Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Rotunda

When Thomas Girtin exhibited his London panorama, Eidometropolis, in 1802, he had to rent the Great Room in Spring Gardens in order to display it to the public. Such was the case for most other panorama artists, from the early nineteenth century, right through the Regency and even into the Victorian age. But one man, Robert Barker, the inventor of the panorama, designed and constructed his own purpose-built building for displaying his panoramas. This building, which was situated in Leicester Square, had both a lower and an upper circle, which enabled Barker to exhibit two panoramas at the same time. More importantly, Barker had designed this special building to enhance his visitor’s enjoyment of his famous panoramas.

When Leicester Square first became the center of popular entertainment in Georgian London …

When Robert Barker initially came to London from Edinburgh, in November of 1788, hoping to make his fortune with his new form of public entertainment, the panorama, he had to find a place to display his massive painting. Like many panorama artists and proprietors were to do for decades after 1802, when Barker’s exclusive patent on the panorama concept expired, he rented a large room at No. 28, Haymarket. Here, on 14 March 1789, he opened to the public the exhibit of his first panorama, the view of Edinburgh from the top of Carlton Hill. Attendance was not what he had hoped, and reasoning Londoners would be more interested in a panorama of their own city, he began a new, even larger panorama, with the help of his son, Henry Aston Barker, of a 360-degree view of the English capital.

But even as work on this new panorama of London was underway, Robert Barker was considering the best means by which to make it available to the public. When completed, it would be too large to be displayed in the room he had used at 28 Haymarket. Though the Great Room at Spring Gardens, which Thomas Girtin was to use for his Eidometropolis a decade later, was available, it would also not be large enough for this new work. In addition, the cost of renting exhibition space would cut into his profits from the panorama. Therefore, Barker decided to build his own building to display his new panorama of London. Since there were few zoning or building codes in late eighteenth century London, and few of those were regularly enforced, Barker had a wooden building constructed to his specifications in what was essentially the back garden of his residence, at No. 28, Castle Street, which is now Charing Cross Road. This somewhat hastily constructed building was large enough to display the full painting and to accommodate more spectators than had the room in the Haymarket building or would Spring Gardens. Here, in January of 1792, Barker debuted his new panorama, View of the Cities of London and Westminster, Comprehending the Three Bridges, to the public. Barker’s conjecture that Londoners would come to see a view of their own city proved to be correct and the panorama was well attended from the start. It remained on display until the end of 1793, making a substantial profit for Robert Barker. (Author’s Note: Robert Barker’s first, "temporary" building actually remained standing until the mid-1880s, when it was demolished as part of the redevelopment of the properties along Charing Cross Road.)

Barker was not idle while his new London panorama was on exhibition. He was planning yet another panorama, but he was also considering how to intensify the panorama experience for his spectators. Among the problems of exhibiting a panorama in just any large room was that an opening had to be left between the two ends to allow the spectators access to the circle, thus spoiling a complete 360-degree view. Another was that the perspective used in a panorama painting meant that it was best viewed from a narrow location within the circle, from a precise height and distance, and under specific lighting conditions. None of this could be controlled when a very long and tall painting was simply hung on the walls around a large square room. People entered the opening between the two ends and simply wandered around the space, looking at the painting from any number of angles and at various distances, in essentially uncontrolled light. Because panoramas were such a new concept, and no one had ever seen anything like them, these small drawbacks went unnoticed by most visitors. But Barker hoped to make his living by continuing to exhibit panoramas of different vistas and he was enough of a showman to understand that each experience would have to be compelling enough to draw his visitors back for his next new offering.

By the time he was ready to construct a permanent building in which to exhibit his panoramas, Robert Barker had carefully worked out how to provide his spectators with the most realistic experience of his art. While the London panorama was still on view at 28 Castle Street, Barker was able to raise the necessary funds for his new, permanent building through public subscription and with the aid of a few wealthy investors. He broke ground for construction of a new, purpose-built rotunda for panorama display just off Leicester Square, then still known as Leicester Fields. The site was on part of the property which had been occupied by Leicester House, once the home of George II, when he was still Prince of Wales and had been forced to leave St. James’s Palace after a particularly ferocious quarrel with his father. By the mid- 1770s, Leicester House was in private hands again and had become the venue for Sir Ashton Lever’s museum of curiosities known as the "Holophusikon." This museum exhibited many artifacts which had been brought back to England by Captain Cook after his voyages of exploration, among other rare and wondrous objects. The "Holophusikon" was fairly successful, but after Sir Ashton’s death in 1788, the museum was closed. The old house was torn down and the site was cleared by 1792, ready for new construction. Plans for an opera house on the site had fallen through, and Barker was able to obtain a long-term lease on the property. At this time, in the square in Leicester Fields could be found the homes of many prominent artists. In fact, it was well-known in London as "the square of squares." A number of scholars believe that is one of the main reasons why Barker chose to place his new rotunda just off the square. He saw his work as fine art, and wished it to be enjoyed in an area known as the haunt of many artists who were all recognized as proponents of fine art.

The new brick rotunda building just north of Leicester Fields was designed by the Scottish architect, Robert Mitchell, of Newman Street, London, based on the specifications called out in Barker’s panorama patent. The main structure was located between Leicester Place and Cranbourn Street. The rotunda was taller than a regular three-storey building and encompassed within two circular panorama viewing chambers, one above the other. It was almost perfectly round in plan, with the exception of an external shaft for a staircase to provide access to the upper viewing chamber. The rotunda had a conical roof which was almost completely made of glass, supported by a metal framework, which was ingeniously designed to provide natural light to both panorama viewing chambers below. The roof framework and both viewing platforms were supported by a central column which ran the full height of the building. The walls had no windows, except for a row of small square ones, just a couple of feet below the roof-line, which allowed in additional natural light to illuminate the interior. A drawing of a cross-section of the building, by the architect, Robert Mitchell, which was published in 1801, in his Plans and Views in Perspective of Buildings Erected in England and Scotland, can be seen here. The panorama rotunda in the Strand was the only other panorama building ever constructed which included both an upper and a lower circle for the display of two panoramas simultaneously. All other purpose-built panorama rotundas, built in England or on the Continent, had a single level for the display of one panorama at a time. This was to be a great advantage to both Barker and the proprietors of The Strand panorama in the years ahead, as it meant even when they were changing out a panorama painting, they usually had one on view, so they could remain open to the public, since the admission charge was one shilling per painting.

This new panorama rotunda in Leicester Square was so large and such a noted London curiosity for such a long time that a number of map makers included it on their maps of London for several decades. Perhaps the best example online is Wallis’s Plan Of The Cities Of London And Westminster 1801, which is available at MAPCO. To see a detail of the Leicester Fields area of this map, just click section 23, labeled "Charing Cross." Just above the green colored area labeled "Leicester Fields," a little to the right (east) of the square, can be seen a dark cross-hatched shape that looks a bit like a tennis racquet. This is the plan of Robert Barker’s panorama rotunda and the covered entranceway which led out to Cranbourn Street. If you look closely, you can see the word "Panorama" printed on the map, curving around the top (north) edge of the plan of the building.

Though it no longer houses a panorama display, Barker’s panorama rotunda still stands, to this day, just to the north east of Leicester Square, facing Leicester Place. It is now the Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame de France, and is tucked in between the Leicester Square Theatre and the Prince Charles Cinema. The long covered entryway from Cranbourn Street is gone and the rotunda itself is completely screened from the street by the two neighboring buildings and the new street facade on Leicester Place which was added to the church some time after World War II. But it is visible in an aerial view in this satellite image of the area. Use the zoom feature on the page to zoom in on the spot marked with the "A" marker and you will be able to see the roof of the round building with the raised skylight at the center, set back from the street. For nearly two and a quarter centuries, it has stood on that spot as the world changed around it and Leicester Square continued to evolve into the popular entertainment center of modern London.

"Mr. Barker’s Panorama" remained a standard listing in many guide books of London entertainments from the end of the eighteenth century, right through the nineteenth, until December of 1863, when the last panorama was displayed in the Leicester Square rotunda. An example, from the first edition of The Picture of London, for 1803, reads:

Mr. Barker’s, Panorama,


Is constantly open in Leicester-square, and may be fairly entitled the triumph of perspective. The inventor and the proprietor, Mr. Barker, has at different times exhibited views of great cities, of naval engagements, &c. &c. in which the illusion is so complete, that the spectator may fairly imagine he is present at the display of the real scenery. The price of admission is one shilling.

Most people made it a point to see as many of the panoramas as they could, and some went to the same one more than once. But what was it that made these panoramas so fascinating to those who lived in or visited London? So fascinating and compelling that they were willing to pay a whole shilling to see each one? Next week, the technology that Robert Barker had built into his panorama rotunda building which enhanced the reality of the viewing experience and thrilled his visitors. So much so that the first panorama which Barker exhibited in this new building made Queen Charlotte seasick.

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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 Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Rotunda

  1. What a fantastic building. I never knew it was there. Thanks for the description, which was excellent.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is very well hidden now, so there is practically no way to tell from the street that the building is even there, let alone that it is round. And yet, if it were not for Barker’s Panorama Rotunda, Leicester Square may very well never have become London’s center of popular entertainment.

      Regards,
      Kat

  2. Charlotte Frost says:

    Why do I walk round London with my eyes closed? I MUST go and see this!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Even if your eyes were open, you would need x-ray vision! 😉 I don’t know how much you will be able to see from the outside, since there are so many buildings cheek by jowl with it these days. But I understand the French church is open to visitors at certain times. You can probably get the details from their web site, above, if you want to see the inside. Of course, most of the original interior is gone, but it is possible the central support column and maybe even the massive wooden rings which held the paintings may still be part of the structure. Some of the staff at the church may know.

      It would be nice if it could get a blue plaque, at least, to mark the spot. One can hope!

      Regards,

      Kat

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  10. valesoul says:

    Are there any panoramas still on view in London today?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sadly, no. So far as I know, there are no painted panoramas on view anywhere in Great Britain today. However, there are a couple of panoramas still on display in Europe. Probably the most famous is one of the battle of Waterloo, which is located near the battlefield in Belgium. From what I understand, it is currently being refurbished in preparation for the bicentennial of the battle in 2015.

      There is also a panorama of the battle of Gettysburg which has been restored and is on display near the battlefield. It was originally on display at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.

      If you do a search on “painted panoramas” you may find a few more that are still on display.

      Regards,

      Kat

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  15. Alix Nathan says:

    Thank you for the excellent information. I’m a writer and my current novel is set in 1802-1816. Your period and mine overlap. I’ve written short stories and a novel that came out in the US this year, The Flight of Sarah Battle (Parthian Books) all of which are set in the 1790s. I’m intending to set a scene in the Panorama in 1807, realistic rather than romantic, since it involves children.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Congratulations on your publications! I wish you much luck with your new book. If you want to know what paintings were on display in Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama in 1807, just let me know. I have the schedule from c1800 on in my research notes and I am happy to share.

      I have a standing offer here that any author who uses the information from any of my articles in their books are welcome to post a link to their book in a comment to the pertinent article once the book is published. You are more than welcome to do the same.

      Regards,

      Kat

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