born and bred, which drags itself about the black world it has withered under its breath, in one eternal grind and shriek,—gobbling,—staring,—chattering,—giggling,—trampling out every vestige of national honour and domestic peace, wherever it sets the staggering hoof . . . incapable of reading, of hearing, of thinking, of looking,—capable only of greed for money, lust for food, pride of dress, and the prurient itch of momentary curiosity for the politics last announced by the newsmonger, and the religion last rolled by the chemist into electuary for the dead. (Ruskin 267)
20Ruskin’s ranting condemnation of the commuters’ reading of the magazine suggests how successful it was in reaching white-collar workers, those ‘railway born and bred’ who read it on their journey to work, slipped it into their pockets, and then read it on the way home. These were the very consumers that Smith and Thackeray set out to reach, extending beyond the old middle classes and including the new professionals, the ‘Geologist, Engineer, Manufacturer’ (Thackeray 161).
21What we should not forget, of course, is that these consumers were predominantly men on their way to work; though universal in its invocation of cultural value, and containing a great deal of material directed at women, when it appeared as a monthly, the Cornhill was weighted in favour of male consumption. The magazine’s masculinist orientation is suggested by the size (for large pockets) as well as by its dynamic front cover. It is also noticeable that, in the 1860s at least, the advertisements appearing inside the covers predominantly sold leisure products intended for men. Though Smith took the opportunity to promote his catalogue of books for men and women, he focused on gender-specific services and objects. A telling example is the issue for August 1862 (no. 32), which typifies the mix of male and female (fig. 1). Twenty pages are given over to advertisements: of these, six promote books by Smith, Elder as well as Chapman and Hall, and only one, selling baby products, promotes items for women. Three pages expound the value of camomile pills for consumption by the family and one gives the hard sell for starch. The remaining nine are intended entirely for male pleasure and utility. Ind Coope brewers, the Imperial Wine Company, and Kinahan’s whiskey compete for space with advertisements for shirts, safes, comfortable chairs, and Gillott’s ‘metallic pens’. The range is significantly wide, encompassing luxury products aimed at middle-class men and ‘strong, mild and pale ales’ for the lower end of the Cornhill’s clientele.
22How, then, did Smith and Thackeray ensure that the Cornhill appealed to women beyond the allure of its serials? Female readers would have engaged with the periodical when it appeared as a magazine, but the publisher and editor characteristically deployed a sort of fail-safe by gendering its material form. If the monthly issue were a piece of robust ephemera primarily directed at the male audience, then the half-yearly volumes were unmistakeably rebranded as works for the feminine domain of home. Reissued in red-maroon boards with Sykes’s design embossed on the front cover and reprinted on high-quality paper without the advertisements, the bound issue converted the slim monthly booklets into a monumental gift book that, like all such publications, was as much a substantial ornament as a piece of literature (fig. 4). This change in form emphasized leisure and leisurely consumption, becoming a piece to be read at the reader’s convenience rather than a journal scanned in hurried moments. The Cornhill’s transformation ensured that it was not consigned to the status of ephemera, and on this occasion the publisher’s tactic was already a well-established procedure: Once a Week had already appeared in a half-yearly volume, and so had the Leisure Hour, an illustrated miscellany from the mid-1850s. However, the Cornhill’s high-quality production combined with the excellence of its contents to create a new sort of literary magazine—one that could be placed on the shelves next to ‘serious’ literature and treated in the same terms. Enmeshed as monthly issue in the dynamic world of self-improvement, work, and travel, Smith’s magazine was converted into an object for stationary contemplation. At once a defining document of social and cultural aspirations caught up in the process of education and the acquirement of status, its final impression is one of domestic stability. It may have demanded a great deal of its audiences, offering a ‘kindly fruit’ to be sown and picked, but the effect created by the bound editions is that of a ‘harvest perennial’ (Thackeray 161).
Fig. 4. The bound version of the Cornhill Magazine. Sykes’s original design is reproduced in blind on embossed red cloth.
23In short, the Cornhill’s physical form was a versatile piece of branding. Created using the technological procedures of the time, activated within the collaborative model that informed the industrialized model of publishing, and carefully positioned to intersect with a series of cultural values and ideas, its covers, shape, size, and printing were brilliantly conceived and produced to appeal to and entice its target audiences. So much has been written of the journal’s contents, and yet its material realization is an integral part of its meaning. Had the Cornhill taken another form, it might not have engaged its original readership. Resplendent in orange in an age of gaslight and candles, it mediated between work and home, ephemeral consumption and gift-book permanence, the domains of the male and the female. Thackeray and Smith intended it to endure, and its endurance is as much the product of its material form as the high-quality literature and illustrations it contains within its covers.