Panoramas and Global Landscape

by Tim Barringer

  • 7 January 2019

Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art at Yale University, introduces his subject for the Paul Mellon Lectures which start this evening (Monday 7 January) at the National Gallery.

From its inception, the painted panorama was understood as a global technology. Its circular form suggested limitless reach, with breathtaking views to distant horizons on all sides; its thematic content brought distant scenes to the heart of the metropolis with an uncanny effect of reality (Fig. 1). The panorama came before the public during a period of warfare between rival empires, between 1789 and 1815, and offered nineteenth-century audiences a place at the centre of spectacular landscapes from all over the world.

Cross-section of building with people and panorama

British Library, Fig 1, Detail from Robert Mitchell, Selection of the Rotunda, Leicester Square, 1801

According to the patent document lodged in 1787 by its Irish inventor, Robert Barker, the panorama provides “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to the observer turning quite round.” Although a plethora of objects and practices have since been described as “panoramic”, the neologism “panorama” (from the Greek pan, meaning “all” and horama meaning “view”) was coined in 1791 to describe massive circular paintings, some reaching up to 300 feet long and 50 feet high, installed in specially constructed rotundas. We use the term “panorama” today to describe laterally expanded photographs taken by our mobile phones; cinematic “panning shots” scan the landscape along a horizontal axis. All of this mimics the actions of viewers at the Leicester Square panorama more than two centuries ago.

Robert Mitchell’s Section of the Rotunda, Leicester Square, published in 1801, indicates the ingenious architecture of the panorama. Customers would enter a relatively inauspicious entrance, pay a small fee, move along a dark corridor, climb a flight of stairs—and emerge into another world, a virtual reality. On the viewing platform, early panorama visitors were habitually overwhelmed by the wonder of what they beheld. “The public poured in by the hundreds and thousands, for even a transient gaze,” one recalled, “for such a sight was altogether as marvellous as it was novel.”

Panoramic landscape with rocks in foreground

Yale Center for British Art, Fig 2, James Wales, View of Malabar Hill from Bombay Views, 1800

The panorama offered the visitor on the viewing platform an insistent, phantasmagorical juxtaposition of “here” and “there”—home and abroad; familiar and exotic; imperial centre and colonial periphery; metropole and province; civilization and (as the nineteenth-century London viewer probably believed) its negation. Artists travelled in every direction in order to capture novel scenery for representation in the new medium. Panoramas in Leicester Square represented scenes of European conflict (Fig. 2), military and naval battles; they brought the London public for the first time vivid, compelling representations of the new colonies in Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, Canada, South Africa, and India. Soon panoramas were erected all over the world, in New York, Calcutta, and Cape Town, the scenes changing regularly to satisfy consumers’ demand for novelty. Soon artists all over the world, from J.M.W. Turner to Caspar David Friedrich, began adopting the conventions of the medium, and the panoramic view became a paradigm of imperial vision (Fig. 3).

Pamphlet showing circular landscape painting

Fig 3, Description of the field of battle, and disposition of the troops engaged in the action, fought on the 18th of June, 1815, near Waterloo: illustrative of the representation of that great event, in the Panorama, Leicester-Square, [London]: J. Adlard, printer, 1816, Cambridge University Library, Pam.6.81.23(1), folding plate opposite title page

These early panoramas introduce the larger subject of this year’s Paul Mellon lectures—the relationship between landscape and empire in the decades either side of 1800. The second lecture follows British artists to Italy on the Grand Tour and, much further south, aboard missions of exploration to Australasia. In the third lecture, wartime restrictions on travel in the 1790s force metropolitan tourists and artists to travel north from London, to the remote, picturesque regions of the British Isles. Finally, British artists follow the trade routes of empire east, to India, and west, to the Caribbean and the Americas. Conventions of landscape representation—the panoramic, the picturesque, the sublime—were adapted to serve the purposes of empire. At crucial moments, however, landscape artists encountered resistance, and the realities of colonial conflict or the complexities of the contact zone demanded radical new ways of looking and painting. Indigenous figures and those left aside by colonial narratives of progress demanded representation.

The Global Landscapes in the Age of Empire lecture series will take place every Monday evening from 7 January to 4 February, tickets can be purchased here.

About the author

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Tim Barringer

    Tim Barringer - Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University