When Panoramas Made the Scene

Thanks to guest blogger Bill Hudgins for submitting the following article.  Referenced herein is one of the museum’s most prized artifacts, Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington’s 1,300ft  “Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World”The article is reprinted from the March-April 2010 issue of American Spirit, the member magazine of National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (www.dar.org).

When Panoramas Made the Scene

By Bill Hudgins

Almost a century before Thomas Edison received the first copyright for a motion picture film in 1894, panoramic painting enthralled Europe and America with “wide-screen” depictions of faraway lands, scenic wonders, urban vistas and thrilling battles.

Whether painted on vast stationary canvases mounted in circular rotundas or, later on, created on lengthy canvas sheets that could be unrolled scroll-like to spellbound viewers, panoramas enjoyed two substantial periods of popularity in the 19th century. Art historians have described them as the “silver screen” of the 1800s.

The advent of photography and then of motion pictures ended the interest in panoramas. Few have survived; the medium was inherently fragile and vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity, rough handling and, in the case of the specially designed rotundas themselves, fire and weather damage.

But in their heyday, hundreds if not thousands of panoramas flourished, serving as entertainment, moral instruction, political propaganda and newsreels. Ironically enough, the credit for inventing this massive art form belongs to a self-taught artist who specialized in painting miniatures.

On June 17, 1787, Irishman Robert Barker was granted a patent for a method of painting scenes on large curved expanses of canvas; the word “panorama” was coined later. As a self-taught artist, he had developed his own system of perspective, according to Stephen Oettermann in The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium (Zone Books, 1997).

There are a number of anecdotes about how the idea came to Barker; what is certain is that it took several attempts before he figured out how to adjust perspective so the view appeared lifelike. While Robert Barker tinkered with the technique, his son, Henry, did the actual painting.

Their first successful work in 1788 showed a view of Edinburgh, Scotland, as seen from an observatory atop Calton Hill outside the city. Compared with later panoramas, it was tiny—just 25 feet in diameter. The work drew only modest interest, but encouraged the Barkers to attempt a bigger work. At a specially designed, though ultimately temporary, rotunda in London’s Leicester Square in January 1792, they opened their “Panorama of London” as seen from the Albion Steam Flour Mills near Blackfriars Bridge.

Originally painted as only a half-circle, the spectacle was a smash hit. The Barkers subsequently expanded it to a full circle, and visitors paid as much as a shilling each to marvel at it. The audience cut across economic, educational and class lines, making the panorama a true mass medium from the beginning, Oettermann wrote.

Just as Hollywood loves a sequel, the Barkers immediately began working on a bigger, bolder project. Across Leicester Square, they built a permanent, two-level rotunda that could show two panoramas at the same time—a smaller one in the upper level and a bigger one below. A large central column helped support the roof, which featured a double set of skylights to illuminate both panoramas.

On September 5, 1793, the rotunda opened to display the 10,000-square-foot “Grand Fleet at Spithead in 1791,” a view of the Russian fleet off the entrance to this harbor on the English Channel. Viewers stood upon a platform that resembled the poop deck of a frigate, further enhancing the reality of the scene. England’s King George III and Queen Charlotte inspected the panorama in May 1794; the queen was reported to have felt seasick from seeing so much water.

This triumph secured the Barkers’ position and fortune, and they went on to produce many others. The art form quickly crossed the English Channel and, after Barker’s patent lapsed in 1802, a panorama craze swept Europe.

Not Just Paint on Canvas

In The Painted Panorama (Abrams, 2000) author Bernard Comment defines the art form as “a continuous circular representation hung on the walls of a rotunda specifically constructed to contain it. Panoramas had to be so true to life that they could be confused with reality.”

The design of the building and the setting of the exhibit itself also contributed to the illusion. The artist wanted to create the sensation of being immersed in a scene that was created in an enclosed space but nonetheless conveyed the illusion of openness and broad vistas, Comment wrote. The painting, the building and the exhibit space had to work in harmony to divest the viewer of outside distractions and focus attention on the surroundings.

Early rotundas tended to be relatively small buildings, according to Oettermann, so the illusion of moving large distances at each step made some viewers dizzy. As a result, rotundas got larger, until by the 1830s, most new ones measured about 100 feet in diameter and 45 to 50 feet in height. The rotunda and the work intended for it were inextricably linked. Depending on the venue, panoramas could stretch more than 300 feet in circumference and 40 to 60 feet in height. The bare canvas could weigh 4 tons; the finished work might weigh twice that, after all the paint had been applied.

Rotundas had skylights for natural illumination and a central viewing platform positioned so the view appeared natural and in proper perspective. Visitors typically walked down a darkened hallway from the entrance to the viewing platform; this helped them to forget the outside world and adjust to the lighting.

Many consider panoramas, and especially moving panoramas, as precursors to film, notes Phil Wickham, curator of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at the University of Exeter in England.

“The link to cinema is, firstly, that they were often used as transforming images through movement or light,” Wickham says, “and secondly, that when looking at a panorama, the intention is that you are subsumed into the image in the same way that the cinema audience is only conscious of the world on the screen and not what is around them.”

As visitors stepped out onto the platform, they confronted a scene that appeared to vanish to a faraway horizon. The skylights and roof above them were concealed by a canopy or similarly suspended “ceiling” that extended to the top of the painting. Below the platform, the panoramist used natural objects such as soil, plants and other materials to blend with and tie into the image on the wall.

For instance, in Edourard Castres’ winter panorama of a defeated French army surrendering its arms at the Swiss border during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, artificial snow covers the space, and mannequin soldiers huddle around a small fire, just as their painted counterparts do. A real split-rail fence runs from below the platform to the wall, where it meets a painted fence that disappears into the distance.

Barker’s London panorama included platforms and other architectural embellishments to the walkways; besides the poop-deck viewing platform, his Spithead panorama showcased other nautical and seaside elements.

A Matter of Perspective

However elaborate the foreground, the painting was of paramount importance, and by far, the most difficult and complex creation. Oettermann described the laborious process of preparing and painting the canvas:

“The painting was composed of separate canvas panels sewn into a continuous strip that was then tightly rolled up and then slowly unrolled, stretched and secured at the top to a wood rail under the skylights. The bottom edge was secured, and weights hung at intervals to keep it taut. The canvas was moistened and then painted with a base coat and allowed to dry. It shrank as it dried, and as it did, it bowed out in the center to create a tight surface that was as much as 3 feet closer to the observation platform than either the top or bottom. The canvas was thus curved both vertically and horizontally.”

Barker’s genius lay in figuring out a method of transferring images on flat paper to curved surfaces. The process started with picking out a vantage point and creating detailed sketches of the scenes around it out to the horizon. The vantage point was usually elevated, which further complicated the perspective. Part of the solution was to impose a grid on the sketches and the canvas.

After application of another base coat, the entire surface was divided into a grid. Workers rolled a scaffold around the circumference of the canvas while assistants traced horizontal lines with charcoal. This was tiring, tedious and finicky work, as the curve of the canvas had to be factored in so to observers on the central platform, the lines appeared equidistant from each other. Workers made vertical lines by pressing plumb lines darkened with charcoal against the canvas.

Artists used grid coordinates on their flat sketches to transfer the design to the double-curved canvas surface. It was almost impossible to do this while standing close to the canvas. Some artists tied their pencils to long bamboo poles and sketched from the observation platform.

The artists had to coordinate scenes and colors with the kind of natural light that would shine upon them—for instance, they had to avoid placing shadowy scenes where bright sunlight would fall. And the scenes had to show well, regardless of whether it was cloudy or sunny.

It took teams of artists to paint a panorama, and the process of transferring sketches painted on flat surfaces to curved surfaces demanded continuous adjustments in perspective. The designer or lead artist and his subordinates directed the painters from the viewing platform—the only place where they could see whether the perspective actually worked. Artists specialized in details such as skies, animals, soldiers and weapons, which enabled them to create new panoramas efficiently and quickly, despite the technical challenges.

Panoramic Appeal

Panoramas became popular during a time of widespread social and political upheaval. Democratic fervor ran high: The United States had achieved independence and was in the process of creating its Constitution, while France remained in the throes of its own revolution. Science, rationalism and the early stages of the Industrial Revolution were transforming ways of thinking. Propelled by industrialization, towns became cities, and cities became sprawling giants.

Urban scenes such as those of London or Edinburgh were favorite themes. Comment asserts in his book that panoramas became popular because, with the explosive growth of cities, neither a city’s longtime residents nor its new arrivals truly knew what their city looked like.

By providing easily grasped overviews of the rapidly expanding urban landscape, panoramas restored a sense of control—a grasp of their surroundings—that the viewers felt they had lost.

Urbanites also had begun to feel closed in, and by affording them a broad vista, panoramas metaphorically let them get away from it all. Viewers also developed an appetite for war and battle scenes, especially those that showed their nation’s successes, as well as for scenes of distant lands and cities. Comment argues that both these subjects helped foster national pride during an era of military turmoil and imperial ambitions.

The new art form appealed to, and could be grasped by, all classes. It wasn’t fine art, but more of an illustration on a grand scale, with a premium on bright, bold colors. The amount of detail alone was so staggering that it overwhelmed the senses.

The subject matter sometimes made it impossible to devote time and talent to fine details. Panoramas often served as the 19th-century equivalent of newsreels in describing distant battles or momentous events. Panorama painters had to keep up with current events, so exhibits changed regularly. Some artists even painted over old panoramas hung in circular studios while their most recent work hung in a rotunda.

Finally, Wickham notes that most everyone loves a spectacle, and panoramas were spectacular. “Viewers were surrounded by these huge images. Panoramas also were a way of bringing the world to the audience—many depicted places that people would never have seen or current events they wished to learn about.”

Moving Panoramas

Although stationary panoramas required specially built exhibit spaces and were difficult to move, it was not uncommon for artists to sell their work to another exhibitor after the initial run ended. The Barkers, for instance, sold their London and Spithead panoramas, which were exhibited on the Continent in temporary display rotundas.

But the sheer size of panoramas and the difficulty of preventing damage to the canvases limited the ability to take these shows on the road. The moving panorama provided a solution to this problem.

Moving panoramas did not require specially built buildings or display halls, and because the surface was flat, the artist didn’t need to create unusual perspectives. Though bulky, they were also far easier to transport and stage than traditional panoramas, wrote Tom Hardiman, former curator at the Saco Museum in Saco, Maine, in an essay for the catalogue “The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress,” which accompanied a 1999 exhibition of the same title at the Montclair, N.J., Art Museum.

Moving panoramas were particularly popular in America, starting with John Banvard’s moving panorama of a voyage down the Mississippi River that toured in America starting in 1846, and then in England in 1848, Hardiman wrote. His success launched a flood of moving panorama shows.

Although many were produced, only a few survive today in museums, and those are far too fragile to show as originally designed. Two of the best examples are the “The Grand Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress,” also known as the “Bunyan Tableaux,” in the Saco Museum, and “Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” at the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling Museum.

According to the Saco Museum’s Web site, the 800-foot-long Pilgrim’s Progress panorama was thought lost for 100 years. It was the brainchild of two members of the National Academy of Design, Edward Harrison May and Joseph Kyle, who in 1848 decided to capitalize on the immense popularity of moving panoramas and John Bunyan’s allegory.

“In the religious revival of the time, John Bunyan’s 1678 allegory of a spiritual pilgrimage experienced its own revival. In the fine arts circles familiar to May and Kyle, Pilgrim’s Progress became a popular subject for formal academic paintings,” according to the Web site.

Written in 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress became enormously popular in the 19th century. The story of Christian and Christina’s flight from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City contains vivid imagery, ideal for translating from the page to canvas. May and Kyle recruited fellow National Academicians to assist in drawing or designing some of the scenes, which adds considerably to its value to art historians.

When displayed before an audience, it was unwound from one enormous wooden spool across the stage to the other spool, while a narrator described the action, and music played in the background.

The original work comprised 54 scenes on a 1,200-foot-long, 8-foot-high length of canvas. It opened at Washington Hall in New York in November 1850 to critical and popular acclaim, and grossed nearly $100,000 in its first six months.

Realizing they had a hit on their hands, May and Kyle immediately began work on a second version that was completed in April 1851. It was about 400 feet shorter than the original and contained some revised scenes. It was exhibited around the country for the next 45 years until being donated to the Saco Museum in 1896.

Incredible as it may seem, the huge “scroll” was misplaced at some point in the early 20th century. Museum officials rediscovered it in 1996 in a storage vault and began a partial conservation and exhibition before returning it to storage.

In December 2009, the museum received one of 44 Save America’s Treasures grants awarded by the National Park Service. The $51,940 grant will be used to create a full-size functional replica suitable for performance, says Leslie Rounds, executive director of the Dyer Library and Saco Museum. A video will also be produced, complete with a voice narration and music, to be used as an interactive program in the galleries and also on the museum’s Web site.

The Pilgrim’s Progress panorama is valuable not only because of the caliber of artists who contributed to its creation, but also, the museum’s site says, because it is “a missing link to one of the rare moments in American history when the divergent worlds of formal academic art, popular commercial entertainment, religious thought and literature came together in a single object.”

Whale of a Work

“Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” was created by Benjamin Russell, who had served as cooper on the whaleship Kutusoff and had compiled a sketchbook full of scenes from his voyage, and Caleb Purrington, a sign painter in New Bedford. Starting in 1845, they created a moving panorama 1,300 feet long and 8-and-a-half feet high.

The voyage started from New Bedford, then the preeminent American whaling port. It took viewers to the tip of South America and around Cape Horn to the Pacific, and to exotic ports of call such as Honolulu, before returning. It played to packed houses in New Bedford, of course, and also had a hugely successful road tour.

One scene showed a scandalous episode in U.S. whaling history: the November 1842 mutiny aboard the whaleship Sharon. In her history of that ill-fated voyage, In the Wake of Madness (Algonquin, 2003), Joan Druett notes the panorama prominently features the actions of the Sharon’s third mate, Benjamin Clough. The artists drew upon a newspaper article based on Clough’s account of the mutiny and his self-described role in ultimately recapturing the ship. It’s unknown whether Clough and other crew members saw the exhibition when it was in New Bedford, though it’s possible. It’s also possible, but unknown, that Herman Melville saw the show because he was in New Bedford during its run.

Unlike the Pilgrim’s Progress panorama, the whaling saga enjoyed only a few years of success. After opening in December 1848, it toured until 1851, when Russell put it into storage. It was briefly shown again after he died in 1885, then sold. It was donated in 1918 to the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and later acquired by the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Circle’s End

Panoramas enjoyed great popularity in the early 19th century, and then declined before enjoying a second round later on, helped in part by the advent of moving panoramas. But the development of photography, magic lantern shows and ultimately movies turned the once-popular medium into a quaint novelty.

The United States has a few static panoramas, including the Gettysburg Cyclorama (www.gettysburg foundation.org) in Pennsylvania and the Atlanta Cyclorama (www.atlantacyclorama.org), depicting the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, in Georgia. The Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles presents contemporary 360-degree works in a renovated theater in homage to the older art form. Its Web site, http://www.panoramaonview.org, includes a list of extant panoramas around the world.

Two other moving panoramas also survive in the United States. One, the “Garibaldi Panorama” at Brown University, depicts the life of the Italian hero and is being digitized for future generations to enjoy. The other, known as the “Mormon Panorama,” is housed at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art in Utah. Its panels have been separated and framed.

One response to “When Panoramas Made the Scene

  1. Wonderful Post! Here’s another institution in the United States with a moving panorama in their collections – The Saco Museum in Maine has an 800foot-long image of Pilgrim’s Progress: http://www.dyerlibrarysacomuseum.org/mus_pilgrims.shtml

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