Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Regency Schedule

Last week, we took a walk through Robert Barker’s purpose-built panorama rotunda in Leicester Square, examining the technology which he had employed there to make the viewing experience as real as possible for his spectators. It was so real, in fact, that it made some viewers ill, with what came to be known as "panorama sickness." And yet, despite the fact that it did cause some people to feel discomposed or unsettled, large crowds flocked to each new panorama which was put on exhibit in the Leicester Square rotunda for nearly seventy years. Barker’s panorama remained a very popular form of entertainment during the decade of Regency, and due to some very determined and detailed research by Dr. Scott Wilcox, a noted art historian, the names and dates of exhibition for all of the panoramas which were on display in both the Large and the Upper Circles at the rotunda have been preserved for us. Should a Regency author wish to use the Leicester Square panorama as the setting for any scenes in their next novel, they can now, if they choose, correctly cite which panorama was on view in either circle at that moment.

The schedule of the Leicester Square panoramas which were on exhibit during the Regency …

Before we come to the list of the panoramas and their dates of exhibition, it is also necessary to know the daily schedule of the opening times of the Leicester Square panorama. The rotunda was open seven days a week, from 10:00am each morning, until dusk. During the exhibition of his London panorama in the "temporary" building on Castle Street, Barker had advertised his hours as " … open for inspection from NINE o’clock every Morning, till FOUR in the Afternoon." However, when the Leicester Square rotunda opened, the hours were advertised as 10:00am to dusk and remained so right through the decade of the Regency. Such a schedule change would have allowed for longer opening hours from late spring to early fall, when the sun would set much later than it did during the winter months. These new hours would enable more paying visitors to enjoy the delights of the Large and the Upper Circles while giving the staff more time to prepare for opening each morning.

During the Regency, the Leicester Square panoramas could be seen only during daylight hours, as there was no practicable method available to illuminate them during the hours after sunset. In the early 1790s, Barker had experimented with lighting the panorama for night-time viewing with lamps. But these early lamps could not throw enough light to satisfactorily illuminate the surface of the massive paintings. They were also seen to be a severe fire hazard and the experiment was discontinued after only a few days. Robert Barker’s son, Henry Aston Barker, briefly considered the use of gas lighting in the early years of the Regency, when he was running the Leicester Square rotunda. But he soon dismissed it as too complex and expensive, as well as a serious fire hazard, and the plans for installation never went forward.

Because sunlight was the only means of illumination in the viewing chambers of the Leicester Square rotunda, the quality of that light on any given day would have a significant impact on the viewing experience. Thus, both the weather or the time of year would be considered by those panorama-goers who were seeking the optimum panorama view. Rainy, foggy, or even heavily overcast days made it very difficult to make out most of the details of a panorama painting, especially the great painting in the Large Circle. On most winter days the light was sufficiently strong enough to fully illuminate the paintings in either viewing chamber only at mid-day. However, very bright summer days were also a problem since the more intense light would bring out any blemishes in the painting which would be unseen in lower light. Though the Leicester Square rotunda was open every day, a good choice for a visit to the panorama was a bright sunny day from late April to mid-June or from mid-September to late October.

Some serious panorama connoisseurs believed the time of day would also affect the appearance of the painting. Most preferred the full bright light of mid-day in the late spring or early fall, especially for views of cities in the Mediterranean and Levant, or other places which were known to get a lot of sunlight. Some preferred the weaker morning light when viewing night scenes, such as the Battle of the Nile. There were those who preferred the waning, golden light of afternoon when viewing exotic or romantic scenes. Those panorama aficionados who chose their viewing days carefully could usually do so, since most panoramas had a run of several months to more than a year. But most people went to the Leicester Square rotunda to view the panoramas when they had the time in their own schedules and did not concern themselves overly much with the quality of light, with the exception of deciding to give it a miss on a very overcast or foggy day. The admission fee of one shilling was a lot of money to many people and they would have wanted to be sure they got their money’s worth, so they would have preferred to visit on a fairly sunny day.

The choice of viewing time and date may also have been influenced by a visitor’s wishes for personal comfort. Though Robert Barker had installed a system by which to heat the panorama rotunda in winter, there was no comparable system by which to cool it in the summer months. In most buildings, even into the mid-nineteenth century, windows could be opened to catch a breeze on a warm summer’s day, but there was no such option in the Leicester Square rotunda. The walls of the building were almost completely solid. The only windows were small and fixed in their frames, since they were there only to allow in light for the Upper Circle. Windows which opened would have admitted air currents which could have caused the painting to flutter and spoil the illusion. After a spell of mild weather, the interior of the rotunda would have felt pleasantly cool on a very warm day. But after several warm days in a row, visitors would have found it rather close, even stifling, inside a brick cylinder which was almost completely sealed, yet fully open to the sunshine via its glass roof. A shady spot in one of London’s parks or the garden of a town house would have been emminently preferable on a warm summer’s day.

And now, what was playing in the Large Circle and the Upper Circle in the Leicester Square rotunda during the Regency:

The Siege of Flushing
c. March 10, 1810 — November 30, 1812
Upper Circle

Grand View of Malta
c. June 6, 1810 — May 18, 1811
Large Circle

View of Messina in Sicily
c. June 1, 1811 — February, 1812
Large Circle

View of Lisbon
c. February 28, 1812 — April 3, 1813
Large Circle

View of the Grand Harbour of Malta
December, 1812 — March 11, 1815
Upper Circle

Badajoz and the Surrounding Country, Representing the Siege in 1812
c. April 14, 1813 — July, 1814
Upper Circle

View of the Battle of Vittoria
July, 1814 — April, 29, 1815
Large Circle

Battle of Paris
c. March 23, 1815 — April, 1817
Upper Circle

View of the Island of Elba and the Town of Porto-Ferrajo
c. May 10, 1815 — March 2, 1816
Large Circle

View of the Battle of Waterloo
c. March 13, 1816 — May, 1818
Large Circle

View of the City of St. Petersburg
c. April 9, 1817 — December, 1819
Upper Circle

Lord Exmouth’s Attack upon Algiers
c. May 11, 1818 — March, 1819
Large Circle

View of the North Coast of Spitzbergen
April 12, 1819 — September 23, 1820
Large Circle

View of Lausanne and the Lake of Geneva
c. December 27, 1819 — November 19, 1825
Upper Circle

View of the Battle of Waterloo
October, 1820 — May, 1821
Large Circle

View of Bern and the High Alps
c. May 21, 1821 — December, 1822
Large Circle

Procession of the Coronation of His Majesty George the Fourth
December, 1822 — April, 1824
Large Circle

This schedule of the panoramas on display at the Leicester Square rotunda during the Regency was compiled by Scott Barnes Wilcox from the advertisements for the panoramas which were placed in The Times and The Morning Chronicle during those years. It is part of the full schedules of both the Leicester Square and The Strand panoramas which he compiled for his dissertation, The Panorama and Related Exhibitions in London, University of Edinburgh, 1976. The Regency portion of the Leicester Square schedule is quoted here by kind permission of Dr. Wilcox, who is currently Chief Curator of Art Collections and Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art.

Though the Regency officially ended in January of 1820, with the death of King George III, I have listed all the panoramas on display in Leicester Square through 1825, in order to include the Procession of the Coronation of His Majesty George the Fourth, which I found fitting. At the coronation ceremony, the Prince of Wales officially became King George IV, and the sketches for this panorama were the last made personally by Henry Aston Barker before he retired as chief artist and manager of the Leicester Square panorama.

The Leicester Square panorama exhibitions were acknowledged to be the best in England, even in Europe, for most of the nineteenth century, most certainly they were considered so during the Regency. The paintings displayed there would have been the first choice of the beau monde during that decade. There are any number of options in the panorama rotunda for a romantic interlude or a pulse-quickening scene in a Regency novel. The long, dimly-lit entranceway and stairway to the Large Circle viewing platform might be an opportunity for a subtle caress or stolen kiss, or provide cover by which a secret message is passed. Both viewing platforms were also rather dimly-lit, though a bit brighter than the passageways. But they often were embellished with faux terrain which complimented the panorama on display. What might be hidden there for a confederate to collect? If a grueling climb is needed in support of the story, the external staircase at the rotunda, which gave access to the Upper Circle, would serve the purpose admirably. It was widely known to be one of the most physically demanding climbs in all London. And what of "panorama sickness?" Might an older woman be struck with a bout of dizziness when she came up onto the viewing platform, mayhap causing a distraction of some sort? Or might a young lady use it as a ruse to swoon into the arms of the gentleman at whom she has set her cap? Dear Regency Authors, how might you employ the Leicester Square Panorama in a forthcoming novel?

For further reading on the Leicester Square Panorama, and panoramas in general:

Altick, Richard D., The Shows of London. Cambridge, Massachusetts:   The BelknapPress/Harvard University Press, 1978.

Comment, Bernard, The Painted Panorama. New York:   Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1999.

Grau, Oliver, Virtual Art:   From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge:   The MIT Press, 2003.

Hyde, Ralph, Panoramania!:   Art and Entertainment of the All-embracing View. London:   Trefoil Publications Ltd., 1988.

Hyde, Ralph, Gilded Scenes and Shining Prospects:   Panoramic Views of British Towns, 1575 – 1900. New Haven:   Yale Center for British Art, 1985.

Oettermann, Stephan, The Panorama:   History of a Mass Medium. New York:   Zone Books, 1997.

Oleksijczuk, Denise Blake, The First Panoramas:   Visions of British Imperialism. Minneapolis:   University Of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Pragnell, Hubert J., The London Panoramas of Robert Barker and Thomas Girtin circa 1800. London:   London Topographical Society, 1968.

Rombout, Ton, The Panorama Phenomenon:   Mesdag Panorama 1881-1981. The Hague/Rijswijk, The Netherlands:   Foundation for the Preservation of the Centenarian Mesdag Panorama, 2006.

Sternberger, Dolf, Panorama of the 19th Century. New York:   Urizen Books, 1955.

Wilcox, Scott Barnes, The Panorama and Related Exhibitions in London. Edinburgh:   University of Edinburgh, 1976.

Wood, Gillen D’Arcy, The Shock of the Real:   Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760 – 1860. New York:   Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

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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5 Responses to Robert Barker’s Leicester Square Panorama:   The Regency Schedule

  1. thank you, excellent resource. I have no idea if I’ll use it but it cries out to be included in a story! maybe someone taken ill supposedly with panorama sickness who dies, the organisers want to hush it up but it’s really poison, enter intrepid Bow Street Runner etc etc.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I thought it would add realism for an author to be able to name the actual panorama on display if it should figure in a scene or two in a novel. And it seemed a pity to let all Dr. Wilcox’s hard work languish in the pages of his dissertation when it could be made available to a much wider audience who could appreciate his efforts.

      So blood-thirsty! 😉 As far as I know, no one ever died of panorama sickness. It was mostly mild nausea, slight dizziness and maybe headache, which usually passed off fairly quickly. There were only a few people who felt the effects for more than a couple of hours. It would be a rather hard sell to convince anyone at that time that panorama sickness could cause death. It was considered inconvenient, but certainly not life-threatening.

      Some people with delicate sensibilities, mostly ladies, seemed to have felt the effects more strongly. Which could be turned to advantage in a scene which took place on the viewing platform when a distraction was needed. A lady could swoon or otherwise draw attention to herself with symptoms of panorama sickness while the hero, or villain, picked up a note or small package, or hid one, in the faux terrain which often decorated the perimeter.

      Though few people today are even aware of their existence, panoramas were a very popular form of entertainment in the Regency and I hope they will make their way into at least a few Regency novels in the future.



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