Defying Death:   The Genesis of a Panorama

Last month, I posted an article here on how panoramas were painted. Every single one of those panoramas was painted on an enormous canvas after a drawing of the scene had been transferred to it. Without those drawings, there would have been no panoramas. By who, how and why were those drawings made? The drawing of a panoramic scene was no sedate walk in the park. It was hard and exacting work, often in dangerous conditions. However, should a panorama be successful, the rewards could be tremendous.

How daring draughtsmen defied death to draw dramatic views …

Let us begin with the very first panorama, the view of the city of Edinburgh, conceived by Robert Barker, but actually drawn by his twelve-year-old son, Henry. Robert Barker was an Irish artist who had emigrated to Scotland in the 1780s. He billed himself as a portrait painter, but he supplemented his income by teaching art, and specialized in classes on perspective. He had an inventive turn of mind and conceived of the idea of drawing a 360-degree view of Edinburgh in proper perspective. In order to put his plan into practice, he developed a mechanical device which would allow an artist to concentrate his focus on the view, one section at a time. Perhaps to demonstrate its ease of use, but more likely because his young son was already on the way to becoming an accomplished draughtsman, he assigned the task of making the drawings to the twelve-year-old Henry.

Henry Aston Barker spent many days on the roof of the Gothic tower which had been built on the top of Calton Hill, in the center of Edinburgh. The structure had been constructed as an astronomical observatory in the late 1770s. It was still in use for that purpose in 1786, when young Henry Barker climbed to the roof with his father’s perspective machine to draw a complete view of the city from that vantage point. Because he had to work in the open, with no protection from the elements, Henry could only work on days with good weather. He could not risk damage to his drawings from wind and rain, but he also could not make those drawings if the day was foggy, since he could not see his subject. Each drawing had to be an accurate representation of that section of the view, and each succeeding drawing had to match up at the point where the preceding drawing left off, so that when they were joined together, they would comprise the entire 360-degree view of the city.

Robert Barker’s perspective machine never found a market, but he soon realized he had a much more attractive product to offer. He could enlarge the drawings his son had made, transfer them to canvas and exhibit this painting to the citizens of Edinburgh. He initially called his invention "la nature à coup d’oeil" (essentially, "nature at a glance") and he had some success with this exhibition in Edinburgh. Assuming he would do even better in the metropolis, he took his invention to London. Not only was it a success, but it also gained a new name, the panorama. Barker sent his son, Henry, to the Royal Academy to study, in order to perfect his drawing skills. Once he understood how to construct a panoramic view, Henry Barker had no further need of his father’s perspective machine, but he continued to make the drawings necessary for a number of the panorama views which would be exhibited at his father’s Leicester Square Panorama for the next thirty years.

Henry’s next assignment was to travel to the south coast of England, where he had to draw a view of the joint maneuvers of the British naval fleet and the Grand Russian fleet off Spithead in 1791. In this case, he had to perch high on a cliff near the shore to make his drawings. When he returned to London, he spent some weeks on the roof of the Albion Flour Mills, drawing a view of London. The Gothic tower on Calton Hill had had a railing around its roof, but there were no such safety measures atop the Albion Mills building. It was a partially flat roof, but with pitched edges, so he had to be very careful not to fall from this tall building on the bank of the Thames. Henry would go on to travel to Paris, Constantinople, Lisbon and Cairo, among others, where he would make a set of panorama drawings for each city. Because the bird’s-eye view was one of the most popular features of most panoramas, all these drawings had to be made from the highest possible vantage point. The climb to these vantage points was usually difficult and the working area was almost always exposed, with little or no protection from the elements. There were also few, if any creature comforts and seldom, if ever, any safety measures in place. The artist had to pay close attention to his surroundings to ensure he did not fall from his lofty perch.

The reason Henry Barker traveled to all those exotic locations to make his drawings was that those panoramas which were advertised as having been drawn by someone on that very spot always garnered the highest number of visitors. But Henry Barker could not be everywhere, so he and his father also purchased sets of panorama drawings from other artists from time to time. Views of important battles, on land or at sea, particularly those in which Britain was victorious, were in high demand. Newspapers contained very few engravings and no photographs at this time, nor were there any newsreels on offer. But the need of the public for visual information was burgeoning as the nineteenth century opened. For many, the panorama also became a substitute for travel, certainly travel to remote and exotic places, about which they could only read in travel books with few, if any illustrations. This need for visual information continued to grow right through the Regency, even as travel improved. According to one writer in an 1826 article in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, " … between steam-boats and panoramic exhibitions, we are every day not only informed of, but actually brought into contact with remote objects."

The panorama was the only way most people of the early nineteenth century could get a glimpse of a famous battle. And they were very patient. It could take as much as a year or more before a panorama of a famous battle would go on view at either of the London panorama rotundas. Despite the long delay, those panoramas were typically mobbed for several months after they opened. Though it is highly unlikely that any soldier or sailor pulled out his drawing paper and pencil during a battle, some of those who witnessed a battle had both good visual memories and well-honed drawing skills. As soon as they were able, they would commit those memories to paper, in the form of drawings, often with accompanying notes on details of the action. Even if their drawings were not a perfect 360-degree view of the battle, if they had captured the main actions, a full view could be recreated from a combination of their drawings and notes. An enterprising fellow, in possession of such a set of notes and drawings, and aware of the public’s craving for views of these battles, could offer them to one of the proprietors of the London panoramas. If his drawings were good enough to serve as the basis of a panoramic view of the battle, he could expect to receive a princely sum for them. He might also be offered a position as the director of the enlargement of the drawings, their transfer to canvas and the painting of the panorama itself, to ensure its accuracy. If his notes were extensive, he might even receive additional payment for writing the explanatory text which was included in the "key pamphlets" which would be on sale to those who came to view the panorama. The fact that the panoramic view of any battle had been drawn by someone who was present at the battle would significantly increase attendance and thus profits.

Views of remote locations were also very popular panorama scenes, precisely because travel to such locations was usually difficult and arduous, not to mention expensive. Panorama proprietors were always eager to mount a new exhibit of a far-away place to which few of their visitors might ever be able to travel. Panoramas were presented showing the Rock and Bay of Gibraltar, Lausanne and the Lake of Geneva, Bern and the High Alps, the Ruins of Pompeii, and even the Island of Elba, once it became home to the deposed Napoleon Bonaparte. Not only was travel to many of these places arduous, it was often dangerous, and, in some cases, illegal, without written permission and/or special passports from local authorities. Only a hardy and determined artist might venture to such locales, for, difficult as it was, travel to the area was seldom as laborious and demanding as was the last leg of his journey, making his way to the highest vantage point available, from which he would make his drawings. And since it could take weeks or months to complete a set of drawings, he might have to make that often treacherous climb up and down, daily, while carrying all his drawing equipment. But should he complete an accurate set of drawings from which a panoramic scene could be drawn, the financial rewards could be substantial, just as they could be for an artist who returned with a reliable set of drawings of a major battle.

Though London panorama-goers enjoyed views of great battles and far-away places, they also loved panoramic views of their own city. Perhaps the most death-defying artist of any London panorama was Thomas Horner, a successful surveyor and landscape gardener from Yorkshire. In the summer of 1821, the ball and cross at the top of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral was under repair and scaffolding had been erected around it for the purpose. Horner was given permission to construct a tiny shack on that scaffolding which he called his "observatory" and from which he planned to make drawings for a panoramic view of London. A panoramic view of the city had never been taken from that particular vantage point because no one had ever before been given access to the top of the cathedral dome. Initially, he had intended to make only a set of four large detailed drawings which he planned to have engraved and sold as a set. But he was so taken by the view of the city from his lofty perch that he soon determined that he must produce an exhaustive view of the entire city which could be converted into a panorama. Throughout that summer of 1821, on every clear day, Thomas Horner rose well before 3 o’clock in the morning in order to gather his drawing equipment and climb up to his tiny shack clinging to the scaffolding at the top of St. Paul’s dome. He wanted to be able to begin work at sunrise, before the many workshops and factories in the city began to spew out the great plumes of smoke which would obscure his view. He had to carry not only pencils, paper and his drawing board on that gruelling climb to the top of London, but also a set of telescopes and a camera obscura, in order to ensure his drawings were as accurate as possible. By the end of the summer, he had completed more than three hundred drawings, many of which were so accurate they included structures and other objects as much as one hundred and thirty miles away. Horner coordinated his many drawings by means of a "key sketch" which indicated the order in which each drawing connected to the next.

Unhappily, it took nearly a decade before Horner’s drawings were converted into an enormous panorama. This was to be exhibited in the great Colosseum which was built just east of Regent’s Park in 1827. Work did not begin on what is generally considered to be the largest panorama ever painted until 1825, when the artist, Edmund Thomas Parris, took on the responsibility of supervising the work. It was a monumental undertaking, and despite suffering various injuries caused by multiple falls from the scaffolding erected to paint the scene, Parris persevered and the 46,000-square-foot panorama painting was completed in November of 1829. Unfortunately for Horner, though his London panorama was a popular success, it was not a financial success due to its great cost to produce, and he eventually had to flee London to escape his many creditors.

Horner’s panorama experience, however, was an exception. During the Regency, most panoramas were financially successful. As an example, Henry Aston Barker, who took over management of the Leicester Square Panorama when his father died in 1806, was able to retire at the age of fifty, in 1824, due almost entirely to the success of one panorama. He first exhibited View of the Battle of Waterloo in the Large Circle, in March of 1816. Its first run went to May of 1818, then he brought it back in October of 1820 for another eight-month run, finally closing in May of 1821. The attendance at this second run was just as brisk as had been attendance at the first run. Henry Barker had married the eldest daughter of the notorious Captain Bligh, and they had four children, so his financial needs in retirement were not minimal. But the Waterloo panorama had also toured the country and between its London takings and those in the provinces, he became a very wealthy man, so wealthy he could retire comfortably, support his family and enjoy life as a man of leisure for the next thirty years.

Throughout the Regency, especially during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, there were a few military or naval officers who were also able to earn a substantial sum with the drawings and notes they had made of an important battle. Some sold their work to one of the London panoramas, either that at Leicester Square or the one in The Strand. They would not have made a sum as high as that on the Waterloo panorama, since that was such a singular event, but they could still earn as much as several hundred to several thousand pounds, depending upon their deal. Typically, a lesser amount would be earned for a lump sum payment, but if the artist was able to negotiate for a percentage of the ticket and pamphlet sales, his income would be much greater. Such would also be the case for an artist who had been able to complete a set of panorama drawings of an exotic location which had captured the public interest.

Other artists who had completed a set of panorama drawings might prefer to work independently, rather than selling their work to one of the London panorama proprietors. This would take a certain amount of capital up front, but if they had the wherewithal and the determination, they could paint their own panorama from their drawings and put it on display themselves, similar to what Thomas Girtin did with his Eidometropolis. But this would require access to large studio area in which to paint, the capital to buy the canvas, the paint, other necessary supplies and pay some assistants, as well as renting a room large enough in which to display the finished panorama painting. But the investment would be well worth it if the panorama had a high attendance and became a financial success.

Additional income could be made from those panoramas which went on tour around the country. The Leicester Square panoramas almost always went on tour, as did some of those exhibited at The Strand panorama. Because the Leicester Square panoramas routinely went on tour, they had regular venues where the paintings would be displayed as well as crews who were trained to handle the transport of the paintings and their set-up and removal at each location along the tour. Independent panorama painters also sent their panorama paintings on a tour of the provinces, if they had been successful in London, and if they were able to make arrangements for the transport of the painting and to rent the venues in which it would be displayed. But this would be more of an effort for them, since it was not something they did on a regular basis. Some independent panorama artists also had engravings made of their panorama, which they sold to the public, either in addition to a tour of the country for their panorama, or instead of that tour, if one could not be arranged.

Dear Regency Authors, might a set of panorama drawings be just the thing to enable you to give your hero, or another character in one of your stories, a substantial financial windfall? Perhaps the hero was a reconnaissance or "riding" officer for Wellington on the Peninsula. As part of his responsibilities, he would be expected to draw plans and elevations of enemy encampments and other important military sites. Such officers had excellent drawing skills, because the accuracy of their drawings and plans would be crucial in the planning of any military engagement. They regularly carried a set of good quality cartographic and drawing instruments with them, along with a supply of paper. Might this officer be wounded during an important battle of the Peninsular Wars? To relieve his boredom during recovery, he makes a set of drawings of the battle, along with extensive notes of the event, thinking to use it to explain to his family how the battle played out upon his return to them. When he arrives back in England, perhaps his father or elder brother has gambled away the family fortunes, or some wicked villain has bled the family coffers. In need of funds, someone recommends that this officer contact Henry Aston Barker at the Leicester Square panorama, or Thomas Edward Barker at The Strand panorama, about making a panorama from his drawings and notes. This officer is the first to offer a set of drawings of this particular battle, for which the public is eager for more information, and the panorama owner makes him a handsome offer for them. This would be the quickest way for this officer to get a large sum of money from his drawings. If he is not keen to get involved in the actual painting of the panorama and wishes to retain his anonymity, selling his drawings to one of the panorama proprietors would be his best bet. Seldom did either of the London panorama proprietors include the name of the artist on their key pamphlets or any of their advertising, though they always emphasized that the artist had made the drawings on the spot.

Or, perhaps your character wants to make a name for himself as an artist and has some capital to support him for a time. Then he might rent or borrow a studio space, buy his own supplies and paint his own panorama. Once it is finished, he rents a large room and puts it on display as his own work. Because he is the first to offer a panorama of this particular battle in London, or he has painted a panorama of some far-away place which piques the curiosity of the public, his panorama is a great success. He makes a huge amount on the London run of the panorama, and even more when he is able to arrange for it to go on tour around the rest of the country and issues a set of engravings of the view for sale. Though this will take much longer, he will make much more money and he will be known as the artist of this particular panorama. With his first success, his name is made and he might go on to paint other panoramas, perhaps making a career of it.

Now you know, Dear Regency Authors, that not only can a panorama be an interesting setting for one or many scenes in a story, the making of one could be a way for your hero, or even your heroine, to garner needed funds by their drawing skills. Will a set of drawings of a panoramic view provide windfall profits for one of your characters? Or, like Thomas Horner, will you have one of your characters risk life and limb to make a set of drawings for a panorama, only to have the panorama itself be poorly attended, thus ruining the man, or woman, who created it? Then again, might your story center around the dangerous endeavour to make that set of drawings? Mayhap a competition between the hero and the heroine, before they are thrown together and discover their mutual attraction? Or, might they have a "business arrangement" to make a set of panorama drawings, only to have that arrangement fall apart when they find themselves strongly attracted to one another? So many panoramic options!

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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16 Responses to Defying Death:   The Genesis of a Panorama

  1. yay, plot bunny!
    still cooking in brain, but definite ideas… thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure. When I learned that that military men, usually officers, and other “free-lance” artists, were sometimes able to make a lot of money by selling a set of drawings for a panorama, I saw so many opportunities there for Regency authors that I just had to let them know.


  2. I suppose you have no idea what sort of sum would be paid for such drawings initially? a princely sum suggests a few hundred guineas?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The range could be quite wide, since there were so many variables. The highest sum would most likely come from the Leicester Square Panorama owners, since that was the most profitable of the two London panoramas. It also depended upon how detailed the drawings were, and if the location was something that would be considered to be popular, thus bringing many visitors and generating high revenue.

      Hope that helps,


  3. haha, sorry, re-read that again and found you give a range >slaps self on back of head<

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I hope you did not hurt yourself! 😉

      Since any prices would be fictional, the author can pretty much choose the amount that works for their story.


  4. Cooked!
    Anne [Nancy] Harcot is the daughter of a soldier at corunna and has followed the drum with him as her dead mother used to. William Harcot has risen to Sergeant. Nan has a natural bent for drawing and has had a few lessons from an officer’s wife too, and makes drawings overlooking Corunna. Her father is wounded and invalided out, blind; at her wit’s end, Nan decides to offer her drawings to a panorama painter. She decides to pretend that they are her father’s drawing to get more credibility. They are eagerly accepted, and she is paid 900 G for them, and her father is offered a job as director of the enlargement of the drawings. She accepts on his behalf but explains as her father has been blinded, she will have to describe to him what is being done and act for him, as her father has trained her to help him. William is horrified at her temerity but agrees to play along and keep up the pretence that he is the artist. 900 guineas is enough for them to live on comfortably for 10 years at the same salary as a clerk, and to afford a servant to enable Nan to give her time to supervising the painting. However, as Nan says, if they can invest it and get more, it will mean they can live well for the rest of William’s life and maybe get more work on panoramas. If it is a success, she will tell the panorama painter that it was her work and offer to travel to draw more.
    One of the backers of the panorama painter is a young gentleman who is intrigued by the ‘artist’s’ daughter and falls in love with her, finding out that her mother was gently born and had run away to marry. He discovers that she is the artist and is amazed.
    Trouble perhaps from one of Nan’s mother’s relatives who tries to sabotage ‘william’s’ paintings?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oh, Yum!!! I like the story! Lots of intriguing possibilities.

      BTW – If it helps, there were a number of views of English cities exhibited at the London panoramas, including Bath, Ramsgate and Dover. Natural wonders of the British Isles were also sometimes the subjects of panoramas, such the Peak and Lake districts, or the Cornish coast. So, if you don’t want your heroine to leave the country, she can always travel to one of those areas to begin work on her new panorama.



      • Thank you, also for the info on pricing, I worked through eating lunch with one hand and have the greater part of an opening chapter

        • Kathryn Kane says:


          I do hope there are no crumbs or smudges on the manuscript or keyboard! 😉


          • …. fortunately no. Only cat footprints which is par for the course… As for FB I have to say I don’t much like it either in some respects, in that people seem to post EVERYTHING about themselves… which I don’t like! But it has its uses, and it does reach a wide audience…

  5. haha, now all I have to do is write it…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Most definitely!!!

      And, please do post a link here when your new story is available.

      Good Luck!!!


      • Thank you! I’ve got several from one to 8 chapters on the go, I shouldn’t pursue so many plot bunnies at once lol… I’ve just set up an author’s page on FB as well which is quite exciting [being able to DO something on FB is exciting for this luddite!]

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          You are much braver than I. That whole social media business gives me the willies. I do hope it will be worth the effort and will bring you more readers.



  6. Pingback: From Colosseum to Pocket:   Toy Panoramas | The Regency Redingote

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