5 January 2013

Art Experiences: Immersion and the Panorama

Image of the Panorama on New Street (right) from a handbill advertising
a panoramic display of Constantinople, 1806. The church is Christ Church.
As town planning and the new forms of architectural design became embedded into the landscape of the city, the city itself became a thing to be observed; a scene, a skyline, an aesthetic entity. The panorama fed on the desire to observe the aesthetic beauty of the distant city, its displays contemplated cities from across the world, as well as battle scenes, and were designed to make the observer feel as if they were present in the place or event depicted. This was an early form of immersive art.

The panorama was designed to enhance the experience of immersion, see illustration below. From the moment you entered, (A), you were sent beneath the display (B) and entered it from below (C). You would then stand in the viewing platform (D), the barriers of which limited your movement to within a particular area. Above was an umbrella-like device (E) which, along with the barriers, limited your lines of sight (F). This would mean that all that was visible were the walls of the panorama (H), painted 360 degrees around with the scene (on cloth), and part of the floor (G) that would also be decorated in a relevant way, for example, in a battle scene there may be models of fallen horses.

Conjectural view of the interior of Birmingham's panorama. Details above.

In October 1798, probably what was a travelling panorama, had been erected on Union Street. It depicted the Grand Fleet 'under sail, off the Isle of Wight' escaping from the 98 gun 'Boyne Man of War', which was in flames, and all actual size. The event was described as to depict 'the Hurry and Bustle of various Boats, and the eager Anxiety in the Countenances of the Seamen' and formed 'at once a Scene of Terror and Sublimity'. And all for one shilling. The whole experience was designed to immerse you in a spacial narrative, and give you the visual and emotional sensations of being elsewhere, in this instance, at sea during a naval battle. There were also others that were intrigued by the panorama, a local entrepreneurial tailor produced a miniature version from about 1796 where the scenes changed every other day, and produced a coin to advertise it along with his 'Grand Exhibition' of other curiosities (below, and here), and which was on display well into the nineteenth century.

The Panorama on New Street (top image) opened in 1804 to the showing of a 'View of Ramsgate', depicting 'the Embarkation of Troops, both Horse and Foot, taken on the Spot at the Time' and including 'a very great Extent of Sea, and Ships in every Direction [...] with a distant View of the Coast of France [...]'.* The building had been opened by the Barker's, Robert Barker had been responsible for the invention of the Panorama, patented in 1787,* and was in business with his equally talented son Henry Aston Barker. Robert had coined the word 'panorama'  from the Greek meaning an 'all-embracing view'.* The Barker's probably opened provincial Panoramas as a way to create a network across the country to tour their work, thus getting the greatest income for their output. It would be interesting to discover if Birmingham was on a route that the panoramic paintings would take across the country once produced.

Example of the interior of a Panorama displaying a
scene of London.

Robert Barker died in 1806 and in 1807 a Panoramic view of Edinburgh was displayed in Birmingham, perhaps as a tribute to Robert Barker's favourite Scottish town, and the one that had inspired his original idea. After his father's death Henry took over the business and continued to travel and produce panoramas, but the original panoramic views that had been painted through Robert's lifetime still toured the country. His view of the Battle of Waterloo came to Birmingham in August 1817, but this was the last known panorama to be shown in the building. Towards the end of its life the New Street Panorama came under some competition from another built nearby at Baskerville Place by S. J. Richardson. How much of a threat this establishment was we do not know, but the expense of maintaining the Panorama would have been very high. The painted scenes were of an immense size, which would all be hand painted, and it would have taken a great deal of time installing them into the building with all the additional props as well (see below). There was also competition from moving panoramas, which were shown in Birmingham's Theatre Royal at about this time. Outside of Birmingham the display of panoramas continued successfully throughout the nineteenth century, especially in Europe's capitals.

A Panorama being installed in the 1840s. 

When William Hutton visited the Panorama he stated that it was 'an entertainment that, I believe, no man who ever saw repented a lost shilling', and throughout its life the Birmingham Panorama had always cost a shilling to enter. This was the same price as a visit to the Theatre with a seat in the gallery, the cheapest seats, and would be within the range of all but the very poorest, bearing in mind that an artisans wage could be 20 to 30 shillings a week depending on their skill. Viewing depended on good light, so the building was usually open between nine or ten in the morning till dusk, it was lit inside too, and in the winter would be heated. Sometimes, such as at the scene of the Siege of Flushing in 1813, talks would be given from the platform by those who had been present at the time of the events, to give an even greater sense of place, and for those involved to feel that they were re-living the events. This suggests that the experience of visiting the Panorama was one of showmanship, where commentary would be given whilst you viewed. Through the years it operated the inhabitants of Birmingham would have been able to visit Paris, ancient and modern Rome, Constantinople, the burning of Moscow, Glasgow, as well as a number of battle scenes. After the Panorama's closure the building was used for a time by auctioneers Robins Brothers* before being taken over by the Society of Arts as a gallery in 1822 and then rebuilt in 1828.

* References on request fl. 6. LF56.1 GRE, #18 1999

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