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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Panorama: virtual reality in the nineteenth century

Today we can put on a virtual headset and float through the International Space Station or watch a video that takes us on a virtual tour of the Faroe Islands. This seems like an incredibly modern concept, but the nineteenth century had its own immersive experiences that transported people to places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

The invention of the panorama was a significant change in visual culture. The panorama was arguably the most popular visual spectacle from the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries. It’s essentially a huge painting of thousands of square feet that is hung on the inside of a circular room. Viewers paid an entrance fee and typically entered by way of a tunnel and staircase to a raised platform where they could see a painting 360 degrees around them. A barrier prevented viewers from getting too close, and they usually depicted landscapes, city views, or battle scenes.

In 1787, Robert Barker, an Irish-born painter living in Edinburgh got a patent for his invention of “an entirely new contrivance or apparatus…for the purpose of displaying views of nature at large, by oil-painting, fresco, watercolors, crayons, or any other mode of painting or drawing.” In 1791, he coined the word panorama–Greek for pan (all) and horama (view.)

It was an illusion designed to make the viewer feel like that they were actually there. They were essentially the IMAX’s theatres of their time. It’s hard for us to imagine how unprecedented such an effect was. International travel was a luxury only the wealthy could afford, and in wartime it was a near-impossibility. Of course there were no photographs or moving images, but there were also few paintings accessible to everyone, and prints and engravings weren’t always in color. Even climbing a hill or a tall building wasn’t a life experience every person had, so to have an immersive experience like the panorama was incredibly unique.

This is the first true panoramic image Barker displayed in London. Robert Barker’s son Henry was sent onto the roof of Albion Mills to make the earliest studies for this work in the winter of 1790–91 (before it burned down) and the panorama was put on display in 1792. It showed visitors a view of the cities of London and Westminster from high on the roof of the Albion Flour Mill overlooking Blackfriars Bridge. Viewers could see the bridge, the river traffic, and sites like St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Parliament and Whitehall.

A panorama was exhibited for the season and then a new painting was hung, so viewers would go every year to see the latest one—unless you were one of those who experienced panorama sickness, like Queen Charlotte when she first went. On a royal visit in 1793 to a panorama depicting the British navy at Spithead, Queen Charlotte was reported to have said ‘that the sight of this picture made her feel sea-sick’.

cutout view of Barker's Rotunda early 1800s.

Barker moved from a few different locations until finally moving into a specialty-built, enormous dual-level brick rotunda northeast of Leicester Fields in 1793. The rotunda had a conical roof of glass that provided light to the two viewing chambers below. The building housed a rotunda ninety feet in diameter and fifty-seven feet high, allowing for the observation of a 360-degree painted surface of more than ten thousand square feet.

Other panoramas existed after Barker’s patent ran out in 1802, but his had two viewing chambers, and also the reputation for the most realistic displays. His rotunda could show two different scenes simultaneously: a large circle at the bottom, able to display panoramas of 10,000 square feet; and a smaller one directly above, which could accommodate panoramas of 2,700 square feet. After viewing the main panorama in the Large Circle, some intrepid visitors would continue the climb to view the smaller panorama in the Upper Circle.

guide sheet that pointed out the sights

Panoramas satisfied curiosity about the wider world when travel was difficult and they also represented current affairs, such as The Battle of Trafalgar or the Coronation of George IV in a time before illustrated newspapers let alone a newsreel. Napoleonic War scenes were as popular as picturesque ones.

“View of the Battle of Waterloo,” hung from March 1816 to May 1818, and again from October 1820 to May 1821. Sadly, none of Barker’s original panoramas remain. They provided a sense of virtual tourism as well as a means of fostering national pride. Barker’s Panorama remained in Leicester Square until 1863.

What do you think of this popular regency attraction? Barker's panorama was a fixture for over seventy years. What do you think your favorite regency and victorian characters would have made of the panorama?

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