Thomas, "Representing Paris: History and Actuality at the London Panoramas"

Representing Paris: History and Actuality at the London Panoramas

Sophie Thomas
Ryerson University

1.        This paper explores questions related to the representation of history and actuality at the popular panoramas of the early nineteenth century, drawing on at least two meanings of the term “actuality”: its reference to existing objective fact, and to realism in representation. It focuses on London and Paris, key cities for the development of the panorama as a form of urban representation, as both sites and subjects for exhibition. At the center, however, of this confluence of place, event, and panoramic illusion making, is an examination of the popularity of Paris as a subject at the panoramas of London. A range of complex factors contributed to its prominence, from the city’s architectural beauty and urban sophistication, to the fear and anxiety it aroused—for political reasons—in English observers. Not surprisingly, many representations of Paris coincided with periods of war or revolution. For example, in 1802 and 1803, during the Napoleonic wars, at least two pictures of Paris were on display in London; in 1814, the battle of Paris was shown at Leicester Square; and as Richard Altick elaborates, the three-day revolt of 1830 was represented at the Queen’s Bazaar in 1832, in the form of “eight grand diorama views, painted on many thousand feet of canvas” (179). Also in 1832, the Diorama presented a view of Paris from Montmartre, and in 1848, the “Colosseum” in Regent’s Park opened a showing of Paris by night, at the very moment the city was in the grip of revolution. Foreign cities were popular subjects at the panoramas generally, but the representations of Paris are instructive because of the strong connection they make between scene and event, and for what this connection tells us about the descriptive procedures of the panorama as a form.

2.        While this special consideration of Paris offers a model for thinking more widely about the relationship between the Romantic viewer and urban experience, it also allows us to address larger questions related to the problematic status as well as the popular appeal of both historical and contemporary events, as subjects for the panorama—subjects that engaged a powerful desire to see and know things as they are (or were), while necessitating an equally powerful element of illusory representation. In addition to assessing the panorama as a popular entertainment, with special links to the city as both context and subject, this paper will explore the ideological inflection of representations of Paris in London, and link these to the importance of the panorama as a medium for conveying certain kinds of visual—and historical—knowledge. None of these vast rolls of painted canvas survive, however, and what we must principally examine are the printed explanations that accompanied the exhibitions (which generally included a small-scale key map or drawing), and contemporary notices and reviews. There is thus an additional element to include here that is often overlooked in discussions of the panorama, namely the relationship between the visual representation and the written text. These interdependent regimes of description bear in revealing ways on the effectiveness of the panorama as a medium for the representation of history in the making, while pointing to the tension in the very medium of the panorama between documentary and spectacular realism.

3.        The term “panorama” now has a broad range of meanings, from “an unbroken view of the whole region surrounding an observer” to “a comprehensive survey or presentation of a subject” (OED). More metaphorically still, the term can refer to “a continuously passing scene; a mental vision in which a series of images passes before the mind’s eye.” That these meanings, taken together, suggest an alignment of perception, knowledge, and imagination, is far from accidental given their source in the “Panorama,” a form of visual spectacle that presented, in full circular form, a three-hundred and sixty degree view of its subject. The invention of an Irish painter, Robert Barker (1739-1806), who referred to it in his 1787 patent as “La Nature à Coup d’Oeil” (nature at a glance, or view at a glance), it aimed to offer an “all embracing view,” and simulate the experience of being “on the very spot.” [1]  Barker’s patent included details about the structure and layout of the building, specifying that it should be circular, top-lit, and with a central viewing area normally entered from below, so as not to obstruct the illusion. These details are clearly visible in the cross-section of the Leicester Square rotunda (figure 1) prepared by Robert Mitchell, the building’s architect. Great lengths were taken to conceal any visual borders or frames, not only around the circular interior walls, but also at the level of floor and ceiling, where the sky seemed to disappear behind the upper canopy or roof of the viewing area. In the roof of the rotunda, a velum, or umbrella-like ceiling, concealed a large glass opening that lit the painting with diffuse natural light, which appeared to emanate from the view.

4.        The strength of the illusion depended on other factors too. Apart from strict fidelity to documentary detail, the creators took steps to dissociate viewers from external reference points, and to induce disorientation to a degree that would heighten their receptivity to the illusion. To that end, visitors would enter through winding stairways and/or dark passageways, which, by dilating the pupils, would also augment the first impression upon entering the lit viewing area. Viewers experienced disorientation and visual disturbance for other reasons, which also enhanced the power of the illusion: one, for example, was the difference between the represented distance of the painted scene—the illusion of depth of field—and the relative proximity to the viewer of the painted wall. Another was the sheer profusion of visual detail, which surrounded the viewer completely, and undermined any single, stable viewpoint. This surfeit, and the inherently excessive and absorbing nature of the illusion, were the very things that made the panorama so sensational, if occasionally more than a little unsettling.

5.        The most popular subjects of the panoramas of Barker, his successors, and his competitors, right through the nineteenth century, included grand or imposing landscapes (such as the Swiss Alps or the Bay of Naples) and cities of particular cultural or historic note, such as Rome, Venice, Palermo, Pompeii, Athens, and Constantinople. Some were clearly associated with the Grand Tour, and in these cases the familiarity of those places made them appealing, particularly if visitors could relive earlier experiences in memory. In both landscape and city categories, conversely, far-flung, exotic locales (such as Calcutta, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, or the Arctic), where spectators were unlikely ever to travel themselves, exerted a strong pull. Important contemporary events were also extraordinarily popular at the panorama, particularly wars, where battles and naval scenes clearly fed nationalist interest (for example, the battles of the Nile, of Copenhagen, Salamanca, Vittoria, Moscow, and Navarino). [2]  According to William Galperin, the various engagements of the Napoleonic wars made up close to half of the Panorama’s subjects until well into the 1820s (43). Robert Burford, who took over the Leicester Square Panorama in the late 1820s, was said to have chronicled his times on canvas, often bringing events to the public within months of their occurrence (Eekelen 19). What the panorama could offer was not simply the enticement of an impressively realistic visual display, but direct knowledge of places and historical events otherwise inaccessible to sight or understanding—not just the promise of seeing, then, but also of gaining insight from the broader viewpoint that “panoramic” vision affords.

Panoramic vision and the self-reflecting city

6.        London and Paris were both important cities for the development of the panorama as a form of urban representation: both had a population base substantial enough to support several rotundas, underscoring the close link between the panorama and the modern metropolis. [3]  Both cities, interestingly, featured panoramic representations of themselves among the very first productions to be displayed, thus revealing the possibilities for self-representation to be a particularly strong attraction of the form. Barker’s “View at a glance of the Cities of London and Westminster” went on display in June of 1791, in a temporary rotunda near Leicester Square; a larger version of the view of “London” was mounted in the upper circle of Barker’s new purpose-built rotunda in 1795. This view was taken from the top of Albion Mill, Blackfriars—a viewpoint that, although industrial in nature, included the peripheral countryside, and important city buildings, as well as the local activity along the river Thames. [4]  The mill, as the highest point then existing along the south bank of the Thames, and at the foot of its newest bridge, was a spectacle in its own right (see Ellis 139). In Paris, meanwhile, the very first French panorama was a view from the pavilion in the garden of the Tuileries (Oettermann 143f). Making use of this vantage point—historically the residence of the Kings of France—effectively created a new mode of looking by which, as François Robichon points out, “all citizens could literally dominate the city” (83). Commentators have speculated about the extent to which the panoramas of “home,” in contrast to those of more exotic and distant locales, may have given pleasure precisely because they allowed for a re-appropriation of places from which residents had come to feel increasingly alienated.

7.         A great many cities and towns, in fact, inaugurated their panoramas with views of themselves, and Bernard Comment argues that for most viewers, these self-mirroring displays were less about an experience of “aesthetic gratification” than to entertain the “more precious illusion that they were masters of the world, of collective space; in the panorama, a city was a calm configuration arranged around the spectators; they thus were able to re-appropriate the town which, when they were in it, always gave them the impression that they were lost” (Comment 136). This “compensatory or atoning” role was primarily a feature of panoramas in large urban centers like Paris and London, which both experienced substantial geographic and demographic expansion (137-8). It was less a feature of smaller centers, such as Berlin, where the inaugural panorama of “Berlin” was not especially popular, or indeed Hamburg, where a critic wondered why, really, the inhabitants should “feel compelled to go to a rotunda in order to gaze at a view they could quite easily see from their kitchens” (138).

8.         In the case of the larger metropolis, however, the panorama also served to idealize urban scenes that industrialization was rendering unsavoury. One way it did this was by making the countryside within the city, its green spaces, more visible. The other was by highlighting the presence of the countryside around the city, as a kind of natural perimeter or frame that restored a balance between urban and rural, the close-up and the distant. This view of the city was “new and improved,” but of course idealized; paradoxically, Comment argues, this scene “compensated for the crowd’s feeling of alienation while reinforcing that alienation by creating illusions that were false” (137). Moreover, in addition to how the balance of nature was restored beyond and within the city, the panorama “remade” the urban fabric of the city as a natural landscape. The panorama, as Walter Benjamin noted, represents the attempt of the city dweller “to bring the countryside into town”: in this way the city “opens out to landscape” (6). Certainly in successful panoramas such as Horner’s representation of London, taken from the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and displayed in the Regent’s Park Colosseum in 1829 (figure 2), the sprawling metropolis could be marshalled into view like a landscape. As Roland Barthes points out, the belvedere normally offers a lookout upon a particularly fine view of nature. In the case of a viewpoint from something like the Eiffel Tower, or indeed a panorama, the city is made into nature: the swarming of men becomes a landscape, where what is at stake is a “new Nature, that of human space” (Barthes, “Eiffel Tower” 241).

9.         Meanwhile, the panorama was clearly a place where the illusion of command, the logic of superiority and compensation, was fundamentally undermined by the immersive and detailed nature of the “all-embracing” view, by the sheer multiplicity of places to look. Comment suggests that panoramas were appealing because of this mixture of feelings in the viewer, from dominance on the one hand to dissolution on the other (138). A similar dynamic is also elaborated in Barthes’ essay on the Eiffel Tower. With the bird’s-eye viewpoint spreading the world before us like a text, the “bliss of altitude” is experienced alongside an active desire to decipher (244); in effect, the dream-like and the documentary features of the view exert a double pull. For Barthes, the proliferation of sights characteristic of “panoramic vision” engages our powers of intellection: the world before, beneath and around us must be read as much as perceived. Thus a new sensibility of vision arises. Where once we were immersed in sensation, “thrust in the midst” of urban experience, the new architecture of vision created by towers (and aviation), for example, allows us to “transcend sensation and to see things in their structure” (242).

10.        Yet looking at Paris, for example, from the heights of the Eiffel Tower involves a struggle between knowledge and perception, as the elements before the viewer (the sensations he or she directly experiences) combine with memory to create a simulacrum of place in the mind: “the elements are in front of you, real, ancestral, but nonetheless disoriented by the total space in which they are given to you, for this space was [previously] unknown to you” (243). Thus we begin to appreciate the dialectical quality of panoramic vision: “euphoric”—yet also in need of active de-coding. The panoramic vision of the Panorama is, however, both like and unlike the view of the known city from the tower-top, since the viewpoints at the panorama were more various in terms of elevation; some scenes were indeed represented from great height, but the panorama in general also aimed at surrounding its viewers and thereby immersing them. It placed them both above and within the view, offering to their eyes a rationalized landscape that was perceptibly contained and structured, but which could only be experienced piece-meal and irrationally. Panoramas were, moreover, indoor exhibitions of the outdoors. In terms of urban space, this creates an additional fold: as Benjamin reflects in The Arcades Project, “the interest of the panorama is in seeing the true city—the city indoors” (532).

11.        Horner’s 1829 panorama of London, in which, as figure 2 shows, the city stretches away below a viewpoint situated on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is a good example of these features of the panorama, and of “panoramic vision” broadly understood. During a period of restorative work on the bell tower in 1822-24, Horner had been able to spend many months on scaffolding erected at the very top of the cathedral, producing some 2000 detailed sketches. The accuracy was enhanced by Horner’s practice of verifying the actual disposition and details of buildings, streets and squares, by subsequently visiting them all on foot. Horner installed telescopes on the viewing platform precisely so that those tiny particulars, invisible at such distance to the naked eye, might be duly appreciated. So effective was this that some visitors, while straining to locate their own addresses, maintained that the miniscule people depicted in the streets and squares actually moved. In the cross-sectional view offered by the 1829 lithograph, in which we see the upper part of the pavilion from a painter’s platform suspended from the roof ridge, the illusion and its mechanism—the “interior” and “exterior” of the representation, so to speak—co-exist. The simulation of London is seen as though from the dome of St. Paul’s, complete with simulated scaffolding. This panoramic simulacrum, intriguingly, did not include the Colosseum itself, since it had not been built at the time the sketches were made. However, visitors to Horner’s Colosseum could round out their visit by ascending a stairway to an open air gallery at the very top of the rotunda, which offered a view—outdoors—of London, including of course the prominent domes of the actual St. Paul’s (see Altick 141-50 and Otto 283-92).

12.        The perspectival snapshot of the Colosseum captured in Ackermann’s lithograph shows roughly one-quarter of the whole panorama, a portion in which London disappears suggestively to the west along the Thames, from a stable viewpoint. Nevertheless, it hints at the Barthesian “bliss of altitude,” and the sublime effect of both surfeit and surround, at their fullest extent. While the urban landscape has been undeniably naturalized, the relationship between the Romantic viewer and urban experience is predicated here on the powerful place of the city, of one’s own city, at the panorama. Arguably, the act of “self” representation involved in exhibiting “London” for Londoners, or “Paris” for Parisians, emphasizes the mimetic as well as documentary nature of the panorama, and particularly underscores the circuitous relationship of the illusory (the imaginary, the euphoric) to the real: the tension between the dream-like space of the panorama, and the “actual” world it depicted. The pull of panoramic images between these poles also comes across in contemporary reviews, where their power to transport the viewer is invariably celebrated. And yet, the recreation of the actual, the historical, at the panorama, problematically engages both a powerful desire to see and know things as they are—or were—and displays the fundamental instability inherent in the illusory nature of the representation.

Viewing Paris in London

13.         Paris was of particular interest to panorama-goers in the early nineteenth century because it crossed at least two categories of popular appeal. Not only was it remarkable for its qualities as a city, in architectural and cultural terms, but it was also the scene of extraordinary political and social upheaval: the scene of history in the making. On the first point, the pamphlets that accompany the panoramas promoted it as “the most splendid and luxurious of modern cities”; it is:

[. . .] universally acknowledged to be one of the largest and finest cities of Europe. In the number and splendour of its public edifices it is unrivalled. Its national establishments of Learning and Science, magnificent Museums and Cabinets of the arts, and vast collected stores of human knowledge in the extensive libraries, have rendered it the admiration of the world. (“Description” 1829: 3)
While the hyperbolic rhetoric is typical of the tracts, of more interest is how they play up the appeal of Paris as a “theatre” of action, and by 1848 the opening preamble adds the observation that “the extraordinary and unexpected political and social change that has just been achieved, has placed Paris prominently before the whole world; and the striking events that each day develops, invests it with a peculiar and absorbing interest” (“Description” 1848: 3). The simultaneous emergence in the late eighteenth century of the panorama and the French Revolution is of more than passing interest, and we may understandably look to panoramic representations of Paris, as shown in London, for indications of how British onlookers chose to regard the French capital during the years that followed.

14.        Henry Aston Barker’s “View of Paris, from Montmartre,” which he exhibited at his Panorama in the Strand in 1814 (figure 3), was one of a clutch of exhibitions that followed the [first] defeat of Napoleon by Allied forces; it thus capitalized on both intense public interest and freer access to the city. The explanation tells us that:

[T]he View was taken by Mr. Barker in the month of May, when the Allied Armies held possession of the Barriers, and the Heights commanding the City; and, though there were some years since two Views of the interior of Paris exhibited by his late Father, he hopes this general View will be acceptable to the Public. (“Explanation” 1814: 3)
Montmartre of course offers an excellent “general view” of the city, and is, as Barker points out, “in itself the most picturesque of the Heights, as well as the nearest.” Few visitors leave Paris, he notes, “without visiting Montmartre, to take a view of the City and Country from that eminence, which commands the whole.” Not only is the London panorama-goer following explicitly in the footsteps of the continental tourist, he or she is situated in a position of “command” that, in this instance, has military resonance.

15.         As the eye—or rather the pen—of the describer (for this is after all the accompanying text that we examine) sweeps across Paris and its surrounding countryside, things are detailed in the order of their encounter. This makes for a miscellaneous sounding array of sights that takes the form at times of a perfunctory list. Items include, for example, (No. 2) “Two Plots of Ground on which the Cossacks bivouacked for a few nights after the capitulation of Paris. People are represented raking the straw off one of them: the other was set fire to” (4). Or, (No. 3), “The Heights of Belleville and Romainville, where the severest of the late battle was fought” (4). Clearly these are sites of interest primarily because of their links to recent events; other sites are noted, one suspects, simply because they are encompassed by the view and draw the viewer’s attention, such as the new slaughter-houses “built by order of Bonaparte.” Still others are more mediated sights, such as the cathedral of Notre Dame, or the former Church of St. Geneviève—“the finest in Paris”—that has now become the Pantheon, “converted, during the Revolution into a grand Mausoleum for great men who deserve the honours of their country; and to receive their statues, monuments, &c.” The pamphlet reports that “All attributes of a church have been removed; and a new pavement of marble was nearly completed before Bonaparte lost his power” (5).

16.         Many of the buildings chosen for description are related in some way to recent history (the Place de la Concorde inevitably arouses the reflection that this was where “the unfortunate Louis the Sixteenth and his Queen were beheaded” [8]), or connected to some longstanding military or governmental purpose. There is, for example, a particularly lengthy description of Les Invalides—the Hospital of Invalids, that “noble edifice [that was] one of the many great works of Louis the Fourteenth” (7). Napoleon’s extensive public building works, from bridges to monuments, also receive considerable attention (“Paris abounds with new public buildings, some of which are just began, others half built, and some nearly completed” [9]), such as new barracks, new palaces, the new Legislative Assembly. The extensions to the Louvre are pointed out, as is the nearby Triumphal Column “erected by order of Bonaparte in honour of the Grand Army and the Campaign of 1805, which terminated in the conquest of Germany in three months.” This column, an imitation of Trajan’s column in Rome, sported a 10-foot statue of Napoleon, which was removed by the Allied forces upon their arrival in Paris—and replaced by a flag-pole upon which the “Royal Standard” was hoisted. None of this information is as neutral, none of these appearances as natural, as the descriptive prose of the pamphlet might as first sight suggest.

17.         The signs of recent history are everywhere visible in this panorama of Paris and its environs, in traces of unfinished monuments, such as a Temple of Victory, of which only the stumps remain (an ironic case that suggestively blurs the line between a ruin and something under construction). The more egregious erasures and alterations are not visible, and most viewers would require the supplementation of the text, which takes obvious pains to spell these out. It is also necessary at times for the description to clarify certain elements within the view that are particularly contingent, or at least not self-evident. One of the final items catalogued here are the city walls, which the viewer may trace in the distance, and outer roads, where “the Cossacks and other troops of the allied armies are represented parading about, [. . .] as they frequently did at the time the View was taken” (10-11). The nationalist inflection of this account comes out unambiguously in the further observation that these troops “observed the strictest discipline” and committed comparatively few depredations: “according to every appearance, no great army, possessing themselves of an enemy’s capital, ever behaved better” (11). Like most media reports, the tracts take few pains to conceal their ideological agenda.

18.         The following year (1815), again at his panorama in the Strand, Barker exhibited another view of Paris. The view this time was of “The Interior of the City of Paris,” and was taken “from the end of the Palace of the Tuileries next to the river, and varies considerably from all the views that have hitherto been painted of that city” (“Explanation” 1815: 3). The accompanying description details the buildings, bridges and monuments that occupy the more central parts of the city with occasional references to outlying areas, such as to “the Bute de Chaumont, where the severest of the late battle was fought” (4), or to the heights of Montmartre, “the subject of the last Painting exhibited in England” (12). There are however fewer references to recent revolutionary events—and rather more to the presence of the restored monarchy. For example, the description of the triumphal arch that was erected to commemorate (along with the triumphal column) the campaign of 1805 mentions that “[p]revious to the surrender of Paris to the allies, there were inscriptions in raised letters, gilt, descriptive of the campaign, on marble tablets in the upper part of each side and end, but they were cut off, and the marble left smooth.” Some pieces of history, then, have once again been subtracted; others meanwhile, have been added, for the panorama depicts the coach of “his majesty Louis XVIIIth [. . .] having passed through the arch, [while] her royal highness the duchess d’Angoulème is on the other side, just entering” (5-6).

19.         Two further panoramas of Paris were shown in London, in 1829 and 1848, either during or on the eve of revolutions in the French capital, and thus at moments of particular historical interest. In 1848, in addition to the depiction at the Panorama, the Colosseum in Regent’s Park exhibited a dramatic view of Paris by night, under moonlight. Underscoring this topicality, the London Illustrated News commented that “[a]ll the points where barricades were erected in the June insurrection, and where the carnage was hottest, are clearly indicated, thus giving a greater degree of historical interest to this great picture” (Altick 179). Both of the later panoramas were keen to capitalize on precisely this kind of appeal. Although much of the descriptive language is recycled from one text to another other, a pattern of interests clearly emerges, a set of preoccupations shared with the earlier panoramas that underscore both the difficulties as well as the attractions of seizing and representing the scene of “actuality.” Like the earlier panoramas, these perform an uncertainty about where history can be articulated and thus situated: in the text or on the walls, in the details or in the key diagram that puts them in their place.

20.         With each further panoramic representation, and each subsequent revolution, comes greater opportunity for presenting, at least in the accompanying text, a broad political and historical panorama underlining the relationship between place and event, both distant and recent. The choice of location in these later cases offers a vantage point over a period of successive revolutions in France, to which the descriptions explicitly refer, with occasional reference to earlier periods and events sketched in as part of the wider backdrop. Both the 1829 and 1848 panoramas choose as their viewpoint the “Place Louis XVI”:

The view from the Place Louis XVI, from whence the present Panorama was taken, is of the most grand and picturesque description; and, although it presents but a small portion of the numerous works of art which the City contains, yet, whichever way the spectator turns, some object of peculiar interest claims attention by its architectural effect, or by the remembrance of the singular events of which it has been the theatre” (1829: 3).
This language turns up again, more-or-less verbatim, in the 1848 description, which positions the viewer (again in the Place) between the Tuileries and the Champs Elysées, with the Seine along the south, and the “magnificent structures of the Grande Meuble and the Rue Royale” along the north (see figure 4). The bridge of Louis XVI crosses here to the Chambre des Deputées. The viewer can look along the banks of the river towards the more ancient part of the city, such as “the towers of Notre Dame, gloomy and dark as the age in which they were built.” Also visible are “the more modern domes of the Palace of the Fine Arts, St. Geneviève, and l’Hôpital des Invalides.” On the east side, the view takes in the gardens and part of the palace of the Tuileries, and in the other direction, the fresh and inviting vistas of the Champs Elysées. Thus is combined, “in one noble and interesting coup d’oeil, the various beauties of architecture, sculpture, and gardening” (1829: 3). The 1848 notes add to this a brief description of how the “Place de la Concorde, now called Place de la Révolution,” is one of the world’s finest—how for a spectator standing at its centre, it offers (yet again) “one of the finest coups d’oeils imaginable—its cardinal points being bounded by four of the most splendid buildings in the city” (1848: 4). Not only does the fabric of the city thus coincide harmoniously with its history, it also conveniently meets the spatial and aesthetic requirements of the panorama.

21.        In the text accompanying the 1848 exhibition, a politico-historical survey follows, including a brief description of the reign of Louis XVI (“when the city became the scene of the most alarming and sanguinary disorders” [5]), and of Napoleon’s reign, with its support of the arts and public works. The very first item is the “Place Louis XVI” itself, which is described in detail and at length, primarily because of its potent historical associations. Some attention is devoted to its early history, and to the celebration held there in 1770 for the marriage of the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette, but the principle focus is the centrality of this site in the history of the French Revolution. The text for 1848 is more expansive on this point:

One of the first symptoms of the great revolution displayed itself in this place, a riotous mob who were parading round the statue with busts of the Duke of Orleans, Necker &c., were charged by the Royal Guard and several killed. Two days later, the Bastille was destroyed. In August 1792 the Legislative Assembly ordered the destruction of the statue of Louis XV and a plaster figure of Liberty to be erected on the pedestal; the name of the place was also altered to the Place de la Révolution. At the foot of this statue, which was of colossal size, the Sainte Guillotine was erected, which for a long period was daily spilling some of the best and noblest blood of France. (1848: 12)
We are subsequently informed that in 1800, when the figure of Liberty was removed and the first stone of an unfinished triumphal column laid by Lucien Bonaparte, the place was renamed Place de la Concorde. At the time of the restoration, it was renamed Place Louis XVI; in 1830, it became again Place de la Concorde, and in February 1848, also for the second time, Place de la Révolution. The changes of name accompanying these events are of course “invisible” to viewers of the scene in the present, and spelling this out is a supplementary task that falls to the written tract.

22.        Another key site subject to successive changes of name and purpose is the Church of St. Geneviève. The 1814 panorama of Paris, discussed above, offered an account of its transformation into the Pantheon. That history is rehearsed again under item number 23 in the 1829 description, which offers a detailed account of the church’s features and construction—its consecration by the National Assembly in 1791 for the burial of the illustrious (Mirabeau, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marat), its re-consecration in 1822 for “divine service” by the archbishop of Paris. Now, “most of the illustrious remains have been removed, and it is intended to remove them all” (1829: 11). Typically, an apparently trite detail is added, that (literally) signals the currency of the view: “This building has cost upwards of two millions sterling.” Yet another such site is the Palace of the Tuileries; item no. 16 in the 1848 description asserts that “the history of the revolution has the Tuileries inscribed on almost every page” (1848: 9). At issue here, though, is not so much a change of name as of occupants. In the wake of the events of 1792, the palace would become the residence of Napoleon, and then of the restored royal family. It would be subject to attack and occupation by the populace in 1830. Finally “in February last [it] was, for the third time, [. . .] sacked of everything appertaining to royalty” (1848: 9).

23.        A combination of scene and event is implicit throughout both the 1829 and 1848 accompanying descriptions, where the historical surveys include anecdotes from the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, and indeed from successive restorations. “In 1830, Paris was again thrown into great disorder by another important revolution, altogether, however, of a very different character; during the three days of July, which it continued, from five to six thousand persons were killed, the royal family deposed, and fled, and Louis Philippe raised to the crown” (5). Certainly, by 1848, there was sufficient distance, temporally speaking, to make such a survey or “panorama” possible. The events of 1848 were themselves deemed “so generally known, that they do not require even a passing notice here” (1848: 6), although it is explained that “in the present year, Paris has, for the third time in little more than half a century, been the scene of yet another even more extraordinary revolution—one indeed without parallel in history—the most bloodless, yet the most complete, of modern times,” a revolution in which by “the spontaneous unpremeditated act of the unarmed population of Paris” the king “was suddenly dashed from his throne [. . .]” (5-6).

24.        In addition, however, to offering a certain, rather fixed, historical perspective (and indeed, in the descriptive texts, much detailed historical accounting), the panoramas also took steps to include the representation of a contemporary event—an element of the “present” moment. In the 1829 exhibition, for example, the attention of viewers is drawn to the Champs Elysées (no. 2). There follows a lengthy account of how it came into being, with reference to the Cossack and British encampments of troops there in 1814-15. More interesting, however, is the use of the site as a scene of celebration: by Louis XVI (when he accepted the constitution in 1791); by the Directory, after the revolution, for “all public rejoicings” (1829: 7); and by Napoleon, for the distribution of provisions (which continued in fact after the restoration). The contemporary event depicted at the panorama is the festival of St. Louis, “when wine and provisions are given away in great profusion, and various amusements provided; such as climbing well-greased poles for watches and trinkets, dancing, riding wooden horses, round-abouts, &c. and the evening is closed with illuminations and fireworks.” A procession depicted crossing the square is “conveying wine to the places of distribution” (7). A review of this panorama in The Times remarks approvingly that the artist has enhanced the interest of the picture “by introducing some well-painted and highly characteristic groups, among which he has represented the rabble-rout which follow the procession of wine-carts, the contents of which are intended for distribution on the King’s fête, which the mob are celebrating” (November 29, 1828: 3).

25.        In 1848, the tract notes that the painting depicts, on the “steps of the portico of the National Assembly,” the declaration of France, by the Provisional Government, on May 4, to be a republic. In accordance with the momentousness of this occasion, there are “countless masses below, on the quays and the bridge; and considerable animation is given to the Place de la Concorde, by the representation of one of those scenes so peculiarly characteristic of the feelings and enthusiasm of the Parisians, and of such constant occurrence during the preceding month—namely, a long procession escorting a tree of liberty to its destination” (1848: 4). A review in The Rambler is less than convinced by the overall effect, suggesting that there is a lack of excitement and spirit in the depiction of the scene surrounding this proclamation. Even though “crowds innumerable are swarming towards the vast portico of the Chambers, where tri-colors and all the rest of the republican paraphernalia bespeak the scene that is going on,” it is not enough to animate the view as a whole, about which there is alas a look of “sleepy heaviness” (2: 23; June 3, 1848: 113). Quite possibly this is the inevitable result of reducing the event to one set of visual details among others, all clamouring for the attention of the viewer.

Panoramas of London in Paris

26.        The interest of Londoners in the French capital had its analogue across the channel; there too, national ideology played an explicit role. The very first exhibitions at the Paris panoramas in 1799 were (as noted above) of Paris itself, but also of the English fleet retreating in haste from Toulon in 1793. The opening of the first panorama rotunda was announced with a certain pride: “‘We now have our own panorama, like the dwellers on the Thames. It is only a copy of theirs, but it attracts an unbelievable number of spectators every day’” (Oettermann 143). The first depiction of London as a subject was mounted in 1804, when it was reviewed in the Journal London Und Paris by a reporter who had seen an earlier depiction of London, possibly Girtin’s Eidometropolis, which was on show in London between 1802 and 1803 (see Comment 30 and Oettermann 146f.) He pointedly criticized the viewing conditions of this display, for it seemed that in Paris the viewing platform was larger in relation to the diameter of the painting, which affected the quality of the illusion—even though the topographical precision of this painting was declared superior to the one the anonymous reporter had seen before. The viewpoint used here was the glassworks near Blackfriars Bridge. Two years later in 1806, after Pierre Prévost mounted successful shows of Naples and Rome, London was shown again. Possibly this was the same canvas, for it too was from the same vantage point, and it was paired in the second rotunda (not by accident, needless to say) by a view of “Boulogne and the Fleet Assembled for the Invasion of England.” Again a report appeared in the Journal London Und Paris, this time deploring the choice of viewpoint as one from which no important buildings are close enough to see. Moreover, it seems that Prévost had cast a dark pall over the capital and painted out most of the ships on the Thames:

Incidentally, Mr Prévost (who painted the panorama) has let his patriotic feelings get the better of him, for he shows the Tower of London at such a great distance that the ships around it are all but invisible—only a few masts the size of straws hidden behind a projecting bridge. Along the Thames near the above-mentioned Blackfriars Bridge one sees only three or four miserable little fishing boats, although the writer knows from experience that this stretch of the famous river is crowded with vessels of every kind. But what the patriotic artist withheld from the British fleet he gave back all the more generously to the French in his panorama of Boulogne [. . .] (Oettermann 148)
An eloquent and detailed description of this picture follows, after which the writer resumes his theme, criticising the unusual calm of the Thames (under “artfully natural” grey skies), the unrecognizability of key buildings—again, because of the distance—and exclaims: “What interest can such a panorama have for anyone who has lived in this city and come to see it as home, in a manner of speaking? This is why everyone who has never been there leaves the exhibit exclaiming, bah! people go on so about London, but what a miserable place it must be!” (148).

27.        Prévost exhibited a new view of London in 1816. This one was reviewed however in glowing terms: “The Panorama of London is one of the largest and most beautiful ever made” (Oettermann 153); and this time, all the “most important details” were clearly on view. Churches, palaces, squares and parks, the embankments, the Thames and its bridges, the outskirts of the city replete with green fields and a sweeping horizon—“all [are] reproduced in perfect imitation and give a precise impression of the most extensive and most populous city in Europe” (153). Times of course had changed, and the years from 1811 to 1816 had been more difficult for the Paris panorama, for as Oettermann notes, “Napoleon’s military actions took a heavy toll on the French population and at times brought the cultural life of the capital almost to a stop” (152). Moreover, contemporary events—from the Russian campaign to the battle of Waterloo—were not uplifting subjects for the panorama, and while the English could choose from a range of suitable “historic” moments, panorama painters in France were at a distinct disadvantage.

Panoramic Text

28.        The “image” (of place, of history, of time) presented at the panorama is only one part of what the panorama-goer experienced. Much of what we know about the exhibitions—as the discussion above bears out—is mediated by the accompanying pamphlets or booklets containing textual accounts of the scenes on display. Partly this is an inevitable consequence of historical transmission, insofar as these documents and the key maps are in most cases all that have survived. This textual mediation is largely descriptive in mode, and it is important to consider that our relationship to what the panoramas actually showed is fundamentally triangulated, insofar as the relationship of the panoramic image to the “reality” it conveyed is doubled by the relationship of textual (re)construction to the now lost image. A rhetoric or “regime” of description intervenes, offering an instance of text-image relations in the period that has been seldom discussed. The descriptive rhetoric and textual function of the accompanying tracts may productively be linked to the larger challenge, abundantly evident in the depictions of Paris, of capturing the actual, or history in the making. Arguably, it is these discursive texts that provide anchors for an image that, despite its attempts to seize the moment, comes across as cut off from any time and space other than its own.

29.         The act of description is itself, in its historical uses, connected to both visual and verbal means. The term refers in contemporary usage to the act of giving “a detailed or graphic account” of the characteristic qualities and recognizable features of a person, thing or scene (OED). In its more obsolete uses, it refers to acts of transcription or copying out, to pictorial delineation, and indeed to marking out the form or outline of geometrical figures, which might be linked metaphorically to the perspectival and optical procedures of the panorama itself in relation to actual places. “Description” is one way of characterizing what the panoramas set out to do, in visual terms, in their attempt to delineate place, in the most precise and detailed manner possible. This is made explicit in the descriptive pamphlet accompanying Burford’s 1833 panorama of Niagara Falls, which quotes the comments of a visitor to the falls, a Captain Basil Hall:

All parts of the Niagara are on a scale which baffles every attempt of the imagination, and it were ridiculous therefore to think of describing it; the ordinary means of description, I mean analogy, and direct comparison, with things which are more accessible, fail entirely in the case of that amazing cataract, which is altogether unique; yet a great deal, I am certain, might be done by a well-executed Panorama. (1833: 4 fn.)
Hornor’s panorama of London elicited an even more confident assertion, from the antiquarian John Britton, of its power to in fact exceed “histories, descriptions, maps, and prints”—which are all “imperfect and defective,” mere scraps and “touches of the pen”—by imparting “at a glance, at one view, a cyclopoedia of information—a concentrated history—a focal topography, of the largest and most influential city in the world” (cited in Otto 290).

30.        However, such visual “descriptions” or representations as a panorama might provide were not fully readable on their own terms, as the depictions of Paris discussed above make clear. The addition of directed reading material in the accompanying pamphlets, which ostensibly enhanced the experience of the viewer, raised the educational profile of a visit to a panorama—though as Galperin notes, the pamphlets were by no means central to its appeal. [5]  As will be clear from the passages cited above from descriptions of the panoramas of Paris in London, the textual supplements organized the scenes on view into a numbered series of monuments, objects, or “spots” or special interest, that related to the numbers on the key map. The descriptions of those spots could be very brief—a simple statement of fact—or several paragraphs in length, and thus the pamphlets had the effect of translating the simultaneous or “at a glance” qualities of the visual form into successive verbal presentations. The key map meanwhile “duplicated” in miniature what was visible on the walls, in one of two ways: either in two diagrammatic strips each representing 180 degrees of the view, which we see in the “View of the City of Paris, taken from the Place de la Concorde” in 1848 (see figure 4), or in the form of an anamorphic diagram that re-represented the panorama in a “fish-eye” view (as in figure 3, the view of Paris from Montmartre displayed in 1814). [6]  Neither form could really replicate the total effect of the image, but could at least “describe” it if the viewer attended to one spot or detail only.

31.         Running counter to the very premise of the “all embracing view,” the key maps and their accompanying descriptions focused the attention of the viewer in particular ways: indeed, the descriptions tend to emphasize specific over general detail, and in all cases to select items that have, as we have seen, topical or historical relevance and/or visual interest. The difficulties inherent in acts of description are nevertheless inscribed in the often arbitrary choice of foci, and in their sequential accumulation. The entry on “description” in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie helpfully lays out the problematic nature of descriptions, such as their potential limitlessness. They are, the article suggests, subject to internal disorganization, if one attends indiscriminately (i.e. too minutely) to all the things of nature and the variety of their forms. A book, for instance, that contains many long descriptions does not give us clearer conceptions of its subject(s), but rather presents us with unformed and “gigantesque” figures, possessing neither order nor proportion (878). No effort of the imagination or of conceptualization can compensate for this absence of inherent arrangement, in which only a mass of detail, of detached parts, can be recognized, without any sense of their internal connections and structures.

32.        These remarks are directed specifically to description in relation to natural history, though they articulate a general problem that applies to the accumulation of detail at the panorama, as our close examination of the panoramas of Paris reveals. The abstraction of detail, by both the tracts and the nature of perception, distracts the panorama viewer from a grasp of the total effect, just as immersion in the view works not just alongside but also against mastery of the scene. Other sections of the Encyclopédie entry address description as a geometric term, and in relation to literature [Belles-Lettres], where the same problem crops up: a literary description can amount to an enumeration of superficial and accidental features, without revealing any of the essential attributes of its subject. Description is thus aligned with the aims of poets and orators rather than those of philosophers who seek after “absolute truth,” and lends itself particularly to specific types of knowledge, several of which coincide with the preoccupations of the panorama: the relation of dramatic events such as wars, fires, shipwrecks; “chronographie,” or the events of the past; “topographie,” or the description of (remote) places; and portraits of persons or characters (879). [7]  Successful verbal descriptions can render things as though they were present, however, and give us pleasure insofar as we may “compare the ideas to which words give birth with those arising from the very presence of the objects” (879). If one considers that the activities of the visitors to the viewing platform at the panorama, whose focus shifts between the image and the descriptive text, involves something like this kind of comparison, one might then ask to what extent the textual description simply doubles the “visual” one, and to what extent it disturbs it by attending to certain kinds of detail at the expense of others. Like literary description, it cannot capture the “essence” or meaning of a scene, cannot show what is “really” there, but can name it, designate it, and supplement it with information about what cannot be shown: the effects of time and change, and the complex nature of historical events.

The Panorama of/and History

33.        Part of the attraction of the panorama, as a mode of representing history, drew from its vaunted authority as a window onto the world. As with maps, its documentary nature, its dependence on topographical accuracy, conveyed a persuasive degree of truthfulness. Meanwhile, despite this apparent objectivity, much room was left for subtle (or not so subtle) propaganda—in keeping with the way the description at the panorama, in light of our discussion above, could be seen to operate according to its own rhetorical poetics. Indeed Napoleon, after seeing himself depicted as the great military hero in Prévost’s “Battle of Wagram” (1810), immediately grasped the ideological possibilities of the panorama and commissioned the construction of seven rotundas that would each depict the principal battles of the Revolution and of his empire (Comment 45). These would then “tour” France and other cities in his empire, but future events prevented this project from ever being carried out.

34.        Military panoramas, which remained eminently popular throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in France, were “powerful instruments for the corroboration of national identity and the propagation of grand ideals” (della Dora 301). The panoramas of Jean-Charles Langlois (1789-1870) are noteworthy here; a disabled former officer of Napoleon, he embarked on a new career as a painter, and devoted himself to innovative panoramas celebrating French military history. [8]  For the English, panoramas of the Battle of Waterloo, not surprisingly, were a huge draw, and Philip Shaw has investigated the extent to which they functioned as effective propaganda: from 1815 on, “plans were afoot for a variety of static and travelling panoramic exhibitions, designed for the sole purpose of pleasing and instructing the public in the truth of Wellington’s great victory” (83). From the “picturesque” tour of the battle site to the theatricalized staging of the panoramas, Shaw explores but also questions the extent to which historical experiences could be simply “recreated in the sphere of aesthetic practice” (79). The relationship between war and art is a complex one, and beyond the scope of this paper; it is noteworthy however that “mastery” of the scene at the panorama had the effect of putting the viewer of “Waterloo” into the imagined “omnivoyance” of Wellington (89-90). Shaw notes very pointedly the way in which the chaos and disorder of war was regulated by the panorama, and its fantasy structures, “as a mechanism for alternating pleasure and pain, mastery and loss” (79).

35.        The panoramas of the nineteenth century systematically fore-grounded their pedagogical possibilities, which informed their pronounced interest in recent historical events. But whether or not the panorama lent itself to the imparting of “historical” knowledge is another question. Certainly it has been suggested that the public in general was more taken by the sheer magic of the spectacle. More pointedly, as François Robichon has put it, the panorama would become a formidable machine for imagining history, a machine for staging historical time—not by reproducing in any meaningful sense the actuality of historical events (as if that were possible) but by producing the illusion of events as they took place. Drawing from Roland Barthes’ essay “Le discours de l’histoire,” Robichon remarks that in the panorama of history, the events (le procédé) are of themselves insufficient; rather the panorama mobilizes these episodes into a dynamic that naturalizes history, that erases their complex and dialectical nature. “History” comes to us without contradictions because it is without depth—what the panorama offers is finally, Robichon concludes, a “mythic image” (84).

36.        Turning to Barthes’ essay on “The Discourse of History,” we can interrogate more closely the idea that historical discourse is imaginary—particularly if we allow that the descriptions of panoramas (at least those with close ties to historical events) can be understood as a form of historical discourse, designating “what was,” under the guise of “what is.” For Barthes, “historical discourse is in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration, if we can take the imaginary to be the language through which the utterer of a discourse (a purely linguistic entity) ‘fills out’ the place of the subject of the utterance” (“Discourse” 16). The intervention of language in the constitution of historical fact, the primary focus of Barthes’ account, means that such facts can only be understood tautologically, for as Nietzsche argued, “‘[t]here are no facts in themselves. It is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be a fact’” (17). The facts of historical discourse are a function of their linguistic existence, “yet it is exactly as if this existence were merely the ‘copy,’ purely and simply, of another existence situated in the extra-structural domain of the ‘real’” (17). The relationship between the panorama and its historical (or “actual”) signified could be productively interposed here, since the panoramic image could be seen to operate as just such a supposed “copy” of the real—uncannily freestanding, and yet pointing always to a higher order of reality beyond the rotunda’s (cleverly concealed) walls.

37.        Moreover, historical discourse, like any discourse “that lays claim to ‘realism,’” performs an illusory confusion of referent and signified through which it signifies rather than follows the real (it merely repeats “it happened”). In other words, Barthes claims, “in ‘objective’ history, the ‘real’ is never more than an unformulated signified sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful referent” (17). This situation underwrites “the realistic effect” that characterizes such genres as “the realist novel, the private diary, documentary literature, news items, historical museums, exhibitions of old objects and especially in the massive development of photography” (18). To this list, one might add the panoramas, which were thoroughly invested in the documentation of the “actual” through realistic effects. The panoramic image, too, can be understood as the “all powerful referent” that shelters the unformulated (and unformulatable) “real”—and the same could be said of the discursive history performed in the descriptive text of the accompanying pamphlets, although these also have the effect of shifting attention from the imaginary historical referent back to words.

38.        Barthes dwells on the distinctiveness of photography as bound up in the assertion “that the event represented has really taken place” (18). Historical panoramas assert the same thing, but with a twist, since the representation of “place” has also sheltered (taken over—or simply overtaken) the posited event. It is noteworthy however that while Barthes deplores, implicitly, the hidden nature of historical representation (the “what is”) as a form of ideological obfuscation, Walter Benjamin is attracted to what he calls the “hidden” pathos of the panorama—the place, by contrast, where history might show itself in valuable ways. In the Arcades Project, he wrote of his intention to “reflect rigorously on the particular pathos that lies hidden in the art of the panoramas,” and on “the particular relation of this art to nature, but also, and above all, to history” (529). At first glance, what Benjamin means by the “historical” nature of the panorama has less to do with its attempts at historical representation than with its embeddedness in the material history and entertainment culture of the nineteenth century metropolis—a world of gaslights, fashion, boredom, and wax museums.

39.        The panorama’s relationship to the “actual,” which I have used here to navigate its attempt to counterpoise realism with historical representation, is deeply paradoxical—not least in its unreal and unnatural simulations of both nature and reality. Benjamin, to articulate the “peculiar” relationship between the panorama, nature, and history, turns to the reflections of the painter A. J. Wiertz, who argues that what passes for realism in painting should be aligned more closely with the underappreciated power of trompe-l’oeil (529). Here too, then, the problem of history is the problem of simulation, or, as Peter Otto puts it, of the “contingent nature of all perceptual worlds, the unreality of reality” (42). Indeed, our fascination with the panorama has much to do with the way it prefigures the very aspects of the contemporary world that Derrida summons with the terms “artifactuality” and “virtuactuality.” In an interview entitled “The Deconstruction of Actuality,” Derrida reflects on our relationship to contemporary events, on the problem with “actuality” today (one must bear in mind here that in French “les actualités” also refers to “the news”). When one thinks about one’s time, the time of that thinking is, he argues, an artifact: all such public gestures of speech are “formatted” and “initialized” by media organizations. Thus the first portmanteau term alerts us to the extent to which actuality is made—“produced, sifted, contained”—rather than given (86). The second, “actuvirtuality” or “virtuactuality”—Derrida deploys it both ways—refers to the relationship of the virtual (“virtual image, virtual space, and thus virtual event”) to the actual, to the inscription of virtuality “in the very structure of the event produced” (89). The panorama, as an early and spectacular form of newsreel, attempted to inscribe the “historical” in its images—to function, to coin a third term, as “actuvisuality” in its preoccupation with capturing the place of the present, and representing its relationship to the past. Yet in the panoramas of Paris and London—of themselves, of each other, and in their textual mediations—the difficulty representing history at all, its tendency to escape our attempts to formulate it, is dramatically underscored.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap/Harvard UP, 1978.

Barker, Henry Aston. Explanation of the View of Paris, from Montmartre, now Exhibiting at Barker’s Panorama, Strand, near Surry Street. London, 1814.

---. ‪Explanation of the View of the Interior of the City of Paris: Now Exhibiting in the Large Circle, Barker's Panorama, Strand, near Surry-street‬. London, 1815.

Barthes, Roland. “The Discourse of History.” Trans. Stephen Bann. Comparative Criticism 3 (1981): 7-20.

---. “The Eiffel Tower.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Bender, John and Michael Marrinan, ed. Regimes of Description: In the Archive of the Eighteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1999.

Burford, John. The Panorama Strand Tracts 1814-31. British Library shelfmark 10349.ppp.20.

---. Burford. The Panorama, Leicester Square Tracts. 4 vols. British Library shelfmark 10349.t.15.

Chandler, James and Kevin Gilmartin, ed. Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Comment, Bernard. The Panorama. Trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen. London: Reaktion Books, 1999.

della Dora, Veronica. “Putting the World into a Box: A Geography of Nineteenth-Century ‘Travelling Landscapes.’” Geografiska Annaler 89 B (4): 287-306.

Derrida, Jacques. “On the Deconstruction of Actuality.” Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001. Ed and trans. Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002. 85-116.

“Description.” Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers par une société des gens de lettres mis en ordre et publié par M. Diderot, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. Alembert, 17 vols. Paris: Briasson, David l’âiné, Le Breton, Durand, 1751-1780. 4: 878-79.

Description of a View of the City of Paris, Taken from the Place Louis XVI, now exhibiting at The Panorama, Strand. Painted by the Proprietor, Robert Burford. London, 1829. [part of Burford, The Panorama Strand Tracts 1814-31].

Description of a View of the City of Paris, taken from the Place de La Concorde, now exhibiting at The Panorama, Leicester Square. Painted by the Proprietor, Robert Burford, from drawings taken by himself, assisted by H. C. Selous. London, 1848.

Description of a View of the Falls of Niagara, now exhibiting at The Panorama, Leicester Square. Painted by the Proprietor, Robert Burford, from drawings taken by him in the Autumn of 1832. London, 1833. [part of Burford, Leicester Square Tracts].

Eekelen, Yvonne van, et al. The Magical Panorama: The Mesdag Panorama, an Experience in Space and Time. Trans. Arnold and Erica Pomerans. Waanders Uitgeverij, 1996.

Ellis, Markman. “‘Spectacles within doors’: Panoramas of London in the 1790s.” Romanticism 14:2 (2008): 133-48.

Fruitema, Evelyn O. and Paul A. Zoetmulder. The Panorama Phenomenon. The Hague: Foundation for the Preservation of the Centenarian Mesdag Panorama, 1981.

Galperin, William. The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Grau, Oliver. “Into the Belly of the Image: Historical Aspects of Virtual Reality.” Leonardo 32:5. Seventh New York Digital Salon (1999), 365-371.

Griffiths, Alison. Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. New York: Columbia UP, 2008.

Hyde, Ralph. Panoramania!: The Art and Entertainment of the ‘All-Embracing’ View. London: Barbican Art Gallery with Trefoil Publications, 1988.

Oettermann, Stephan. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider. New York: Zone Books, 1997.

Oleksijczuk, Denise Blake. The First Panoramas: Visions of British Imperialism. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2011.

Otto, Peter. Multiplying Worlds: Romanticism, Modernity, and the Emergence of Virtual Reality. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Robichon, François. “Le panorama, spectacle de l’histoire.” Le Mouvement social 131 (April-June 1985): 65-86.

Shaw, Philip. Waterloo and The Romantic Imagination. Houndmills, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Stalnaker, Joanna. The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2010.

Figure 1: Section of the Rotunda, Leicester Square, in which is Exhibited the Panorama, 1801 (aquatint) by Robert Mitchell (fl. 1782-1835). Private Collection/ The Bridgeman Art Library.

Figure 2: The Colosseum, the Panorama of London seen from a Painter's Platform, published 1829 (colour litho) by English School (19th century). Guildhall Library, City of London/ The Bridgeman Art Library.

Figure 3: Explanation of the View of Paris, taken from Montmartre, 1814. © British Library Board (10349.ppp.20).

Figure 4: Description of a View of the City of Paris, 1848. © British Library Board (RB.23.a.31854).


[1] The patent is reproduced, in excerpts, in an exhibition catalogue for the centennial of the Mesdag Panorama (see Fruitema and Zoetmulder 13-14). BACK

[2] For a good overview of the popularity—and challenges—of represented battle scenes, see Griffiths 48-55. One should note here that the development of the panorama as a technology had an explicit military connection. Barker enjoyed the financial backing of Lord Elcho, who had an interest in how panoramic representations of topography could be a useful aid to military strategy; and Barker was himself a draughtsman “who taught perspective drawing as a technique for military reconnaissance” (Grau 366-67). Barker’s panoramas have also been understood as very closely related to the forces of British imperialism, for which they helped shape a supportive public. See particularly Denise Blake Oleksijczuk’s terrific recent study, which investigates how “changes in the Panorama’s form and subject matter began to strategically solicit the active participation of its spectators in ways that helped naturalize Britain’s imperialist goals” (7). BACK

[3] See della Dora 302. By the last third of the nineteenth century, Paris was, Bernard Comment says, “the capital of the panorama” (67). It is important to note, however—and this argument is made by James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin in their introduction to the essays in Romantic Metropolis—that what is often seen as the Parisian basis for a link between the panorama and the Romantic “cityscape” in the nineteenth century (particularly after Benjamin’s work on the subject), is in fact established first in London, where a new metropolitanism emerges with the entertainment culture spearheaded by Barker’s panorama in the 1790s (5-8). BACK

[4] Where, as Peter Otto points out, well over a hundred vessels were visible (40). Frederick Birnie’s series of commemorative aquatints based on Barker’s panorama that effectively recreate its scope—at once orderly and dynamic—is reproduced in colour in Hyde, Panoramania!, and can be consulted in Otto, who discusses it at length. See also the extensive discussion of this panorama in Markman Ellis. BACK

[5] Though commentators have often assumed that the desire to learn about places and events drew people to the panoramas, Galperin suggests that the notices, rather than the accompanying narratives, offer “a more accurate measure by far of what the public wanted,” and this was clearly more related to its “visual and sensational features” (Galperin 44). Even so, the descriptions offered a crucial sense of mastery, in their efforts to contain a host of unruly detail. BACK

[6] These two different conventions of visual re-representation figure prominently in Oleksijczuk’s argument, where they are considered as miniature panoramas in their own right. The circular fish-eye keys, which demanded the viewers’ imaginative engagement with the panorama as a form, were gradually replaced by the horizontal strips, which were to be “read” from left to right, reflecting an increasing (and increasingly rational) emphasis on the subject matter, and interpolating a more passive and objective viewer (162-171). BACK

[7] For a rich investigation of “description” across domains and discourses of knowledge in the eighteenth century, largely inspired by the Encyclopédie essay, see Bender and Marrinan; Joanna Stalnaker’s The Unfinished Enlightenment suggestively explores the project of Enlightenment description, and offers a terrific reading of Louis Sébastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-88), a twelve-volume “painting” of contemporary Paris that proceeds entirely by verbal description. BACK

[8] Langlois is recognized for the attention he devoted to the relationship between the viewing platform and the foreground, where he introduced a more elaborate faux-terrain of three-dimensional objects, and for experimentation with lighting techniques. His first great success was a staging of the Battle of Navarino (shown in 1831), for which he sourced a wrecked ship that had actually taken part in the battle, and used its poop-deck as the viewing platform (Fruitema and Zoetmulder 42). BACK