Regency Bicentennial:   Edinburgh Scoops London

This article is yet another in my ongoing series on panoramas. Several of those articles were devoted to the first panorama in London, Robert Barker’s purpose-built rotunda in Leicester Square. Barker learned early on that the public would flock to any of his exhibitions which provided them with an all-encompassing view of important current events. Almost as soon as the news of the victory at Waterloo arrived in Britain, panorama proprietors across the country were making plans for a panorama of the battle. Certainly, Henry Aston Barker, Robert’s son, who had taken over management of the Leicester Square rotunda, was making plans for an impressive Waterloo panorama he would exhibit in the Large Circle. Yet he would be scooped by a Waterloo panorama which went on display in Edinburgh, the city in which his father invented the panorama, nearly five months before Barker opened his own Waterloo panorama in London.

The first Waterloo panorama in England, which opened two hundred years ago this Tuesday . . .

The artist who painted the Waterloo panorama, James Howe, was born in 1780, in Skirling, a small parish in Scotland. James was the eldest son of the parish minister, William Howe, and showed a talent for drawing from a very early age. Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, the young boy had come to love animals and they were always his favorite subjects. However, paper was expensive, particularly for the family of a poor clergyman. Nevertheless, James did not let that stop his pencil. Nearly every Sunday morning, when his father unfolded the manuscript of his sermon on the pulpit, he found a vast array of animals gamboling in the margins, all drawn by his eldest son.

It was clear to the Reverend Howe that his son would not be following him into a career in the church. Therefore, at the age of thirteen, he apprenticed young James to his Edinburgh relatives, the Norrie brothers, who were decorative house painters. James began his career white-washing walls and applying the base coats on which the Norrie brothers would paint the fine decoration. But it was not long before he was painting that fine detailed decoration, too. At some point, James Howe became acquainted with Peter Marshall, a painter and panorama proprietor in Edinburgh. Marshall recognized James Howe’s talent and when the young man was not painting decorative scenes in local houses, he was able to earn five shillings per hour painting panoramas for Marshall.

Even before he completed his apprenticeship, James Howe had acquired a reputation as a talented painter of animals. Though he had no formal art training, he set himself up as an animal-painter. He took a house in Greenside Street in Edinburgh, painting a remarkably realistic piebald pony in one of the windows of his home as a demonstration of his talent. He was regularly patronized by the Earl of Buchan, who commissioned him to paint several of his prize cattle and horses. Lord Buchan encouraged the young man to travel to London, providing him with letters of introduction to members of the Royal household. Howe was commissioned to paint the portraits of some of the horses in the Royal stud. Though all agreed his paintings were very good, by the time they were completed, the eye disease which afflicted George III had progressed to the point that the King could not see Howe’s work. Without the king’s approval, no further royal commissions were forthcoming and a disappointed Howe returned to Edinburgh.

However, Howe’s London sojourn had not been a complete waste of time as news of it increased his reputation in Scotland. Lord Buchan continued to patronize Howe, as did a growing number of other members of the aristocracy and gentry in the area. Soon after his return, Sir John Sinclair commissioned James Howe to tour Scotland, making detailed paintings of all of the breeds of cattle he encountered. Sir John used these paintings as the source of engraved illustrations for his books on agriculture and animal husbandry. By 1810, James Howe had settled back in Edinburgh where he established a thriving practice as an animal painter. His portraits of horses and cattle were in high demand due to his quick work and uncanny ability to render each subject accurately.

It is unknown whether or not James Howe continued his connection with panorama proprietor, Peter Marshall, though both men lived in Edinburgh and were part of the community of artists in the city. By 1815, Peter Marshall had gone into business with his son, William. It was probably at Peter Marshall’s suggestion that James Howe travelled to the battlefield of Waterloo soon after the news of the Allied victory reached Britain. It is believed he was accompanied by his art student, William Kidd, and his friend, the Scottish genre painter, Alexander Carse. It is likely Howe and his companions sailed on The Edinburgh Packet, whose master was David Parker, which sailed from Leith to Ostend in Belgium. Once he reached Waterloo, Howe worked quickly. He walked the field of battle, making dozens of sketches of the area, noting the terrain and the angle of the sun during the time of the battle. He also drew soldiers in formation and in disarray, as well as making sketches of those who had fallen. With his interest in animals, especially horses, Howe sketched a number of cavalry horses, as well as draught and pack horses which had served that day. He also interviewed survivors of the battle in order to gather details on how the day had gone.

Howe returned to Edinburgh once he had made his notes and completed his sketches. Probably at the urging of Peter Marshall, Howe set to work almost immediately blocking out a panorama painting of the Battle of Waterloo. Marshall would have been well aware that a panorama of the Allied victory over Napoleon Bonaparte and the French would draw thousands of visitors and thus would be extremely profitable. Marshall probably asked Howe to create this panorama because he was known to be not only an accurate painter, but was also able to work very quickly over large surfaces, perhaps a legacy of his early years as a house painter. While Howe was blocking out and painting the approximately 2,000 square feet of canvas, Marshall had hired a crew of carpenters to put up a large temporary wooden rotunda, in which he planned to exhibit this new Waterloo panorama. This larger rotunda was constructed near Brown’s coach works, opposite the east end of York Place and near the head of Leith Walk.

Marshall & Son placed advertisements in both The Caledonian Mercury and The Edinburgh Evening Courant, in late October of 1815. In these advertisements, the Marshalls announced to the public that they would soon offer a panorama of the recent Battle of Waterloo, stating that it would be " . . . the Accurate View of the ever memorable BATTLE, taken by Mr. JAMES HOWE on the spot, that it was authoritative, …" and that " . . . every particular circumstance of the battle collected by him from the principle Officers, both British and Foreign, who were in the Battle, . . . " would be included. Though the Marshalls had been exhibiting panoramas in Edinburgh for several years, they focused their advertisements on James Howe, whose name and reputation as a painter would ensure even more visitors to their new panorama. It was also noted in the advertisements that this new panorama would be presented on a very large canvas of 1688 square feet.

In addition to the paid advertisements, both newspapers ran several articles about the upcoming panorama. In one they reminded readers of the many successful earlier collaborations between Howe and Marshall which had been based on historical facts. Others went on to assure their readers that this new panorama was based on an actual survey of the battlefield by the artist who was painting the scene. It was also emphasized that this would be the first panorama of the Battle of Waterloo which would be displayed in Edinburgh. [Author’s Note:   Based on surviving records, Howe’s panorama for the Marshalls is almost certainly the first panorama of the Battle of Waterloo to be displayed anywhere in the British Isles. Henry Aston Barker’s panorama of the Battle did not go on exhibit in the Large Circle at the Leicester Square rotunda until March of 1816.]

On Friday morning, 10 November 1815, at ten o’clock, the Waterloo panorama was opened to the public in the new rotunda building. It was described as "The Grand Panoramic Painting," which captured the moment during the battle when Napoleon had thrown the last of his Republican Guard against Wellington’s infantry squares. In the distance could be seen the Prussians, advancing to lend their aid to the British. The admission charge was two shillings. For three weeks, there was a steady stream of visitors to the panorama. After that, traffic dropped off a little and the admission charge was lowered to one shilling, or five shillings for a season ticket. James Howe received £15 a day while the panorama was open in compensation for his work.

The winter of 1815 was especially cold in Edinburgh, and advertisements appeared in the newspapers advising the public that the panorama rotunda was warm inside, due to new patent stoves which heated the interior. In February of 1816, a new advertisement reminded the public that the panorama was open every day from ten o’clock to dusk each day. By February, Waterloo veterans were returning home in large numbers. That same advertisement also announced that special arrangements had been made to allow Waterloo veterans to view the panorama at no charge. Howe’s Waterloo panorama remained on view in Edinburgh through the spring of 1816.

What is not widely known is that while his first Waterloo panorama was on display, in the spring of 1816, James Howe painted a second panorama of about the same size, 2,000 square feet. This second panorama depicted the Battle of Quatre Bras, which took place two days before the main Battle of Waterloo. On 8 June 1816, the two panoramas were put on display together in the wooden rotunda in Edinburgh, and advertised at a combined size of 4,000 square feet. The dual panoramas drew a large number of visitors who came to celebrate the first anniversary of the battles. This exhibition ran until 3 July 1816. The panoramas were then carefully taken down, rolled, loaded into heavy wagons and transported to Glasgow. There, they were exhibited in a specially constructed rotunda which was built on the south side of Clyde Street, across from the City Hospital. The panoramas went on display on the morning of 8 July 1816, at ten o’clock. Viewing hours were ten o’clock to dusk every day. Admission was one shilling or five shillings for a season ticket. This exhibition coincided with the opening of the Glasgow Fair and once again, drew a large number of visitors and were very popular. When it was announced in the Glasgow newspapers on 16 November 1816, that the panoramas would close in a fortnight, an arrangement was made to allow tradespeople and children to view the panoramas for six pence during those last two weeks.

When Howe’s panoramas were taken down in Glasgow, it is believed they were put on the road to be exhibited at some of the large provincial cities, but no definite records remain. Nor have either of the panorama paintings survived. But two hundred years ago, this coming Tuesday, the first panorama of the Battle of Waterloo opened in Edinburgh to sold-out crowds. This is probably the first panorama of the battle to go in display anywhere in Britain. It went on view just over four and a half months before Henry Aston Barker debuted his own Waterloo panorama in the Large Circle of the Leicester Square rotunda in London.

In these days of instantaneous news, often with video, it is very difficult for those of us living in the twenty-first century to understand how little information was available on important events to those living during the Regency, even in large metropolitan areas. Panoramas gave people the sense they were in the middle of an event, and the Battle of Waterloo was one of the most significant events, not just of the Regency, but of the nineteenth century. Many people knew someone who was in the battle and they were eager to experience what it had been like. A panorama of the battle was as close as they could get.

Dear Regency Authors, the first Waterloo panorama might make an interesting setting for a scene or two in an upcoming Regency novel set in Edinburgh, or even for one in Glasgow. However, events in life of James Howe might also serve as a pattern for a character in a Regency romance. Perhaps the heroine is the governess caring for a young boy who loves to draw. But his scholarly, widowed father intends his heir to learn to manage the estate and has no patience for the boy’s artistic aspirations. What will happen if the boy draws in the margins of some of his father’s manuscripts because he cannot find any other paper? Or, might a young man with a natural artistic talent, but little training, be able to establish himself as a successful animal painter? During the Regency, many among the aristocracy and the gentry who bred prize cattle or fine horses could afford to have their favorite animals recorded for posterity. Perhaps this young man gets a chance to paint some of the horses of the royal stud, but his work is seen by the Prince Regent, not his blind father, and he achieves the status of painter to the Crown. Are there other aspects of Howe’s life which might add some verisimilitude to a character in a story set during the Regency?

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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