Empire and the origins of the panorama
Jeff Wall’s photograph Restoration of 1993—a luminous transparency almost five meters wide—reveals the spectacular scale and complex mechanics of nineteenth-century panoramic paintings. The word “panorama” was coined in 1791 to describe circular painted canvases, some reaching 300 feet in length and 50 feet high. Installed in specially-constructed buildings, they were lit from above by skylights, which were screened from the viewers by a large, umbrella-like canopy. From the central platform, the painting entirely surrounded the viewer. Vistas seemed to reach off to infinity in all directions. According to the patent document written in 1787 by its inventor, Robert Barker, the panorama provides “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to the observer turning quite round.”
The new book On the Viewing Platform, which I edited in collaboration with Katie Trumpener, focuses on the spectator’s immersive experience, bringing together essays on the painted panorama and its legacies in photography, film, and contemporary art. The authors of the essays collected in the book claim that the panorama is a constitutive element of modernity and that, from paintings of the 1790s to the latest iPhone apps, panoramic looking has made a formative contribution to modern visuality.
The panorama generated profound shifts in the grammar of visual representation and the perception of landscape. To contemplate a conventional framed oil painting is to peer as if through a window, positioned and conditioned to stasis; the viewer is subject to the visual logic of the composition. Each spectator of a panorama, by contrast, must move around, choosing at will the direction of their gaze and the motion of their body, and eventually turning through 360 degrees.
The London skyline, visual trace of the commercial and administrative heart of the British empire, was the subject of a celebrated early painted panorama. Drawn by Henry Aston Barker, son of the medium’s inventor, A View of London from the Roof of the Albion Mills, was installed as a circular panorama in 1793.
It embodies the links between panoramic viewing and urban modernity in London, the world’s largest mercantile and political metropolis at the time. The austere tiled and glazed surfaces of the roofs and chimneys of the Albion Flour Mills dominate the foreground, echoing the structure of the viewing platform itself. This firmly situates the viewer in a privileged location of the modern. Celebrated as a marvel of technology by London’s financial and intellectual elite, the building housed two new Boulton and Watt steam engines and could grind flour at a fraction of the previous cost. This pioneering image places the panorama viewer astride a symbol of modern capitalism.
From its inception, On the Viewing Platform argues, the panorama was imbricated in the culture of imperialism. Panoramic looking, global capitalism and ideologies of empire overlap and mutually reinforce each other. The panorama manifested limitless reach both in visual form and restlessly changing thematic content. It came to prominence during a period of warfare between rival empires played out across much of the world and offered nineteenth-century audiences a place at the center of spectacular landscapes and historical events. For the small fee of a shilling, the panorama provided an insistent, phantasmagorical juxtaposition of “here” and “there”—home and abroad; familiar and exotic; imperial center and periphery; metropole and province; civilization and its alleged others. What the global panorama could do better than any other medium was to supply an experiential equivalent—a sublime simulacrum—of distant events, experienced in the round. From the viewing platform, spectators could sense a psychological, even sometimes a physiological, involvement in events thousands of miles away, to thrill to the smoke and chaos of a naval battle or an imperial skirmish; to be transported by the beauty of a sunset over the bay of Naples.
The origins of panoramic drawing techniques lay in utilitarian practices of the British military. Prospect views of potential battlefields were carefully recorded in graphite and watercolor from a high vantage point. Artists associated with colonial endeavors often retained the same sovereign position, which later also characterized colonial photography. This view from on high was extensively employed in British representations of the Indian subcontinent, as the East India Company’s colonial project progressed. In the Views of the island of Bombay and its vicinity, produced as hand coloured etchings by the James Wales in 1795, two plates join to form a broad, panoramic view of the View from Malabar Hill, showing strategically and symbolically significant landmarks such as the flagstaff at Malabar Point.
The territory surrounding Bombay was the subject of a fierce rivalry between the British East India Company and the Marathas, dynastic rulers in the region wielding significant military power. James Wales departed from London for India just after Robert Barker’s first, small panorama was exhibited there, and he may have seen it. The dark rocks in the immediate foreground the View from Malabar Hill, part of a crumbling fortification, suggest a viewing platform, cementing the kinship between topographical views of empire and the nascent panoramic form. By 1831, when a panorama of Bombay from Mazagaon Hill was exhibited in the Leicester Square, London, it retained a marked similarity to Wales’s views of thirty-five years earlier; but now British ascendancy over the Marathas was assured. Such panoramas were accompanied by booklets giving a key to significant landmarks. These were numbered on an etched diagram, which attempted to render legible what must have been a confusing initial encounter. The text also attempted to impose an imperial ideological order, offering simple explanations of the seemingly impenetrable complexity of the view. Such texts frequently contrast order under the rule of the East Indian Company with the allegedly chaotic condition of India under earlier regimes.
Chapters in On the Viewing Platform by Julia Lum and Ruth Pullin engage with panoramic looking in settler-colonial Australia. The founding of a prison colony at Botany Bay, following Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, took place only months after the opening of Barker’s first panorama in 1787. Lum explores the paradoxes generated by the panorama A View of the Town of Sydney, New South Wales, mounted in December 1828 at Leicester Square by Robert Burford (who took over the panorama business from the Barker family in 1827, having worked for them as a painter since 1803). Burford and his team of painters in London relied for source material on the sketches and designs of the British travelling artist Augustus Earle. In Lum’s analysis, the panorama becomes a complex palimpsest of responses to imperial expansion in Australasia, inscribing the radically different experiences of the colonial settler, the transported convict and the displaced Indigenous figure. The panorama emerges as an unstable, indeed, a destabilizing influence. Rather than providing the London viewer with the confident gaze of the imperial overlord, thus extending the eye of power to a mass metropolitan audience, it reveals the uncertainties and incoherences of early settler society in Australia.
Ruth Pullin’s account of the panoramic art of the German emigrant to Australia, Eugene von Guérard, opens with his view from the summit of Mt Rouse, a sharply angled volcanic cone situated in the plains of western Victoria. Von Guérard covered four sketchbook pages with a continuous and meticulously accurate drawing of the view before him. As Pullin puts it, he sought “to capture ‘everything’,” creating a total portrait of the world before him.
In this, von Guérard betrays the influence of the all-embracing vision of the cosmos as a diverse but unified whole central to the work of the prolific and influential Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, a vision ultimately rooted in colonial exploration.
Humboldt emerges from the chapters of this book as a pivotal figure in the history of the panorama, perhaps the most significant intellect to be influenced by the experience of immersion in panoramic vision. His work is also central to the larger intellectual culture of European imperialism. Gretchen Bender introduces us to an ambitious panoramic painting in which Humboldt appears as one of an assortment of luminaries positioned, improbably perhaps, atop the roof of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Friedrichswerdersche Kirche.
Humboldt is in full flow, discoursing to a handful of admirers; perched next to him on the church roof is a powerful telescope. The artist, Eduard Gaertner, created a persuasive hybrid of the panorama and the exhibition painting, a work whose six hinged panels create two large triptychs. In Bender’s analysis, Gaertner’s panoramic painting enshrine a complex meditation on a society in transition to modernity evidenced by an astonishing accumulation of circumstantial detail. This florid excess of information was central to the “reality effect” of the panorama.
In an interpretative tour-de-force, Richard Maxwell draws out connections between Humboldt’s panoramic vision, with its plenitude of tropical foliage, and a series of emblematic sites of the nineteenth century including the palm house or conservatory, and the international exhibition, often likewise housed in a glasshouse or Crystal Palace. These too were foundational sites of imperial visual culture. The spectacular quality of panoramic vision, in Maxwell’s analysis, links it to the circus and the world’s fair, the botanical garden, the museum display case and the ethnic village encampment of the ethnological museum, or the simulacrum of such a village in a museum diorama. Such sites—from the world’s fairs to fun-fairs, White City to Coney Island—were also key locations for early cinema, forming one more link between the genres.
The imperial panorama has direct resonances in some of the most important artworks of our contemporary moment. As Julia Lum has noted, in Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015–2017), by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana deploys the panoramic form to offer a sharply critical reflection on the continuing power of landscape imagery, understood as a site of historical and contemporary violence. This massive video work, on a laterally extended screen spanning 85 feet, responds to the historical provocation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a scenic coloured wallpaper created in 1804 by Joseph Dufour on the basis of imagery from the Pacific voyages of James Cook. Reihana’s work refuses the “monarch of all I survey” viewpoint of the painted panorama. Instead, through deft digital manipulation, she inserts speaking, singing, and moving figures, in contrast to the static, stereotypical representations of Indigenous people in the original wallpaper. Reihana offers a partial exegesis of Indigenous cosmologies that contest the Enlightenment’s insistence on global normativities, insisting on the validity of traditional knowledges and the limitations of Western perception. Though potentially a terrain of terrible violence, the panoramic emerges in her visionary, redemptive work, as a space of resistance and exchange in which multiple voices can be heard and multiple world views accommodated. In this radical inversion of imperial panoramic form, created more than two centuries after the panorama’s inception, Europeans are viewed as exotic, uncomprehending strangers, while Indigenous peoples occupy the viewing platform.
Tim Barringer is Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art, both at Yale University.