All of the Arts

The Age of the Cyclorama

Before movies and television, and even radio, people turned to different mediums for entertainment. Welcome, to the ‘Cyclorama’.

Portrait of English artist Robert Barker
Robert Barker

Robert Barker was an itinerant English painter, who lived in the late 18th century.

Based for a time in Edinburgh, he found some renown with large scale paintings of the city. Barker’s signature pictures were from the perspective of Chalton Hill, a popular lookout in the centre of town.

In 1792 he produced an enormous work, capturing the view from this location. Its method was unusual; metres high and wide, and painted in one long strip, it could be arranged in a cylinder to create a 360 degree image.

Barker even coined a term to describe this unusual piece; a ‘panorama’. This came from the Greek, ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’, and ‘horama’ meaning ‘view’.

Robert Barker's panorama of Edinburgh, 1792

Robert Barker's panorama of London, 1793
Sections from Barker’s panorama’s; Edinburgh (top) and London (bottom)

Barker’s panorama proved popular enough that he could take his show to London.

In 1793 he started exhibiting in a purpose built, circular building, in Leicester Square. Customers would enter the room, stand on a platform at the centre, under a skylight, and be surrounded by the painted panoramic image. They could then turn slowly around, to cycle through the picture in its entirety (hence: cyclorama).

The exhibition was a huge success. Large queues formed to see the unique display, and Barker made a fortune from ticket sales.

His success lead him to create a new panorama for his London audience. An image painted from the roof of Albion Mills, in Southbank, that showed several highlights of the city; The Thames, St Pauls, Westminster. This proved even more popular.

In an era before photography, the novelty of seeing several well known landmarks at once excited the public’s imagination. For a few shillings, the crowds could even purchase a small scale replica, 3 metres long, to recreate the effect at home.

Barker had created a new form of entertainment.

A cross section of a 19th century 'Cyclorama'
A cross section of a 19th century ‘Cyclorama’

Cycloramas grew in popularity through the 19th century.

The medium evolved from large scale paintings of places, to something more complex. Historical events became a regular theme. Sometimes props – flora, mannequins, vehicles – were placed in front of the image, to give it a three dimensional aspect.

By late in the century, most major cities in Europe and America had at least one Cyclorama. Temporary exhibits also toured, showcasing different large scales pictures for limited periods.

Pciture of Chicago's former Cyclorama building
Chicago’s Cyclorama

One of the most famous Cyclorama’s was a depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, housed in Chicago.

In 1879, a group of local businessmen together formed the National Panorama Company. They hired French artist Paul Phillippoteaux, who had successfully painted several panoramas in Europe, to create a large scale rendering of the battle.

It was a considerable undertaking.

Phillippoteaux and a team of four other artists spent some time interviewing survivors of Gettysburg, then less than two decades old, to obtain the necessary historic detail. The actual painting itself took three years to complete, starting in 1880.

Excerpt from Chicago's 'Gettysburg' cyclorama
Excerpt from Chicago’s ‘Gettysburg’ cyclorama

The finished painting was 6.7 metres high, and an astonishing 85 metres in length, making it one of the largest paintings ever created.

It showed ‘Pickett’s Charge’, a last-roll-of-the-dice cavalry advance from the last day of Gettysburg, where the Confederate forces gambled everything in a final all out assault. The Union’s repelling of this attack lead to General Lee’s surrender, shortly after.

A picture of Boston's Cyclorama building

The Gettysburg Cyclorama was unveiled in 1883, and housed in a purpose built building in Chicago. Civil War artefacts, including weapons, uniforms, and even stone walls, were included, to deepen the effect.

It was immensely popular. Huge crowds turned out to see it, and critics praised the historical accuracy. Gettysburg veterans who visited, it is said, were often reduced to tears. The Gettysburg Cyclorama was so popular, the city councillors in Boston commissioned an exact replica, and housed it in a grand building resembling a castle.

A picture of the Cyclorama in Fitzroy, Melbourne
The Fitzroy Cyclorama

There were also two purpose built Cycloramas in Melbourne.

The first opened on Victoria Parade in Fitzroy, in 1889. Rather than commission local art, the Fitzroy Cyclorama displayed imported paintings of foreign significance. This included an image showing the Battle of Waterloo, and another version of the Battle of Gettysburg.

A second Cyclorama opened on Little Collins Street, in the city. Popular attractions here included ‘The Siege of Paris’, showing the battle for the city from the Franco-Prussian war, alongside some local history; panorama depicting the Eureka Stockade was commissioned and displayed.

Map of the original Royal Exhibition Buildings in Carlton, Melbourne
Map of the original Royal Exhibition Buildings, Carlton, showing the Cyclorama

A smaller Cyclorama also formed part of the original Royal Exhibition Buildings, in Carlton.

The Exhibition Building, completed in 1880, was originally much larger than today. Behind the main hall, the only part of the original still standing, was a sprawling complex of smaller buildings and connected rooms. These housed exhibits during the initial Melbourne Exhibition of 1880, and were later used for a variety of purposes, including a ballroom, fernery, function centre, and city aquarium.

One part was set aside for a Cyclorama.

An excerpt from the Melbourne Cyclorama image, 'Early Melbourne 1842'
Excerpt from the Carlton Cyclorama.

On display was a 30 metre panorama of Melbourne, itself.

Commissioned by the local Government, the painting was created by German born artist John Hennings, in 1892. It was based on a sketch of the fledgling city drawn by Samuel Jackson in 1842, thought to be one of the earliest depictions of the city.

But the Cyclorama’s day in Australia was short lived.

The former Cyclorama in Fitzroy, now used as an athletics pavilion
The Fitzroy Cyclorama, now used as an athletics pavilion in the 1920s

The movie camera was invented by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, and the first short films were shown locally, in Melbourne, the following year (read about Melbourne’s first movie screen, here). Cinema caused a sensation wherever it was demonstrated, and it quickly consigned the static Cyclorama to history.

The Little Collins Cyclorama closed the same year that cinema arrived in Melbourne, 1896. The Fitzroy version held out a little longer, till 1906. The circular building on Victoria Parade was thereafter used for a circus, as an athletic club, for boxing matches and even as a cinema, before being demolished in 1928.

Part of St Vincent’s hospital now stands on the site.

The display at the Royal Exhibition Building was a popular attraction, however, and remained in place until 1920. When it finally closed, the giant painting of Melbourne was carefully removed and placed into storage. It was rediscovered in the 1950’s and subsequently donated to the State Library, where it is now safely in the permanent collection.

Image from the a Cyclorama in Broken Hill
The 100 metre long ‘Big Picture’ in Broken Hill

Cylindrical cyclorama buildings around the world vanished fairly quickly, out of place with the 20th century. Chicago’s Gettysburg painting was removed and donated to the National Civil War museum, and the building demolished.

Similar fates befell other Cycloramas. Many of the giant paintings were simply lost.

Although a few remain, dotted around the world. The International Panorama Council (a real thing) lists three currently in operation in Australia; in Broken Hill, Glenbrook in NSW, and Hawker in South Australia.

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