The Panorama — The Regency Cinema

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.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to The Panorama — The Regency Cinema

  1. Linda Banche says:

    I can’t quite remember, but I can think of two romances that had panoramas.

    SECRETS OF A SUMMER NIGHT, a Victorian by Lisa Kleypas, starts with one.

    Also, a Sandra Heath book, I think it’s WINTER DREAMS, contains one, where the villain chases the heroine up and down the stairs the customers had to climb to see the various levels of the panorama.

    Again, I may be wrong.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That would explain why I did not know about them. I very seldom read anything but Regencies.

      Thanks for the heads up. Maybe I will force myself to read them.

      • Linda Banche says:

        Sandra Heath writes Regencies–wonderful, detailed, accurate, and page-turners, too. If you haven’t read any of her stories, give them a try. I think you’ll like them.

        And 99% of what I read is Regencies, too.

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Thanks for the tip about Sandra Heath. I did read one of her traditional Regencies years ago, but did not realize she was still writing. I will make it a point to look for her books the next time I am at the bookstore.

    I have to admit, I am finding it harder and harder to find novels with a Regency setting. I am hopeful that there might be more this year, with the bicentennial of the beginning of the Regency. One can but hope.



    • Linda Banche says:

      I don’t think Sandra Heath is still writing, although some of her books are being reissued in hardcover and a few are available at

      Traditional Regencies are no longer available in mass-market format. Try the e-pubs–The Wild Rose Press and Cerridwen Cotillion. Depending on the length, the books may be available in paper.

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        As much as I love Regencies, I cannot justify the expense of hard cover editions. I stick to paperbacks. But I can still find some of the old traditionals at Biblio and Alibris for reasonable prices, and most are in pretty good condition.

        I have gotten a couple of Regencies from Cerridwen and Wild Rose, but so many of them are eBook only, and I am a dyed-in-the-wool book-lover. No eBooks for me! I have also found so many egregious historical errors in some of them that they were very disappointing. I sometimes wish I was not a historian, then I might not notice. 😉

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  11. Hi, you say: “…Barker conceived the idea of a new name for his exhibition, taken from the Greek.”
    can you share resources on this issue?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Just about every book and article written on Robert Barker and/or the origins of the panorama, include that information. If you do an online search on Robert Barker and panorama, you will certainly turn up several of them.



      • I read a lot of articles. only in your article says that Barker is thinking about the name change. general testimonials show the source of newspaper ads.
        for example:
        [As far as we know, it appeared in print for the first time on Saturday, May 18, 1791, in an advertisement promoting “the greatest IMPROVEMENT to the ART of PAINTING that has ever yet been dis- covered.” The reader found out that a “Panorama building” had been “erected on the Spacious Ground behind Mr. BARKER’s House, No 28, Castle-street, Leicester square” (London). It housed a painting covering “1479 square feet” depicting “one of the best known Scenes in Europe; which, without any other deception than the simple art of the Pencil, appears the same as Nature in extent, and every other particular.” (HUHTAMO Erkki, Illusions in Motion, MIT Press, 2013, s.1)]

        I am really curious about the process of finding names because I am writing a master’s thesis on this subject.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Thank you for the clarification of the purpose of your question. My apologies for such a vague response.

          I must admit that I am not familiar with the source you cited. However, I do find that there is an error in the quote you provided: “erected on the Spacious Ground behind Mr. BARKER’s House, No 28, Castle-street, Leicester square.”

          When he first moved to London, it is true that Robert Barker did erect a wooden rotunda in what was essentially the back yard of his house on Castle Street. However, that was NOT any where near Leicester Square, it was near Charing Cross. You can check it on any London map. That wooden rotunda on Castle Street was used while Barker was having the permanent rotunda built in Leicester Square. He had intended that the wooden building be temporary, just for the first exhibition of his 360-degree painting. But in the end, he used it for many years as a studio in which he painted quite a few of his new panoramas before he transferred them to the Leicester Square Rotunda for exhibition.

          If it will be of any use to you, I did provide a bibliography of my panorama research sources in another post, the last of a three-part article on Robert Barker’s panorama. You can find it here:

          Of those sources, I found the most detailed information on Barker’s development of the panorama in:
          Wilcox, Scott Barnes, The Panorama and Related Exhibitions in London. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1976.

          Though this was Mr. Wilcox’ dissertation, and was not published, like many dissertations, it is available in a number of libraries. I was able to get a copy through the Inter-Library Loan department at my local library. If you have a choice, I suggest you request a printed copy, rather than a microfilm copy, it will be much easier on the eyes in the long run. You should also know that this was a two volume work, but I learned that the second volume contains just the illustrations. The text is all in the first volume, so if you can get a copy of that, you will have what you want.

          As you probably know, by the second half of the eighteenth century, people were fascinated by Ancient Greece and Rome. Part of a classical education in Britain included learning both Greek and Latin, so most educated people, particularly men, had at least a basic grasp of Greek. That included Robert Barker. When he was establishing his new form of art in London, he needed a memorable, ideally short, name for his new business. Something much shorter than “a 360-degree view of . . . ” A short, memorable name would be a great advantage, since it could be easily painted on the signage and printed on the flyers he distributed or in newspaper ads. It would have made a great deal of sense to him to create a name based on the Greek language, for at least a couple of reasons. It would demonstrate that he was an educated man, since he knew Greek well enough to put those terms together. And, probably more important to him, it would help to attract the educated upper classes, since they would be the group best able to pay the admission fees to view his work.

          I wish you much luck in your research and writing.



          • I am very pleased with your explanatory message. Thank you so much.
            I’d like to get your opinion on something else that’s on my mind.

            When the Leicester Panorama was first opened it was a single floor. The second floor was added in 1795.

            Robert Mitchell’s project drawing shows the outside diameter (90 feet) and height (57 feet) of the building. In this case, the “Spithead Fleet” picture, which was opened in the big hall in 1791, has a diameter of 27.43 meters (circumference 86.17 meters) and a height of 17.17 meters. The painting covers an area of 1479 square meters. However, many of the references cite “1479 square feet”!

            Is there a citation error in the measurement unit (feet instead of meters) or is my calculations wrong?

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Something to keep in mind is that people were rather casual when it came to recording measurements in those days. Barker may have exaggerated the size of the painting in order to impress his visitors, while the architect would have to be more precise, since the workmen would have to follow his plans.

              There is also the fact that the Spithead Fleet painting may well have been larger than the Leicester Square Rotunda, since it was painted in the wooden studio rotunda in Barker’s back yard. When dealing with something that size, it would be easy to make an error in the measurement of the canvas on which it was painted.

              Another important factoid is that the meter did not originate until the 1790s, in France. Since Britain was at war with France for much of that decade, it is unlikely that Barker or Mitchell ever actually used the meter for any measurements. They would have used the old English system of measurement. Therefore, I strongly suspect that the confusion between feet, or yards, and meters, is an error in the citation.

              Hope that will help.



  12. 1479m would be a massive work! I’m currently researching the Bath Panorma which was cited first as 1500 and later as almost 1600 square feet which sounds like a fisherman’s tale The building in which it was viewed was sold off when the proprietor went bankrupt and the room was cited as having a circumferance of around 120 feet, so a diameter of about 40 feet [the suggestion was made that it be made into a lecture hall for a school perhaps] so I hope that will help in the actual measurements of a painting probably of similar size

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