Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Technology

Last week, we traced the evolution of Robert Barker’s panorama display space from a rented room at the Haymarket to a hastily-constructed wooden building in his back garden on Castle Street to the splendid dual-circle rotunda situated just northeast of Leicester Fields. This week we will take a walk though that completed rotunda in Leicester Square to examine the technology which Robert Barker had built into it in order to enhance the enjoyment of those who came to view his magnificent vistas of places far and near.

The special technological aspects which made Robert Barker’s panorama so realistic …

Before we begin, you must try to imagine the visual limits of the world of the late eighteenth century. There were no photographs, certainly no motion pictures and the few prints or engravings which were seen by the average man or woman were not particularly detailed. Few of them were in color. Travel was still the province of the very wealthy, which only began to change as roads and other forms of transport improved. Even then, most travel by the majority the middle classes at this time was within Britain, only the truly wealthy could afford to travel abroad comfortably. Though balloon ascents were becoming popular, the percentage of the population who actually went aloft was very small. So, too, was the percentage of people who had an opportunity to climb a mountain or even a very tall building, in order to take in an elevated view of anything. In London, it was possible to climb to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, still one of the highest points in the city at the end of the eighteenth-century, but only if one paid the fee of 4s.10d. per person, known as "stairs-foot money." The world most people not of the aristocracy or gentry knew at the end of the eighteenth century was at ground level, usually circumscribed by a few blocks if they lived in the city, maybe a couple of miles in a rural area. Then imagine what it must have been like for them to have had a whole city, or an entire natural landscape, laid out before them in color, in 360-degrees. Only then can you begin to comprehend the power of the panorama in the experience of the average eighteenth-century man, woman or child.

Robert Barker deliberately engineered what amounted to a shock factor in the method by which he laid out the entrance to the panorama rotunda. There was a small, single-storey entranceway at ground level on Cranbourn Street through which visitors entered. The small size of this entrance area masked the massive rotunda set back from the street. Almost as soon as they entered, spectators had to navigate a long and purposefully ill-lit passageway which eventually brought them to the base of an equally ill-lit stairway. They climbed this stairway to reach the main viewing platform of the lower circle, where the larger of the two panoramas was displayed. There was a carefully crafted purpose to the small, low-frontage ground-level entrance which obscured the size of the rotunda building, the long, dimly-lit passageway and the stairs which brought visitors onto the main viewing platform of the Large Circle. As they progressed through this shadowy labyrinth, the viewers would become disoriented with regard to where they were and they would have lost the reference points for visual perspective in their own world. This was exactly the state in which Robert Barker wanted them when they finally reached the viewing platform from which they would survey the panoramic view which he had created for them. They went from cloistered, near darkness to an open, elevated and brightly-lit world which fully encircled them.

The viewing platform itself had also been carefully engineered to ensure the best possible viewing experience for the spectators. The viewing chamber in the Large Circle was about ninety feet in diameter and fifty-seven feet hight. It could accommodate a painting of about ten thousand square feet of canvas. In order to keep these great paintings in perspective for his spectators, Barker had determined that the ideal viewing platform shape was round, thus ensuring the viewer would be the same distance from each point on the painting. Thus, there would be no distinctly "main" vantage point as the spectator strolled around the viewing platform. He, or she, would feel they were merely enjoying a unobstructed vista from an elevated position. Barker had also determined that thirty feet from the surface of the panorama painting was the optimum distance for viewing. From that distance, the viewer would not see the curved lines on the painting which his eye interpreted as straight or the many small details which had not been painted in because they were not necessary at that distance. Nor was the viewer even aware of the texture of the paint and canvas. The height of the viewing platform was also set at several feet above the lower edge of the painting on display. Since the sketches used for most panorama paintings were made from a high vantage point, it was much more realistic for the spectator to view the finished painting from what appeared to them to be the same high vantage point.

But it was not just the shape and the placement of the viewing platform which was engineered to enhance the realistic effect of the panorama on display. So, too, was its decoration. The first panorama to be displayed in this new building was a view of the British fleet off Spithead. To further heighten the illusion for his spectators, the railing of the viewing platform was made to look like the railing on the upper deck of a large naval vessel, giving the spectator the impression they were right in the scene. For a later panorama of a landscape in Tuscany, the railing was made to look like that of the terrace of a Tuscan villa. Still later, for panoramas of various battles, faux terrain was introduced at the edge of the viewing platform. This might include cannon or other artillery, ammunition cases, or other items one might expect to see on the field during a land battle, or, once again, the railing of the viewing platform was made to look like the railing of a ship’s deck, with ship’s cannon and other paraphernalia scattered about the platform. A view of a seashore might be furnished with rocks, sand and even a scattering of shells around the outer perimeter of the viewing platform. In time, particularly in the case of panoramas of land battles, musicians were employed to play martial music, which could range from a simple charge or retreat to a full military march. All of these extra touches helped to intensify the verisimilitude of the experience for the spectators.

There were a number of techniques which Barker employed behind the scenes to maintain the illusion of reality. The top and bottom edges of the painting were concealed by thick black draping fabric. The black fabric attached to the upper edge of the huge painting concealed the great ring which supported the canvas and the upper wall of the viewing chamber. The black draping attached to the bottom edge of the painting fell away to the floor, with its other edge attached to the outside edge of the base of the viewing platform. Thus, if a spectator looked downward over the railing, what little they could see was what appeared to be a black trough. Masking the edges of the painting and the viewing chamber floor had the effect of making the panorama seem like a great window on the world, floating in a black void. It was the main focus of attention in the space. The viewing chamber was lit by an enormous skylight overhead, the panes of which had been covered with a thin, oiled cloth. This translucent cloth would diffuse the light in the chamber, as the angle of the panes ensured that most of the light illuminated the painting, leaving the viewing platform in semi-darkness. It was very important that no bright shafts of light or dark shadows fell on any part of the painting to distract the viewer. This diffused lighting system meant that the panorama itself appeared to be the source of light in the room, thereby causing no interference with the appearance of the light source the designer of that particular panorama view had intended. The use of overhead lighting also helped to maintain the appearance of reality, since the sky is usually brighter than the ground below, and so placed the brightest light near the top of the panorama painting. The immense panorama painting itself was suspended from the top on an enormous wooden ring that was supported by massive crossbeams which had been set into the wall just below the roof. The lower edge of the panorama painting was attached to a metal ring, heavily weighted to keep the canvas taut. Barker had discovered that these voluminous canvases tended to bulge inward after hanging for a time, which spoiled the perfect perspective he was trying to convey. But by not only weighting it, but making the lower ring smaller in circumference to that of the upper ring, he could control this tendency of the painted canvas to bulge inward and maintain the illusion of a real, three-dimensional, 360-degree perspective view.

After they had enjoyed the main panorama in the Large Circle, many visitors would continue on to view the smaller panorama in the Upper Circle. But this was not for the faint of heart or the weak of limb, as one must be in rather good physical condition to ascend to the Upper Circle. In order to ensure that spectators who wished to see the smaller panorama in the Upper Circle had the same experience as when they stepped onto the viewing platform in the Large Circle, the path Barker set for them was to descend the stairs from the Large Circle platform, walk through another, shorter but equally shadowy hallway, then climb the dimly lit exterior staircase up three stories, past both the Large Circle and the Upper Circle to the very top of the rotunda. They then had to descend a short set of stairs which took them to the base of yet another set of stairs which finally took them up to the viewing platform in the Upper Circle. After traversing such a path, they would be well and truly disoriented by the time they stepped up onto the viewing platform of the Upper Circle and would once again accept the perspective of the painted world into which they entered. However, the Upper Circle could only display panoramas of 2,700 square feet, significantly smaller than the 10,000 square foot paintings on display in the Large Circle. From the time of the rotunda’s construction and right through the Regency, the stairs to the Upper Circle were considered to be one of the hardest climbs in the city, even in comparison to those of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument to the Great Fire of London. One can only hope that visitors felt the long climb was properly rewarded by the view on exhibit when they reached the Upper Circle. This challenging staircase also explains why a number of visitors never ventured beyond the Large Circle.

The grand opening of the Leicester Square rotunda, with the new panorama, Grand Fleet at Spithead in 1791, on display in the Large Circle, was scheduled for Saturday, 25 May 1793. A few days before the opening, King George III and Queen Charlotte, along with some of their children and a few aristocratic dignitaries, were given a private showing by Henry Aston Barker, Robert’s son and the artist who had prepared the sketches for this new panorama. Young Barker reported that the King was very animated, asking many questions and frequently pointing out objects of interest with his cane. But after standing for some time at what appeared to be a ship’s railing, looking out over a vast expanse of painted ocean, Queen Charlotte, never a good sailor, became quite seasick. She was not to be the last person to experience such a sensation inside a panorama.

The combination of the disorienting effects of traversing the long shadowy hallway, then climbing equally shadowy stairs, only to come up onto a softly-lit platform with a bright view of what amounted to another world framed by a black void, caused many people to feel somewhat ill. This sensation soon became known as "panorama sickness." For most people it was quite mild and would pass off quickly. But for a few, it could take as much as a day or more to fully recover from the ill-effects. Even those who did not feel ill still felt the effects of disorientation. Charles Robert Leslie, a friend of John Constable and a fellow painter, went to view the panorama of the Bay of Messina in Sicily, which was displayed in the Large Circle in 1812. In a letter to his brother in Philadelphia, he wrote, " … the effect is very astonishing. I actually put on my hat imagining myself to be in the open air."

In time, once Robert Barker’s panorama patent had expired, in 1802, others began to paint and exhibit panoramas, like Thomas Girtin and Robert Ker Porter. Some even built their own rotundas for regular exhibitions, one of whom was Robert Barker’s elder son, Thomas Edward Barker. These other panorama entrepreneurs incorporated what they could of the technology which Robert Barker had implemented in his Leicester Square rotunda, but none of them ever equaled the verisimilitude of the experience which was conveyed by Barker’s panoramas when displayed in the Leicester Square rotunda. During the Regency, and well into Victoria’s reign, the Leicester Square panorama was considered the most realistic and therefore, the best panorama in London. In fact, it was considered to be so superior to any of the others that it was the first choice of the members of beau monde who wished to take in a panorama. The panorama in The Strand was usually their second choice, most often if the larger panorama at Leicester Square was being changed and the Large Circle was closed.

By serendipitous good fortune, I have discovered that some years ago, a noted art historian compiled a list of all of the panoramas which were ever on display at both of the panorama rotundas in London. He has very graciously given me permission to post the Leicester Square panorama schedule for the decade of the Regency. For those of you who would like to use the Leicester Square rotunda as a setting for any scenes in an upcoming novel, check back next week to find out exactly which panoramas would have been on display in both the Large and the Upper Circles as your characters interact in that long shadowy hallway or on the dimly-lit viewing platforms.

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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8 Responses to Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Technology

  1. Pingback: Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Rotunda | The Regency Redingote

  2. KWillow says:

    Your articles are always fascinating. How I wish I could visit an old style Panorama! I bet they’d be popular even today. People get tired of plastic-looking SGI.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. I certainly enjoyed writing it!

      Actually, there are still a few panoramas on display in the world. There is one of the Battle of Waterloo which is on display near the battlefield in Belgium, though I believe it was actually painted about ten years after the battle. But it is supposed to have been based on written descriptions and drawings made by those who were there. It may currently be undergoing renovation as the bicentennial of the battle is quickly approaching.

      There is also most of a panorama of the Battle of Gettysburg which is now on display near that battlefield. That panorama has a very interesting history. It was first exhibited a few years after the battle in Philadelphia, in 1876, at the Centennial Celebration there. When the celebration was over, it was moved to Boston where a rotunda, called the Cyclorama, was built to house it. The full panorama remained on display there until the early years of the 20th century. The panorama painting was taken down, rolled and stored. Several decades later it was re-discovered, though a bit moth and mouse-eaten. It was restored as much as possible and taken to Gettysburg as a permanent display near the battlefield. The Cyclorama building still stands in Boston, where I live. But it is now an arts center and the home of the Boston Ballet.

      There are a few other Victorian-era panoramas still on display, mostly in Europe. If you search on “panorama” in most search engines you will find there are a few enthusiast groups who keep track of those that are still open.

      Thanks for stopping by!



  3. Pingback: Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Regency Schedule | The Regency Redingote

  4. Cari Hislop says:

    What a genius! The sad thing is if Robert Barker lived today in England he’d never get permission to build anything like this for the public in his back yard. I don’t know if even Prince Charles would get permission! If I had a time machine I’d go back just to visit Barker’s rotunda. Sometimes progress is just destruction in disguise. The rotunda itself would make a great setting for a Regency murder scene (with some romance thrown in)…someone getting pushed over the railing or stabbed as they’re viewing…or something diabolical on the way up to the upper circle… I think I’ve been reading too many ghost stories (if that’s possible).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think you are right, the temporary building in the back garden would never even be considered in modern times. But you can see the brick rotunda building today, since it still stands, just outside Leicester Square. It is a church now, and is not easily visible from the street, but if you look at the Google Map to which I provided a link in the first article in this series, you can see where it is located. I believe you can even go inside, since the church is open to the public.

      It would not be easy to hide the body of someone who was killed and pushed over the railing of either viewing platform, since the body would fall into the trough of black drapery which was attached to both the outside edge of the viewing platform and the bottom of the panorama painting. If someone wanted to commit murder or mayhem in the Leicester Square Panorama Rotunda, they would have an easier time concealing their crime in the dimly-lit passageways or stairways. However, the rotunda would be a truly sinister place at night, since it would be nearly pitch-black inside when it was closed for the evening. There would be some faint light on the viewing platforms on the night of a full moon, but the passageways and stairways would be completely dark without candles or lamps to illuminate them. And on nights without a moon, it would be a dark and terrifying labyrinth. Then again, such darkness could cover a romantic interlude just as well as a murder. 😉



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