The Keys to the Panorama

These "keys" were made of paper, and would certainly not open the door to the panorama rotunda. However, they would unlock the secrets of what you were viewing within the panorama, once you had gotten through the door.

Last month, I wrote about the panorama rotunda which Robert Barker built just outside of Leicester Square. That series included an article about the technology which Barker employed to enhance the visitor experience and another about the schedule of panoramas on display during the Regency. But most of those panoramas were views of places or events with which few of the people who flocked to the panoramas were familiar. How were they to know just what they were seeing?

As early as 1792, when he was planning his first panorama in his new, purpose-built panorama building, Robert Barker was considering the best way for the visitors to his rotunda to understand what they were seeing in his enormous paintings. When King George III and his entourage viewed the first panorama in the new rotunda, they were given a private tour by Barker’s son, Henry. Over the course of the next few decades, both Robert and Henry Barker did occasionally offer exclusive lectures about particular panoramas on view for special groups. But for general visitors, Barker did not want to limit viewing to small groups with a staff guide. Rather, he wanted the traffic to flow through passageways and onto the viewing platforms without impediment. Nor he did want to hire additional staff to serve as guides, which would have reduced his profits. And so, he hit upon what he called his "descriptive sheets." Rather like theater programs today, panorama-goers would receive a sheet of paper on which would be found a key which provided a brief summary about the view they had come to see, as well as a diagram on which the most prominent features were labeled.

The very first "descriptive sheet" was for the Grand Fleet at Spithead in 1791, which opened in the Large Circle of the new rotunda in 1793. The viewpoint of this panorama was the frigate HMS Iphigenia, which had been anchored in the center of the harbor and from which Henry Aston Barker had made all of his drawings for the panorama. The ships of the Grand Fleet at Spithead had been lined up, facing one another, in the channel between the Isle of Wight and Portsdown Hill. On his descriptive sheet for this panorama, Barker drew short horizontal lines, with a perpendicular line across each which was much taller, symbolizing a mast, at the top of which waved a short squiggly line, or a tiny waving square for the larger ships of the fleet. Each of these small stick-shaped ships was labeled with the name of the ship it was intended to represent. There were two straight lines of ships, behind each a tiny skyline of the buildings on the land behind them, divided by a narrow white space which represented the channel. A tiny bar shape was placed in the channel to represent the Iphigenia. Below this simple diagram was printed "Panorama, Leicester-Square, (By Royal Patent)" and a paragraph about the view, the painter and the size of the building in which it was displayed. This descriptive sheet measured about 8 x 9.5 inches and was provided to panorama visitors when they entered the rotunda. Thus, any panorama visitor, with their descriptive sheet in hand, could easily tell which ship they were seeing as they stood on the viewing platform. The Barkers, father and son, quickly saw the value of these descriptive sheets. Not only did they ensure each visitor could easily identify all the prominent features in the panorama painting, thus feeling they had gotten their full shilling’s worth, without the need for a staff guide, but visitors kept these descriptive sheets as a souvenir of their visit. These mementos of a visit to the panorama also served as a form of advertising for the panorama, thereby encouraging even more visitors to come and see the paintings for themselves. Every new panorama at Barker’s Leicester Square rotunda for the next seventy years was accompanied by an increasingly detailed and sophisticated version of those early descriptive sheets.

Barker was clearly not satisfied with the simple line drawing he had created for the Grand Fleet panorama and wanted something more elegant and complex to inform his panorama visitors of what they were seeing. Soon after the panorama of the Grand Fleet opened in the Large Circle, Barker moved his London panorama from the wooden building in his back garden to the Upper Circle in the Leicester Square Rotunda. Though this panorama was much smaller than that of the Grand Fleet, he created a much more detailed descriptive sheet for it, in a format that would remain in use at the Leicester Square Panorama for the next twenty-five years. This new key to the panorama was still a single sheet of paper, but square rather than rectangular, on which was printed a very small view of the city, laid out in a circle in anamorphic perspective, with the "you-are-here" point of view of the visitor in the center of the circular drawing. Though the image on the descriptive sheet was heavily distorted due to the anamorphic perspective, the small engraving of each notable building was accompanied by a number which was assigned to the name of the building on the list which was also provided on the descriptive sheet. An astute businessman, who did not want to offend or confuse the many French émigrés who had already flocked to London in the wake of the French Revolution, Barker provided the numbered list of notable buildings in both English and French, to serve the needs of nearly every visitor. An online version of this descriptive sheet can be seen here, as part of the Romantic Cosmopolitan Workshop site.

While the descriptive sheet of the Grand Fleet at Spithead had been a very simple line drawing, the diagram made for the panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, thirteen years later, was much more intricate and detailed. The Battle of Trafalgar, which was on display in the Large Circle at the Leicester Square Rotunda from May 1806 to May 1807, opened only a month after the death of Robert Barker. This is probably his last panorama key, though it is also possible at least part of the work was done by his son, Henry Aston Barker, who took over management of the Leicester Square Panorama after his father’s death. An online image of the anamorphic key for the Battle of Trafalgar, can be viewed here, at the BibliOdyssey blog. In the center of the image can be seen a black band with the title Panorama Leicester Square, over a diagram of the line of battle of the ships from both the English and French navies. If you look closely, you can see the names of each major ship which participated in the battle, along with the number of guns each carried. Some of the actions of the battle are also depicted and labeled.

Henry Aston Barker continued the practice of producing keys to each panorama on display at the Leicester Square rotunda, but like his father, he was always seeking to improve his offerings. He retained the anamorphic diagram of the panorama key for more than a decade, but his diagrams slowly became more stylized. In addition, he added longer descriptive passages about the subjects on view as well as the artists who had made the original sketches and drawings. Typically, the scene on view would be described in detail, focusing on the notable natural features if the panorama was of a landscape. If the panorama was of a battle, then the significant events captured in the painting would be explained. The information provided about the artist who had prepared the drawings usually focused on his artistic skills, his unique abilities to capture such a scene and any dangers which he might have had to face to complete his drawings. The point of such a passage was to emphasize to panorama visitors, or anyone else who might have had occasion to read the information, that the painting was particularly worth seeing due to the artist’s skills and the extraordinary trouble to which he had been put while drawing the scene. Such information would assure the visitor to the panorama that they would be getting their money’s worth when they paid their shilling to see something which could not easily be seen in any other way. By the Regency, a visitor to the Leicester Square Panorama no longer received a single descriptive sheet. Instead, they received a pamphlet of ten to fourteen pages into which was bound a fold-out of the anamorphic key of the panorama. These panorama pamphlets were typically about 6 x 9 inches closed, with the key diagram folded in. An example of this type of more complex panorama programme is that for the Battle of Waterloo, which was on display in the Large Circle at the Leicester Square Panorama from March of 1816 to May of 1818. In the picture, you can see the open pamphlet with panorama key folded out.

The pamphlet for the View of the City of St. Petersburg, which was on display in the Upper Circle at Leicester Square from April 1817 to December 1819, was the last which was published with a circular, anamorphic key. For the next panorama in the Lower Circle, Lord Exmouth’s Attack upon Algiers, which ran from May 1818 to March 1819, Henry Aston Barker introduced a new format for panorama key diagrams. The new format was what is known as a roll-out, which was essentially a small drawing of the full length of the panorama painting, with the first half of the panorama on one side of the paper strip, and the second half on the other. This new form of key was the same height as the pamphlet booklet and its length was folded down to the width of the booklet. The key was usually bound into the center of the pamphlet, with text pages on either side so that it could be laid flat when open. Like all the panorama pamphlets which came before it and most which would come after it, stitching with linen thread was used down the gutter of the booklet to hold the pages together. This new form of panorama key continued in use until 1863, when the Leicester Square Panorama closed its doors forever.

The educational value of their paintings was one of the primary points on which the Barkers, both father and son, focused when advertising and promoting their panoramas. The increasingly detailed text which accompanied their key diagrams was in large part in aid of that effort. Just as do some purveyors of mass media today, the Barkers employed the concept that their panoramas were educational in order to attract families who were pleased by the idea that their children would absorb useful information while enjoying themselves. This form of amusement, which was not considered to be frivolous by most people, was also popular with those who felt the need to maintain more decorum in their lives. These people might find a play or the opera too racy for their taste, but the panorama was perfectly acceptable. However, there were still a great many people who went to the panorama simply because they enjoyed it, educational or not.

Initially, Barker’s descriptive sheets were made available to panorama visitors at no charge. But beginning with the View of Constantinople from the Tower of Galatea, which went on display on 27 April 1801, expanded keys accompanied by informative text were on sale to visitors for sixpence each. The price of admission for each painting in the Leicester Square Panorama was one shilling, and remained so, from the very first exhibition in 1793, until the Panorama closed its doors in 1863. During the period when Robert Barker and his son, Henry Aston Barker, managed the Leicester Square Panorama, business was good and the pamphlets which were prepared to accompany each painting continued to be sold for sixpence. Throughout the Regency, a pamphlet for any panorama on view at the Leicester Square Rotunda would have sold for sixpence. In the later decades of the panorama, management was unwilling to raise the traditional price of admission. Probably to help defray the rising cost of the operation as the years passed, and because the pamphlets became increasingly more detailed and included more and more information, eventually prices went up to as much as a shilling, though those price increases occurred after the Regency was over. Many people kept these pamphlets and a few even had groups of them bound together, those volumes becoming part of their libraries. It is for these reasons that at least one copy of nearly every panorama pamphlet is still extant today.

Should a scene or two of a Regency novel take place in the Leicester Square Panorama, the pamphlet and key diagram for that painting could play an important part. If a secret message has been hidden in the faux terrain which has been used to heighten the reality of the painting, the location could be marked on the copy of the diagram before the pamphlet into which it is bound is slipped to the intended recipient so he, or she, can locate the message. Or, perhaps a panorama pamphlet is found among the possessions of a missing or deceased character and it turns out to be the critical clue which solves the mystery. Then again, a young boy, fascinated by faraway places, may creep into the library of his guardian, who does not care for children, to pore over the bound panorama pamphlets which are kept there. Whenever the little boy goes missing, his governess knows where to seek him out. And, one day, gives the guardian a piece of her mind for not appreciating the little boy’s intellectual curiosity and other good qualities. Panorama pamphlets have many interesting options as props for any number of Regency novels.

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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13 Responses to The Keys to the Panorama

  1. KWillow says:

    Your articles on the Panoramas are fascinating! I’d love to visit one in person- I’m surprised there aren’t a few in Las Vegas! The painted panoramas would be more interesting than any photograph.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I would love to visit one, too. But in this day and age, it seems if it doesn’t move fast, make a lot of noise, explode and/or catch fire periodically, it is not deemed entertainment. 😦

      There are still a few panoramas left in the world which are open to the public. There are two in the US of which I am aware, one is near the Gettysburg battlefield and the other is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. There is one near the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium, which depicts the famous battle. There are a few others, most of them are in Europe. There is an International Panorama Council, which is made up of members trying to save and preserve the few panoramas that are left. You can get details from the Wikipedia page about them.


  2. Cari Hislop says:

    Thanks for another lovely informative post and the links to the image. I can see a scene where the heroine (being a bit of a ditzy woman myself) is confused by her key and a male character buts in (could be a hero or villain) to help…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ooooh! That is a good idea! I have seen a couple of the real panorama key pamphlets which are in collections here in Boston. The anamorphic keys are rather complex, and very distorted, so someone could easily become confused by them. And the anamorphic keys were the ones in use until nearly the end of the Regency.

      I hope it is the hero who offers his help. Smart men are so sexy!



  3. KWillow says:

    here’s an interesting link to a Giribaldi Panorama of Egypt:

    My characters are planning a trip to Egypt, and after reading your article I though “Hmmm. It would be nice to have them see the panorama first, as a preview”.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for the link! That is a panorama I did not know about.

      I think it is a great idea to have your characters go to the panorama. It will be a new and historically accurate form of entertainment. I’ll bet your readers will enjoy it!

      Good Luck with your story!


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  7. Jean Lepage says:

    Très en colère, ce matin du 9 novembre, car mon travail de Ph.D. sur le Cyclorama de Jérusalem (installé depuis 1895 à Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, Québec; concept de Bruno Piglhein, peinture de Paul Philippotaux, qui a aussi peint la bataille de Gettysburg) n’avançait pas! Votre article du 21 septembre 2012 – The Keys to the Panorama — vient justement de me donner «la clé» de mon propre travail. Un immense merci à vous, madame Kane.
    À vrai dire, mon travail ne porte pas sur CE panorama particulier, mais sur le mode de «lecture» d’un panorama. Les Occidentaux lisent l’écriture de la gauche vers la droite, c’est-à-dire dans le sens de «la flèche du temps». Croyez-vous que les visiteurs d’un panorama en font la «lecture» dans un sens plutôt que dans l’autre, inspirés peut-être par la «lecture» du texte qu’on leur donnait ou vendait à l’entrée, ou simplement parce qu’il s’agit du mode d’appréhension dans le monde occidental ? La question peut paraître frivole mais elle a beaucoup d’importance lorsqu’on étudie les Arts d’immersion.
    Encore merci de cet excellent article.
    Jean Lepage, (old) student and scriptwriter.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My French is rather shaky, but it does appear that you want to know how panoramas were “read” by their viewers. I do not know for certain, but I suspect most panoramas in Western countries would have been read from left to right, as we read print. However, that could have been altered by a panorama proprietor, depending upon how they provided access to the viewing platform, and what part of the scene was most compelling to viewers as they stepped onto the platform. It might also have been influenced by how the majority of viewers were moving around the platform. Most people will not buck traffic and will naturally follow the flow of other viewers.

      My sense, from what I have read about panorama visitors, is that they focused on the panorama painting and only referred to the printed paper “key” if they saw something in the scene they did not recognize. For a panorama like the Battle of Waterloo, about which they would have known little unless they had been there, they would probably have been drawn to one of the more active or dramatic sections of the scene, at which time they would have consulted their paper key to learn more about what they were seeing. My take is that, in all cases, the actual panorama itself, a large, richly colored painting, would have been more compelling to the eye than the small black and white paper key.

      If you have not yet done so, you might want to consult this book:
      Oleksijczuk, Denise Blake, The First Panoramas: Visions of British Imperialism. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2011.
      The author spends some time on the importance and value of printed panorama keys, which might shed more light on the subject for you.

      I assume you have already read it, but just in case you have not, you might want to take a look at: Grau, Oliver, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. He spends some time addressing how visual art is consumed by viewers. It is a fascinating book.

      I wish you much success in your research!



  8. Jean Lepage says:

    Thank you ever so much for your answer. I have not yet read «Oleksijczuk, Denise Blake, The First Panoramas: Visions of British Imperialism», but I will. [If you consider your French shaky, you shouldn’t feel too bad considering how shaky is my English!] Your text «The Keys to Panoramas» is now in my «bibliography», next to Jonathan Crary’s «Techniques of the observer, on Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century» [this book is a must: it is from MIT press, 1990], and Bernard Comment’s «Le dix-neuvième siècle des panoramas», Adam Biro, editor, 1993.
    Best regards, Jean [John] Lepage.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad the response was helpful and I am honored that you have listed this post in your bibliography.

      I have read Bernard Comment’s book (in translation) but I did not know about Jonathan Crary’s book. Thank you for that reference, I will check it out. I find panoramas very interesting, and I enjoy learning more about them.



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