Today in Theatre History: BARKER’S PANORAMA OPENS–May 25, 1793


Robert Barker

On this day in theatre history–May 25, 1793–English painter, Robert Barker, opened his first “Panorama” on Leicester Square in London.  Barker, who invented and patented the process of semicircular (and eventually completely circular) landscape painting a few years earlier, constructed a singular facility that featured a cylindrical room with a skylight allowing for diffused illumination and a central indoor gazebo on which spectators stood, giving them the illusion of standing on a small platform overlooking a wide vista of London from the top of the Albion Mills*.  The effect was magnetic.  Within weeks, Barker had recouped his initial investment and was on his way to extraordinary fame and fortune.  People loved Barker’s scenic trick and technological magic–a bit like an eighteenth century IMAX, I imagine–and within a few years, he had “Panoramas” (a word Barker invented, by the way), in cities across Europe, most of them now fully circular with 360˚ vistas all inside a single room.


Barker’s 1792 panorama of London from the roof of the Albion Mills.

His patented painting technique revolutionized European art as people became enamored of “the picturesque.”  Thousands sought out the actual landscapes on tours to the countryside-promoting a new tourist industry aimed at the middle class–while others demanded new and more innovative paratheatrical diversions, leading to a yet  more pop culture inventions and amusement fads.  Painting on that scale, utilizing his advanced perspective process, soon found its way onto the great commercial stages as backdrops and changeable scenery.  And it wouldn’t take long for someone to figure out that rolling one of these long 360˚ paintings onto a lengthy spool and unraveling it during a show was a great way to shift scenes quickly and easily, as well as a clever method to show sustained movement as actors–sometimes on horseback–moved along a powered treadmill.  Barker’s paintings eventually lead to a number of major innovations in scenic technology in the early and mid-nineteenth century, including the diorama and the impressive scrim reveals that Ciceri and Daguerre would perfect.

Barker's famed "double-decker" panorama in Leicester Square, London, 1793.

Barker’s famed “double-decker” panorama in Leicester Square, London, 1793.

Equally important, of course, was Barker’s demonstration that there was now a significant market emerging out of the Industrial Revolution for paratheatrical amusements that were not strictly theatre in the traditional sense.  Barker tapped into a massive undiscovered entertainment population that others would soon exploit as well (P.T. Barnum, William Cody, etc.) and that would eventually lead to the explosion of film and television as the dominant media of popular amusements among the industrialized cultures.


Albion Mills as it stood in 1790.

(* The Albion Mills, by the way, was the first great steam-powered factory in London.  Built in 1786 by Matthew Boulton and James Watt, it featured one of Watt’s earliest steam engines designed specifically to run industrial machinery.  It stood on the edge of the Thames River, near Blackfriars Bridge, and was a model of Britain’s growing industrial might, grinding 20 bushels of wheat an hour–an astounding feat in the eighteenth century–using 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones.  But the factory wasn’t universally celebrated.  Factory workers found the conditions inside intolerable and nearby watermill owners decried the modernization of their time-honored craft.  And the facility may well have been the infamous “dark satanic mill” referred to by Blake.  In the early morning hours of March 2, 1791, the Albion Mills burned down under mysterious circumstances, though arson was never proven.

Albion Mills burning down on March 2, 1791.  (Notice the factory workers cheering just off frame.)

Albion Mills burning down on March 2, 1791. (Notice the factory workers cheering just off frame.)

This means for our purposes, of course, that Barker must have sketched his initial drawings for his first great panorama from atop the Albion Mills before March of 1791.  And interestingly, he couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate site for introducing his new form of popular diversion for the industrial middle class–the very people who benefitted from the rapid growth of factories like the Albion Mills.)

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