The Painting of a Panorama

In previous articles in my series on the history of the panorama, I have discussed its invention by Robert Barker, the purpose-built rotundas in which these paintings were displayed and the technology employed to make the viewing experience as realistic as possible for the panorama visitor, occasionally to the point of making some of them ill with "panorama sickness." In this article, I want to explain how one of these enormous canvases was prepared and painted. It was no easy task and could only be attempted by men with both artistic talent and athletic ability.

Painting, while dangling at the end of a rope  …  literally!

Before discussing the actual painting of a panorama canvas, it is necessary to understand where this process would be accomplished. At the Panorama in The Strand, which had been opened by Robert Barker’s son, Thomas, each new painting was painted in the viewing circle in which it was to be displayed. The primary disadvantage was that that viewing circle would have to be closed to the public while the new panorama was painted. Depending on the size and detail of the painting, this could take several weeks, during which time there would be no income from that viewing circle. But there were some advantages to this practice, as well. If the old panorama was not to go on tour in the provinces, it could be left in place and the new panorama would be painted over the old one. There would then be no need to assemble and hang a new canvas, which was a time-consuming process. In addition, once the painting was completed and any paint spills cleaned up, the viewing circle could be opened to the public immediately, with no further effort required.

However, Robert Barker, consummate showman and entrepreneur, was unwilling to forgo any more income than necessary by closing either the Large Circle or the Upper Circle in his panorama rotunda. Therefore, he erected a separate building to serve as a panorama painting studio in which his newest painting could be prepared, without interfering with the display of the current paintings. In 1799, after the success of his early panoramas, Robert Barker took up permanent residence in a fairly new development of terrace houses, situated in the area known as St. George’s Fields, south of the Thames River. Barker and his family moved in to No. 14, West Square, where he would live for the rest of his life. Since there were few building restrictions in this area, Barker did just as he had done in order to display his first panorama in London, he built a rotunda in his back garden, which became known locally as Barker’s "Painting Room." Like its predecessor on Castle Street, this new rotunda was built of wood, almost three stories high, with a ribbed, conical roof which featured large skylights in each section. In addition, the walls were set with a series of small square windows, just below the roof line. The remainder of the walls were solid planking, with the exception of the doors at the ground level. The inside was fitted up as a panorama viewing circle with the circular frames from which the canvas would be hung and a central platform at the appropriate height for veiwing. However, this interior was completely utilitarian, lacking the amenities and ornate decoration which made the Leicester Square Panorama so elegant. Though Robert Barker died in 1806, his son, Henry Aston Barker, who took over the management of the Leicester Square Panorama, continued to use this wooden rotunda as a panorama painting studio throughout his own career, since it was conveniently situated next to his own home, at No. 13, West Square.

The primary advantage in having a panorama painting studio was that the painting of the new panorama would not interfere with the viewing of those already on display. There was also no need to worry if the painters were tidy as they worked, since the studio would never be opened to the public, so paint spatters could be left to dry in place. Since many of the panorama paintings from the Leicester Square Rotunda were sent on tour in the provinces after their London run, there was no real advantage to the Barkers in painting the new panorama in the viewing circle in which it would be displayed. They could not simply paint over the old canvas, which would be in place and ready to receive new paint. Instead, they would have to carefully take down the old panorama, roll it and prepare it for shipment to its next destination, then hang a new canvas, prepare the surface for paint and then paint in the new view.

Perhaps the only disadvantage for the Barkers was that once the new panorama painting was complete and dry, it would have to be carefully taken down, rolled and prepared for transport to the Leicester Square Rotunda. Then again, was it a disadvantage? The transfer of a new panorama to Leicester Square was not an easy undertaking, particularly for a painting destined for the Large Circle, which was typically about 10,000 square feet of canvas. Most of the Large Circle paintings were about fifty feet high and 400 to 500 feet in length. After the fully dry painting was taken down from the rigging in the "Painting Room," it would be carefully rolled onto a giant spool. Thus, once one of those paintings was rolled up on its spool, the workmen had a stiff, very heavy, fifty-foot roll of painted canvas which had to be transported north, over the Thames, to Leicester Square, in pristine condition. The Waterloo Bridge was not built until 1817, and it opened as a toll bridge. Therefore, each new panorama painting en route to Leicester Square from the West Square studio was conveyed over Westminster Bridge and through the narrow and winding city streets, certainly through the decade of the Regency. Such an undertaking would have been quite the sight on the streets of London as the enormous roll of painted canvas made its way north to its destination. But was this extraordinary effort a disadvantage for the Barkers? Or, did each colossal canvas roll wending its way north serve much as did the parade of animals through the streets when the circus came to town, announcing to London that a new panorama painting would soon be on display at the Leicester Square Rotunda? One suspects that neither Robert Barker, nor his son, Henry Aston Barker, saw this spectacle as any disadvantage at all.

And what of those artists, like Thomas Girtin and Robert Ker Porter, who painted a panorama view on speculation, with no purpose-built viewing area in which to display it? In these cases, the artist would have to rent a large room in order to display their panorama to the public. However, these rooms were almost always much too expensive to rent for the purpose of actually painting the panorama. Rather, the artist would find some less expensive large space they could use as a studio. Fortunately, Thomas Girtin had a friend who owned a floor-cloth manufactory, an ideal place to paint a large canvas, and he was able to make use of it to paint his Eidometropolis. The man who owned that specific floor-cloth manufactory also rented his space to Robert Ker Porter, and, later, to other artists in need of a large studio in which to paint a panorama. In fact, nearly any good-sized empty warehouse or factory space would serve the purpose, so long as it also had good lighting, preferably north-facing windows, or, better still, skylights. The panorama paintings done by these independent artists tended to be smaller than those done for the big panorama houses, which also made them easier to transport and display. But their smaller size did not always draw the large crowds which the large rotundas attracted with their grand and technically enhanced viewing circles. Such artists were taking a financial risk to paint and display a panorama, but the majority did make a reasonable profit on their efforts.

Now that we have a general idea of where panoramas were painted, we will soon get to the actual painting. But first, for a brand new panorama, the canvas would have to be acquired, stitched together and prepared to receive the paint. Typically, the canvas used was the same as that used to make sails for ships. Though such canvas came in large pieces, they were nowhere near large enough for even a small panorama painting. The canvas pieces would all have to stitched together in such a way that the finished canvas would hang straight when on display. In addition, the seams had to be as unobtrusive as possible on the side which would carry the paint, so as not to spoil the effect of a 360-degree view when the painting was complete. However, on the back side, all those seams would be heavily reinforced, to ensure that the completed painting would remain intact regardless of the stresses to which it would be subject during painting, transport and hanging. And all of this stitching had to be done by hand. Some panorama makers employed sail-makers for this work while others employed seamstresses with experience working with heavy cloth. Once the canvas was stitched together, it was trimmed down to the correct size and all the edges were finished to prevent ravelling. The top and bottom edges were reinforced to ensure they would not tear when attached to the heavy rings which would hold the canvas, both for painting and later for viewing.

The next step was to hang the canvas in the studio where it was to be painted, in just the same way as it would eventually be hung in the viewing circle for display. Once it was stretched taut between the upper and lower rings, it would have to be treated with gesso to ensure even application of the paint to come. The gesso formula which included gypsum, white pigment and animal hide glue used to prepare wooden painting surfaces could not be used on flexible canvas, since it would quickly crack and flake off. Therefore, canvas was treated with what was often called "half-chalk ground," in which traditional gesso was blended with linseed oil to create a emulsion which would remain flexible when it dried. This gesso emulsion would then have to brushed over every inch of the canvas to be prepared, in several thin coats, with each allowed to dry before the next was applied. This preparation could take a week or more, and could consume anywhere from fifty to one hundred gallons of gesso emulsion. However, none of this effort would be needed when a new panorama was painted over an old one, since the canvas was already stitched together, hung as it would be displayed. It only needed a couple of coats of white paint to be almost ready. However, even with a fully prepared canvas, painting could not begin until the drawings of the scene had been transferred to the surface to be painted.

The very first step in the creation of a new panorama was when an artist, ideally with superior drawing skills, found the perfect vantage point from which to draw a 360-degree view of some landscape or event which it was believed the public would be keen to see represented in the panoramic format. The artist would then spend many days making overlapping drawings which fully represented that entire view. Due to the limits on paper sizes, these drawings were never extremely large and the images would have to be transferred to the gesso-coated canvas before the actual painting could begin. In most cases, the age-old grid system was used, whereby a grid was laid over the drawing, and a proportionally larger grid was laid over the prepared canvas. Then a draughtsman, or, in some cases, the same artist who had made the drawings, would painstakingly draw in enlarged versions of all of the details of each drawing grid onto the comparable grid on the gesso-coated surface of the canvas, using the gridded drawings as a guide. Only after that was done could painting begin.

To speed the panorama production process, in some cases, the painters would follow the draughtsman, painting those areas he had already transferred to the canvas, only a grid or two behind, while he continued along, transferring the next set of drawing details to the next set of grids. All of this drawing was done with pencil, which would be completely covered by the oil paint which would be applied over it. This practice could be problematic, should the draughtsman miscalculate his proportions at any point. For that reason, the better panoramas were not painted until the entire view had been transferred to the canvas and any flaws identified and corrected. It was at this point that a viewing stand similar to that in the viewing circle in which the painting was to be displayed was extremely valuable. Most of the magic of a panorama was accomplished with proportion, perspective and angle of display. Therefore, being able to stand at the same point as would a viewer of the finished painting, while the work was in progress, significantly eliminated mistakes. Robert Barker, and later, his son, Henry Barker, stood on the viewing stand in their studio rotunda, directing the work underway on the panorama surface to ensure that it would appear correctly at that vantage point. Thomas Barker is believed to have done the same when a new panorama was being painted in one of The Strand Panorama viewing circles. Those panorama artists who had to work without such a "director" had a much harder time creating a panorama painting with the correct proportions and perspective.

A few of the very early panoramas were painted with tempera, but it had a tendency to flake, and it dried very quickly, not allowing much time to correct mistakes. By the turn of the nineteenth century, nearly all panoramas were painted with oil paint, that is, pigment suspended in a binder of linseed oil. Linseed oil dried more quickly and thoroughly than most oils, but still slowly enough that the paint remained malleable long enough for a painter to correct most mistakes. Like the gesso emulsion, linseed oil paint was very flexible when it dried, thus the perfect medium for a painting on a ground that would have to be rolled and unrolled a number of times. But where a portrait or history painter typically bought their paints from a local colorman, in small amounts, paints for a panorama were purchased directly from a paint mill, usually by the barrel or bucketful. In most cases, the paint used for panoramas was purchased from the same paint mills which specialized in supplying large quantities of paint for theatre set painters.

The artists who painted panoramas also often came from the theatre. Set painting was not the most reliable trade, so most of those engaged in it were always happy for some extra work. Set painters had a number of qualities which were ideal for the painting of panoramas. They were usually strong and physically fit, well able to carry large, heavy buckets of paint up and down tall scaffolding. They were used to painting anything from broad sweeping areas to small details which had already been drawn on the canvas on which they were working, using the colors they were told to use, their artistic ego in absentia. They were quite comfortable with taking direction from someone else as they worked, since they typically did the same when painting sets. These artists also understood that a proportion or perspective that appeared inaccurate up close would usually appear quite correct when viewed at some greater distance, so they were seldom overcome with the need to correct the original drawing as they painted. Set painters often worked in teams when painting sets, so they were quite efficient at doing so when painting a panorama. Many became so adept at panorama painting that they were invited back whenever a new panorama was to be painted.

Fine art painters down on their luck sometimes tried panorama painting to make ends meet. Unfortunately, few of them were able to suppress their own artistic ego enough to paint exactly what they were told, using the colors specified. They might do well painting their own panorama for independent display, but their individualistic and artistic nature made it difficult for them to work as part of a team of painters on someone else’s design. House painters, however, often did well as panorama painters, since they had skills very similar to set painters. Typically, they were strong, able to take direction and work as part of a team. And, unlike many fine artists, they were not overly exacting about the level of effort expected or the conditions in which they worked.

Working conditions for panorama painters could vary widely. In purpose-built studio rotundas, such as the "Painting Room" erected by Robert Barker, in addition to the rigging needed to hang the panorama canvas, sturdy scaffolding was in place, providing fairly reliable access to the entire surface of the painting. In some studios, the scaffolding was curved to fit the cylindrical wall of the studio and hung on rails so it could move along the painting surface as needed. In such studios, the painters remained on the scaffolding while muscular assistants pushed the scaffolding into place for the next section of the painting. The scaffolding was often quite tall, since many of these paintings could be as much as fifty feet in height. The walkways were narrow, and safety lines were not even a consideration. Yet the scaffolding was sturdy and stable and most set and house painters were used to working in much more dangerous conditions. They were careful to be mindful of how they walked and worked and there were few accidents. Panoramas were painted fairly quickly and accurately in such favorable conditions.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, some panorama studios had no scaffolding whatsoever. In these studios, painters had to work at the end of a rope suspended from the roof or the same rigging which supported the canvas. Some painters were supplied with a harness to which the rope was attached, others had to work sitting in a canvas sling or cradle which was supported at each end by a rope. If an artist were working on a single rope attached to the rigging, he might well have some control over it himself. Those who worked from a canvas sling had no control over the ropes, as each was held by an assistant who may, or may not, coordinate with his partner when lowering or hoisting the artist in the sling to a new area to work. This could be extremely dangerous if one side was lowered or raised too quickly, thus converting the sling to a slide. One panorama painter who had worked in such a contraption recorded that the sling was most dangerous in the mornings, if the assistants had had a hard night and were not attending to the business at hand. He also reported that while being moved to a new area of the canvas, if the ropes were not working in concert, he was occassionally slammed against a wet portion of the canvas, where he stuck to it " … almost as a fly."

Panorama painting, even in the best of conditions, was hard, back-breaking, dirty and often dangerous work. Those able to work in a purpose-built and well-equipped studio had the best of it. Such studios were usually supplied with sturdy scaffolding, which allowed them autonomous movement, and, if they were careful, a fair measure of safety. Those who worked in less well-equipped studios, or in the same room in which the canvas was to be displayed, might find themselves working in a harness while dangling from the end of a rope. Worse, they might find themselves trying to paint while sitting in a canvas sling which was anchored to nothing and held by two assistants, who, hopefully, were both strong, alert and coordinating their efforts, since they literally held the painter’s life in their hands.

There is no definitive evidence that there were ever any female panorama painters, certainly not during the Regency or before. In general, the work was too physically demanding to be done by any but able-bodied men. Which is not to say that an enterprising Regency author might include one as a character in an upcoming novel. Perhaps this woman is doing the finish work on the panorama, adding all the fine details of the scene to ensure a realistic appearance when the painting goes on display. Maybe she is doing so to help a friend, who for some reason, perhaps recent injury, is unable to do the work themselves. Will she work from a tall, but stable scaffold, or will she be dangled in front of the canvas at the end of a rope? Or, perhaps the hero, or the heroine, might be the artist who drew the panorama scene and spends much time on the central viewing platform of the studio, directing the work. If the "director" is a woman, will the all-male painting team take direction from a female?

The potential for nightmare grid-lock of a high order of magnitude, perhaps accompanied by all sorts of hilarity and hi-jinks, exists during the time a newly painted panorama is en route from the studio to its final destination in Leicester Square, or even some fictional London panorama rotunda. This immense, rigid cylinder of painted canvas, perhaps fifty feet in length, must safely navigate a city not noted for its broad straight boulevards and avenues. Dear Regency Authors, how might you plot the best route for the journey, and what might you contrive to happen along the way?

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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12 Responses to The Painting of a Panorama

  1. I wouldn’t want to paint a panorama, I have to say…

  2. elfahearn says:

    My “Uncle” George (really a close friend of my father’s), was the tech director at the summerstock theatre near where I grew up. He was short and powerful with dark hair on his arms and a sailor’s cap perched perpetually on his head. He’d scramble like a monkey into the fly space and across the beams (we couldn’t afford a catwalk); hang by a toe to secure some piece of scenery or adjust a light. My father was a tall, thin thing with blond hair — definitely the sort to stand in the center of things and give direction. My uncle coached football and my father taught at an ivy-league college, but you couldn’t have found two better pals. This has nothing to do with panoramas, but your post called forth the memory, so I thought I’d share.
    Wikipedia says Wordsworth despied panoramas because he felt they were cheating people of reality — fooling them, as it were. These attractions apparently were a cause of much debate among the intellectuals of the romantic era.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for sharing your memory. My grandma always used to say that those we remember are never really lost. And now you have captured that memory for many others to enjoy.

      Wordsworth was a very serious romantic, in the sense that he did not think nature should be copied or distorted in any way. He also despised Claude glasses, which were also very popular at the time, because looking through them also distorted the view of the real world. Others though such representations of nature enabled the viewer to more fully appreciate it in all it variations without the necessity of extended travel. You are quite right, there were a number of articles published in various journals and magazines, and even lectures given, on how nature should be viewed and understood during the Romantic period.



  3. I wish I could have read this post about a year ago. Because that was when I started to prepare the canvas for my “well-let’s-see-if-I-can-do-it-without-any-experience”-painting sized 2,35 x 4,10 m in my room. Not wanting to use an oversized stretcher (which, once bulid in, never could have been transported out of the room again) I fixed the canvas on top and bottom to a wood lath. So far so good. BUT: The moment I put on the gesso, the canvas began to shrink, and, as it was fixed on top and bottom, in no time was full of blisters and crinkles. I had to take the canvas down and try a new one (with stretchers this time, but the whole picture “cut” into three units so it was still “mobile”). This “half-chalk ground” you mention could have been a good solution. :- )

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sorry it came too late for you. However, the gesso/linseed oil mixture which the panorama painters used was rather smelly until the linseed oil was fully dried, so you may not have enjoyed that part of it, especially in a room where you spent any time.



      • I rather like the smell of linseed oil … thanks for mentioning though, I’m doing more work on my story about the female panorama artist who is pretending her blind father is doing the directing, and the sense of smell is so evocative, I will bring that in.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I like it, too, in small amounts. Though I am not sure how many people today are familiar with it. Your story might send a bunch of folks out to the hardware or paint store to get whiff. 😉

          Please do post a link to the story here when it is ready for prime time.



  4. Pingback: Defying Death:   The Genesis of a Panorama | The Regency Redingote

  5. Very interesting! I have linked to my blog where Bradshaw has just taken me to the Imperial War Museum. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: West Square, Bradshaw’s Hand Book, (No.93) | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

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