Or, perhaps the panorama can be considered the Regency version of the IMAX or even the holodeck. The panorama was first introduced in London in the late eighteenth century and quickly spread across Europe. These enormous paintings became a popular form of entertainment throughout England and the Continent during the Regency. Yet I have never read a Regency novel in which a panorama plays any part.
A brief history of the origin of the panorama …
The Irish artist, Robert Barker, was working in Edinburgh, in the 1780s, after a long and varied career. He was teaching the correct use of accurate perspective at the headquarters of the British troops who were occupying Scotland. In the course of his work, he had developed and patented a device which made it possible to reliably draw accurate circular perspective. To demonstrate the ease of use of his device, he had his son, twelve-year-old Henry, draw a 360º view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Once the drawings were assembled, Barker had the idea of making a large circular painting from them, but he lacked the money and supplies to execute his vision.
However, a politician and military officer of high rank, Lord Elcho, the son of the Earl of Wemyss, believed there might be some military application in such a painting, to be used for strategic planning. Lord Elcho provided the support Barker needed, allowing him the use of the Guards Room at Holyrood Palace as a studio, as well as paying for his supplies. By the end of 1787, the large painting was complete. It was exhibited in Archer’s Hall, opening to the public on 31 January 1788. Though the exhibition was well-attended, it was also clear that this large circular painting did not have any real military value. But Barker believed it had potential as a civilian diversion.
Robert Barker patented his invention in 1787, prior to its exhibition in Edinburgh, and called it "la nature à coup d’oeil," essentially, "nature at a glance." He took the painting to London in 1789. There, opening on 14 March, it was shown in a large room at No. 28, Haymarket, to somewhat mediocre attendance. However, a number of artists were interested in Barker’s concept, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, then President of the Royal Academy. Reynolds originally told Barker he thought such large paintings were impracticable, but he later reconsidered his opinion and said that he thought it might have potential for the superior representation of nature.
Barker believed in his idea and, catering to his new audience, his next exhibition was a View of London from the roof of the Albion Mills, a recently-built, steam-powered flour mill in Southwark. This exhibition opened in June 1791, in a rough building thrown up for the purpose behind Barker’s lodgings at No. 28, Castle Street. This new painting was much larger in size than his previous view of Edinburgh, and could accommodate many more spectators at one time. Barker had also decided that his original name for this type of painting was insufficient to describe its true character. The vogue for all things Greek was gaining in popularity, and Barker conceived the idea of a new name for his exhibition, taken from the Greek. Thus, the View of London was advertized as a "panorama," from the Greek words pan meaning "all" and horama meaning "view." This first "panorama" was very well attended and remained open for three years, making a tidy profit for Mr. Barker.
With the success of his second exhibition, Robert Barker was able to bring his family from Edinburgh to settle permanently in London. During the three years in which he exhibited the View of London, Barker was building a new, permanent and much more elegant building for the exhibition of future panoramas. After its completion, panoramas where shown regularly in that building for the next seventy years, right through the decade of the Regency and well into the reign of Queen Victoria.
In my next article on panoramas, I will tell the story of the first permanent, purpose-built panorama building in London, in fact, the very first in all the world. A building which was regularly visited by throngs of people all through the Regency, across all classes, from all walks of life. In that building they found themselves transported to many places across the globe.