Together with photography, the phenomenon of illustrated newspapers - newspapers carrying manually engraved woodblock images - was integral to a worldwide explosion of imagery at a popular level in the latter half of the 19th century. Yet compared with the gold-rush financed emergence of Marvellous Melbourne and construction of the railway network, the evolution of the city's illustrated newspapers is less known. They were a further reflection of Victoria's greater wealth, better-educated population and more skilled workforce.
Of 15 papers founded in Melbourne between 1853 and 1896, four were successful: Newsletter of Australasia(1856-62), Illustrated Melbourne Post (1862-68), Illustrated Australian News (1862-96) and Australasian Sketcher (1873- 89). The two main reasons for the failure of other papers, especially in the 1850s, were lack of start-up capital and weekly issue. By contrast, the last three of the above papers had the twin advantages of financial backing from their sister daily publications, the Herald, Age and Argus newspapers respectively, and monthly issue. This afforded a better scale of economy relative to their labour-intensive production, a more cost-effective circulation among a relatively small colonial readership, and a 'Home' readership via the monthly Royal Mail steamer.
When comparing the Melbourne papers with their intercolonial competitors in Sydney and Adelaide, Richard Twopeny (Town life in Australia, London, 1883) declared the Illustrated Australian News and the Australasian Sketcher 'by far the best'. Indeed, Melbourne was always the centre of production for illustrated newspapers in Australia with these two papers offering a broader range of image subject matter (Julian Ashton and Tom Carrington were both illustrating for these papers at the time) and higher production standards as exemplified by the work of the wood engraver, Samuel Calvert. None of these factors, however, prevented the papers from being rendered obsolete by the introduction of the halftone process for reproducing images in 1888.
The appeal of illustrated newspapers resided in their capacity to provide a predominantly urban-dwelling, middle-class readership with visual confirmation of its fervent belief in colonial progress. This belief was reflected in the number and variety of illustrations that depicted buildings, streetscapes, panoramas, company mining, manufacturing, exhibitions, port facilities, shipping, railways and defence fortifications. The papers were the first publishers of bird's-eye views of Melbourne and reflected the everyday life of middle-class colonial Australia with images of civic occasions, sport and visual arts. Finally, there were images of the frontier: landscapes, Aboriginal people and the bushman, the last category providing images which influenced Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts of the Heidelberg School.