a half-mile-long painting -- 1/12/24

Today's selection -- from The Madman's Gallery by Edward Brooke-Hitching. London had some of the largest paintings in the world:

“In London's Leicester Square in 1794, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, was so nauseated by a work of art that it caused her to decorously vomit into a lace handkerchief. Even stranger, in this decidedly landlocked part of central London, it was because she had been made seasick. 

“The Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame de France in Leicester Square is defined by its great circular dome, a hint of the building's all-but-forgotten past life as London's most popular entertainment attraction. 'The Rotunda', as it was known, was built by the Scottish architect Robert Mitchell on commission for Robert Barker (1739-1806) to display the latter's artworks— the largest paintings ever made at that time. These were the gargantuan, 360-degree 'panoramas' (a term coined by Barker), hand-painted works that spanned a staggering 250 sq. m (300 sq. yd) and were designed to give the Georgian equivalent of a virtual-reality experience with tremendous city views, seascapes, countryside and battle scenes in which the dwarfed spectators could lose themselves.

“To aid this effect, the borders of the canvases were hidden, and props were introduced in the foreground. (The example shown on the previous page is one of Barker's earliest from 1789, of the Edinburgh Hills.) The perfectly round building had both a lower and an upper circle, which meant that two panoramas could be exhibited at the same time, one above the other, underneath an enormous conical glass roof, that offered even lighting on the artworks. The dark corridors and staircases that linked the two panoramas were meant to act as a 'palate cleanser' for the viewer between paintings before they experienced the next sensory overload.

Barker's first Panorama, Edinburgh from Calton Hill, 1789-1790

“The paintings were so large that visitors were given maps to find their way around. In 1794, King George Ill and Queen Charlotte were given a private viewing. Barker's vast panorama of a naval scene was so realistic and overwhelming that Queen Charlotte, after staring out across the painted ocean, was struck down with seasickness. This story, of course, did wonders for Barker's publicity, and panoramas became the entertainment hit of the time. Londoners paid three shillings for views of London, which were made so effective by Barker's accomplished technique of manipulating perspective better than the 'wide-angle' style used by previous artists.

The artworks were hugely profitable for Barker but also for London's artistic community. Copycat panorama shows sprang up all over town — evidence reveals that between 1793 and 1863 at least 126 different panoramas were exhibited in London, and all were in need of skilled painters.

Such monster panoramas sit at the heart of modern cinema — the popularity of the static panorama gradually giving way to the 'moving panorama', which were enormously long paintings that an operator slowly rolled before an audience like scenery passing by a train window. In America, for example, the most famous of these were the panoramic scenes of the Mississippi Valley by John Banvard (1815-91), which he toured from 1840. Banvard's largest panorama was his 'three-mile canvas' (as he branded it), which was actually about 0.8km (½ mile) long. With the profits from touring his work he was able to build a giant imitation of Windsor Castle on Long Island, which was nicknamed 'Banvard's Folly'. Gradually, these moving panoramas gave way to the popularity of moving pictures — and cinema was born.”

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Edward Brooke-Hitching


The Madman's Gallery: The Strangest Paintings, Sculptures and Other Curiosities from the History of Art


Chronicle Books


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