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Between the Virtual and the Actual: Robert Barker's Panorama of London and the Multiplication of the Real in late eighteenth-century London [1]

  • Peter Otto

…plus d’informations

  • Peter Otto
    University of Melbourne

Corps de l’article


In Friedrich’s “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” (1818), [2] the Wanderer stands alone, with his back to the viewer, at the apex of the mountain peak that fills the foreground of the design (fig. 1). From this vantage point, he looks out across an immense sea of mists to the horizon, where earth and fog meet the sky. The Wanderer’s centrality and elevation, complemented by his isolation and gender, make him for many critics an obvious emblem of modernity and the modern subject. [3] Indeed, the design seems to anticipate some of the most important themes of Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture” and the tradition of thought on modernity and the modern subject to which it belongs (70-88). I am thinking of, for example, the Wanderer’s distance from the physical world that surrounds him; the relation of domination implied by his elevation above that world; the reduction of the world to a view or picture with the Wanderer as its “relational centre”; and the implication that the world’s truth is to be found in its being-represented to a sovereign subject. Like the modern subject as described by Heidegger, the Wanderer’s autonomy and elevation are the result of an emancipation from traditional sources of authority, but this liberation seems inextricable from “The fundamental event of the modern age,” namely “the conquest of the world as picture” (85).

Figure 1

David Caspar Friedrich, “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” (1818), oil on canvas, 74.8 x 94.8 cm (29½ x 37 3/8 in.).

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Elke Walford.

David Caspar Friedrich, “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” (1818), oil on canvas, 74.8 x 94.8 cm (29½ x 37 3/8 in.).

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This kind of reading is strengthened by the painting’s allusions to the panorama -- a building, optical environment, and circular painting that in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was almost a synecdoche for the modern. The centrality and elevation of the Wanderer; the light emanating uniformly from the landscape; the relation between the foreground, middle and background of the design; and the relation between observer, light and circumambient world, all recall the panorama, to the extent that one can’t exclude the possibility that the Wanderer is standing in a panorama, on an observation platform designed to seem part of the panorama’s virtual environment, and that he is therefore looking out over a virtual rather than actual landscape.

In contemporary criticism the panorama is routinely associated with the modern attempt to contain everything within a single view or picture. “The invention of the panorama,” Comment writes, “was a response to a particularly strong nineteenth-century need – for absolute dominance” (19). Its audience were “there to experience the ... illusion that they were masters of the world” (Comment 136). Miller argues that the panorama “satisfied the nineteenth-century craving for visual – and by extension physical and political – control over a rapidly expanding world” (34-69: 1), and Oettermann that the panorama “represents the final sum in the addition of nature,” putting “an end to the uncertainty of relationships between details by claiming them all in one swoop” (30). These views elaborate Walter Benjamin’s argument, in “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” that in the panoramas “the city opens out, becoming landscape”: the panoramas transfer to cityscapes the city-dweller’s “political supremacy over the provinces” (Selected Writings 3: 35).

Formally and thematically, therefore, Friedrich’s painting and the context it implies mirror each other, the one offering itself as interpretative frame for the other. Indeed, the parallel between virtual worlds and between visual technologies is so engaging that one doesn’t at first notice that the Wanderer has reached an impasse. “[C]onquest of the world as picture” is possible only if the latter provides a transparent window onto the former, but in this design the actual world is veiled by the Sea of Mists. Just as importantly, as one gazes at the painting, awareness of the Wanderer’s commanding position oscillates with the recognition that he is a single point of consciousness, dwarfed by and subject to a world that predates him.

To these remarks one might retort that the relation between picture and reality, part and whole, will be revealed when the sun, whether symbol of reason, imagination or Spirit, rises to disperse the mists. But this painting offers no unequivocal sign of that event. Is the Wanderer watching the morning or evening mists? It is impossible to tell. Light emanates uniformly from the sea of mists, giving it an apparent life of its own, to the extent that the mists threaten to dissolve the actual world, turning valleys into shifting plains, and mountain summits into floating islands. Under their influence, the earth seems almost without weight, mirroring the sky, to the point where the boundary between the two becomes uncertain.

The relation between observer, picture or view, and world, in which the picture re-presents the actual world for an autonomous subject, has been displaced by relations constitutive of a virtual world, namely the interaction between the light that emanates from the landscape, the observer, and the impressions left by vanishing substance. The gulf that separates the rocky peak from the sea of mists marks, therefore, the divide between actual and virtual worlds.

This same division reappears at the centre of the design, with the Wanderer himself as its locus. The sequence of rocky peak, sea of mists and sky is often taken as a visual metaphor for the Wanderer’s life, extending from where he now stands to the horizon. In this conceit, the past is the inert, almost lifeless realm behind him. The future is the space of possibility that extends to the horizon and beyond. And between these extremes, the present is the thin space that divides rocks and mists, the actual and the virtual, the claims of the past and the still undetermined future.

The Wanderer therefore stands between, and paradoxically belongs to both past and future, actual and virtual worlds. His slender walking stick and bottle-green frock coat, both curiously out of place for a mountaineer, link him to the social world on which he has turned his back. His unmoving body, and the arrangement of his legs and walking stick, echo and extend the triangle outlined by the rocky peak. Yet he stands at the limit of both of these actual worlds, open to a future present in which the ground on which he now stands will have been transformed.

These qualifications of the Wanderer’s commanding view are extended by his role as uncanny double of the painting’s audience. The virtual world opened for the Wanderer by the sea of mists, mirrors the virtual world conjured for the spectator by the painting. For the Wanderer, the virtual and the actual are divided by the “almost nothing” of the mist (and by the equally evanescent “present”). For the spectator, they are divided by the “almost nothing” of paint on canvas. Yet in both cases, despite this proximity, the virtual emerges only by eclipsing the actual (and vice versa). While the Wanderer contemplates the virtual world he conjures from the mist, the actual world is eclipsed. Similarly, to the extent that they enter the virtual world of the painting, spectators briefly forget that they are standing in the Hamburger Kunsthalle or gazing at a digital image on a computer screen. Wanderer and spectator stand at the edge of the everyday world, dressed in their city clothes, as they gaze and in imagination enter a world based on radically different grounds.

Yet the perspectives assumed by Wanderer and spectator are not the same. Within the virtual world opened by the painting, spectators are able to see elements that, in the moment depicted, are not seen by the Wanderer, most obviously: the Wanderer’s back; the rocks behind him; the outline formed by the peak and the Wanderer, when seen against the sea of mists. This observation of observation frames the Wanderer’s commanding view as itself contingent, a pattern of sight and blindness produced by a chance collocation of observer, shifting form, and light.

The spectator’s view is of course equally partial. Just as the Wanderer is unable to see through the mist to the landscape below, a person looking at the painting cannot see the Wanderer’s face; his gaze; the side of his body turned towards the mists; or the portions of the rocky peak, sea of mists and horizon obscured by his body. As a second-order observer the spectator can, in effect, see the Wanderer only from the outside. He or she can see the ground that supports him and from which he turns, the line that divides the actual from the virtual, and even traces of the virtual world (mists, floating islands, sky), but the virtual world itself, as it unfolds from the perspective of the Wanderer, is a space of blindness within a field of visibility. Is the spectator contemplating a positive or negative, individual or collective future? There is no way to find out.

As is often remarked, second order observers are also, and at the same time, first order observers, unable to see the conditions and distinctions that ground their own sight. The visual field of a third spectator, observing the second, would repeat this pattern of first-order and second-order observation, sight and blindness. One might assume, therefore, that in this potentially infinite regression each observer assumes a naive rather than ironical relation to his or her own perceptions; yet in the sequence implied by this painting each observer serves as an uncanny double of the one who observes him. As double of the spectator, the Wanderer creates the rather unsettling feeling that one is looking at oneself lost in contemplation of this painting. Recognition of the limits and contingency of the Wanderer’s world is, at the same time, a self-reflexive awareness of the limits of one’s own world. In Schiller’s terms, the implied observers of “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” are sentimental (ironic and self-reflexive) rather than naive.

Rather than unfolding a series of perspectives on a single world, this painting implies that worlds are themselves multiple (the virtual world of the observer; the imagined world of the painting; the constructed world of the gallery), and that although the first opens out from the second, and the second from the third, there is no simple division of these worlds into those that are “real” and those that are “illusions.” Instead, each world is constituted in a play of sight and blindness, is “actual” only for a particular first-order observer, and to that extent is contingent and virtual.

Our account of this painting has taken us to an impasse similar to that which confronts the Wanderer: this multiplication of virtual worlds, and the attendant destabilisation of the real, could be halted if a primary power or reality were to be discovered, in relation to which first and second order realities could be placed and so distinguished from each other. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to see “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” as depicting, for the Wanderer and the Viewer, the moment prior to a revelation of this kind. Standing at the summit of a mountain, the Wanderer occupies a position commonly associated in the eighteenth century with experiences of the sublime, in which disorder is troped as an indirect presentation of a greater power. Yet, as I have argued, although the painting might seem pregnant with this possibility, hovering on the edge of revelation, it does not take this step. It offers itself as an indirect presentation only of the panorama, a technology of illusion, rather than a primary power.

I began by noting that Friedrich’s painting and the panorama mirror each other, the one offering itself as interpretative frame for the other. The corollary this now seems to imply, namely that the panorama is involved with the destabilisation rather than the consolidation of the real, is surprising only because the dominant account of the panorama, represented by the critics quoted earlier, takes as its explicit or implicit point of reference the forms assumed by the panorama in the second half of the nineteenth century, the second phase of its development. This is eloquently suggested by, for example, Comment’s claim that the panorama was invented in response to a strong “nineteenth-century need for absolute dominance [my italics],” a claim that echoes Benjamin’s association of the panorama with Paris of the nineteenth century (Selected Writings 3: 34-5). [4]

The panorama was of course invented in 1787, with the first panorama displayed the following year. The first permanent structure purpose-built to display panorama paintings opened in Leicester Square in London in 1793, and for the next twenty years at least was considered to be isomorphic with the panorama phenomenon. By privileging later manifestations of the panorama, the accounts mentioned above understate the extent to which, in the first phase of its development, the panorama and the hyper-realistic illusion it conjured, paradoxically relied on and at the same time intensified the late eighteenth-century sense that first and second order realities had diverged. [5]

This at first somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon occurs not despite but because of the panorama’s ability to simulate the real. As I shall suggest, the hyper-realistic virtual realities of the early panorama intensified late eighteenth-century interest in the observation of observation; presented perception as an event that did not require the presence of its apparent object, thus radicalising the achievements of Trompe l’Oeil painting; drew attention to the figural space of representation; and provided new evidence for the constructed and contingent nature of the real. Before addressing these points, the panorama and its virtual realities must be introduced in more detail.

II. The Panorama

The patent granted to Robert Barker on 19 June 1787 describes an “entirely new contrivance or apparatus,” named “La Nature à Coup d' Oeil” (nature at a glance), that was able to conjure a three-dimensional virtual reality that extends in complete circle around the viewer, to an imagined horizon (and then to an implied beyond). [6] The elements specified by the patent included a cylindrical painting, a circular building designed to exhibit that painting, a viewing platform at the building’s centre, and interceptions placed so that spectators were unable to see the upper or lower margins of the painting. In contrast to a conventional gallery or exhibition space, Barker’s patent makes clear that it is an optical environment that depends on (and itself reproduces) quite specific spatial relations between landscape, the representation of landscape, the environment in which that representation is displayed, and the viewer of those representations.

In the following year, Barker exhibited the world’s first full-circle panorama, a view of Edinburgh, which he advertised as providing “a complete prospect of the whole horizon as appearing from the top of the observatory on Calton Hill comprehending a circle of several hundred miles” (qtd. in Pragnell 10). Although painted on a cylindrical canvas only “twenty-five feet in diameter” and exhibited in rooms not designed for the purpose, it was announced by advertisements and hailed by reviewers as “truly astonishing,” an idea “entirely new,” [7] the release of painting from the rules that had previously confined it, [8] and a striking instance of the changes that were unshackling the present from the past (Corner 5; Time 28 Apr. 1789: 3; World 27 Mar. 1790, 26 Mar.1789). [9] Newspapers referred again and again to the “singularly striking” effect produced by the panorama, its uncanny ability to create the feeling that one was standing at the location represented (Times 9 May 1789: 1). One reviewer observed that Barker’s invention would be of particular interest to the King and Queen, “the Heir apparent, and several of the Royal Family, who rarely go abroad”:

This Artist brings the wished for scene before them, one entire uninterrupted circle, placing them in the centre, where they can see the same as those who travel ... and having seen it personally, they can retain it perfectly in idea, the same as nature could impress. [10]

Times 24 Apr. 1789: 4

Barker’s second panorama, “a view-at-a-glance of the CITIES OF LONDON and WESTMINSTER,” exhibited from June 1791 in Castle Street near Leicester Square, was much larger and, in part for this reason, its effects were still more striking (Hyde 62). Although exhibited in a temporary rotunda too small to contain the entire painting, spectators again described its verisimilitude as astonishing (Hyde 62). Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Society, who had earlier expressed doubts as to whether Barker’s invention would succeed, admitted that it was “capable of producing effects, and representing nature in a manner far superior to the limited scale of pictures in general” (Corner 6).

This success helped Barker attract the funds required to erect a structure, in Cranbourne Street, on the north side of Leicester Square, similar to the one described in the patent. As depicted in Robert Mitchell’s Plans and Views in Perspective (1801), the first permanent panorama rotunda was 90 feet in diameter and 57 feet high (8). It contained a larger and a smaller viewing circle, able to display panoramas of 10,000 square feet and 2,700 square feet respectively (fig. 2) (Corner 14). The viewing circles were built around a large central column, the smaller located immediately above the larger, so that the floor of the former could serve as the upper interception for the latter. In each circle, spectators stood on a raised platform built in the centre of the rotunda. The Leicester Square panorama opened on the 25th of May 1793, with a View of the Russian “Grand Fleet at Spithead” (Hyde, Introduction). [11] A larger version of the panorama of London opened in the upper circle on 28 March 1795 (Hyde, Introduction).

Figure 2

“A Section of the Rotunda in Leicester Square, in which is exhibited The Panorama”. Aquatint from Robert Mitchell’s Plans and Views in Perspective, with Descriptions, of Buildings Erected in England and Scotland (London: Wilson & Co., 1801).

Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

“A Section of the Rotunda in Leicester Square, in which is exhibited The Panorama”. Aquatint from Robert Mitchell’s Plans and Views in Perspective, with Descriptions, of Buildings Erected in England and Scotland (London: Wilson & Co., 1801).

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In his long poem Jerusalem (c.1804-20), Blake writes of a time when “London coverd the whole Earth. England encompassd the Nations: / And all the Nations of the Earth were seen in the Cities of Albion [England].” Jerusalem itself, he continues, could be seen in London’s “secret chambers” (79:22-3, 29). Although this remarkable expansion of London (or compression of the world) might seem unlikely, Barker’s panorama made an analogous deformation of space and time a commonplace occurrence, available for the price of an admission ticket.

With regard to Jerusalem, the Barkers were uninterested and their successors rather slow: it was not until 1835, when Robert Burford was proprietor, that a “View of the City of Jerusalem” was exhibited at the Leicester Square panorama. Nevertheless, in the intervening years many of the great cities of the world were seen in this not-so-secret chamber, along with scenes of remarkable natural beauty, such as the 1821 panorama of “Bern and the High Alps.” Equally astonishing was the Panorama’s ability apparently to transport spectators into the thick of historical events: the battles of Nile, Copenhagen, Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo could all be seen in Leicester Square. For many visitors to the panorama, it seemed as if they had entered a space of dream or ecstasy. As Ephraim Hardcastle wrote in 1824:

We have seen Vesuvius in full roar and torrent, within a hundred yards of a hackney-coach stand with all its cattle, human and bestial, unmoved by the phenomenon. Constantinople, with its bearded and turbanned multitudes, quietly pitched beside a Christian thoroughfare, and offering neither persecution nor proselytism. Switzerland, with its lakes covered with sunset, and mountains capped and robed in storms ... and now Pompeii, reposing in its slumber of two thousand years, in the very buzz of the Strand. There is no exaggeration in talking of those things as really existing. ... The scene is absolutely alive, vivid, and true; we feel all but the breeze, and hear all but the dashing of the wave.


For some, the passage from actual to virtual worlds precipitated a feeling of disorientation, sometimes even of nausea. Others feared that they might be unable to escape the panorama’s illusion. Dream here becomes nightmare. As the German writer on aesthetics J. A. Eberhard bitterly complains, within the panorama it is impossible to withdraw from the illusion:

I feel shackled with iron bands ... I feel as if I am in a net spread by an irrational dream-world, and neither the advice that I am distant from the location [presented by the panorama], nor the daylight, nor the contrast with my own immediate surroundings can rouse me from this fearful dream, from which I have to tear myself against my will. [12]

1:179-80 L28

How should this powerful experience be classified? In his Essay on Human Understanding, Locke defines sensation as “the perception or thought which actually accompanies, and is annexed to, any impression on the body, made by an external object, [which] ... furnishes the mind with a distinct idea” (298). Sensation is, therefore, “the actual entrance of any idea into the understanding by the senses” (Locke 298). This definition allows Locke to distinguish sensation from modifications of the mind that operate on simple ideas. Locke mentions recollection, contemplation, rêverie, attention and study. Up to this point in his argument, each modification of thought has a relation to the simple ideas attendant on sensation and, therefore, via the senses, to objects existing in the real world. The mention of study, however, brings sleep to Locke’s mind and this draws ecstasy in its wake, terms that disrupt the orderly sequence Locke has been developing. Dreaming, he writes,

is the having of ideas ... in the mind, [that are] not suggested by any external objects, or known occasion; nor under any choice or conduct of the understanding at all: and whether that which we call ecstasy be not dreaming with the eyes open, I leave to be examined.


There seems little doubt that the panorama belongs to the last category on Locke’s list. We are indeed dreaming with our eyes open – but unlike most cases of ecstasy, in the panorama we are dreaming of the real world. This curious collocation of transport and the actual, ecstasy and the real, raised for late eighteenth-century audiences many of the problems traditionally associated with imitation.

III. Mimesis

In the eighteenth century, poetry and painting are routinely associated with the imitation of nature. It is often assumed that some degree of confusion between imitation and thing is a necessary element of painting. But even poetry, an art not so firmly bound to the sensuous appearances of things, was widely thought capable of an analogous realism. According to Hugh Blair, for example, “a true Poet makes us imagine that we see [nature] before our eyes; he catches the distinguishing features; he gives it the colours of life and reality: he places it in such a light, that a painter could copy after him” (3: 173). Lessing suggests that by calling such impressions “poetic pictures” we understate their power:

What we call ‘poetic pictures’ were phantasiae to the ancients ... And what we call ‘illusion,’ the deceptive element of these pictures, they termed ‘enargia’ or hypotyposis, the “vivid description of a scene, event, or situation, bringing it, as it were, before the eyes of the hearer or reader.” Poetic phantasiae were, because of their enargia, waking dreams. [13]


The locus classicus of the mimetic view of art, and of the dangers posed to society by their ability to mirror, counterfeit and even eclipse reality, is the tenth book of the Republic. In Plato’s well-known argument, the mimetic arts, like a mirror, are able to reproduce “the appearance” but not “the reality and the truth” of the thing (821). The imitator is therefore at three removes from the truth, able to produce only copies of objects that are themselves imperfect copies of their essential forms. Even Homer, described by Plato as the originator of all poetical tragedies, “is an imitator” and therefore at “three removes from the king and the truth” (822-3). Poetic tragedies, like mimetic art in general, therefore corrupt the mind of “listeners who do not possess as an antidote a knowledge of its real nature” (Plato 820).

Without explicitly overturning this argument, in later works such as the Sophist and the Laws, Plato allows that “a ‘true imitation’ might reveal nature and form in artistic representation,” and that the community should rely on “the good and wise man in their midst” to judge “the artist’s degree of success in striving to imitate the ideal” (Burwick 183). As John Barrell argues in The Political Theory of Painting, the eighteenth century developed an analogous argument by claiming “the true function” of painting (and, we can add, the mimetic arts in general) “was to represent, not the accidental and irrational appearances of objects, but the ideal, the substantial form of things” (14).

As this suggests, the panorama’s realism tended to align it with the mechanical arts of deception and illusion, and therefore with the lower rather than the higher branches of painting. Seen in this light, Reynolds’s testimony to the unparalleled ability of the panorama to produce “effects” and represent “nature” locates the panorama in the realm of sensuous, contingent surface, rather than the ideal. John Constable was more explicit: “great principles are neither expected nor looked for in this mode of describing nature” (qtd. in Beckett 2: 34).

The confusion portended by this art of external appearances is a theme often evoked by reviews of the early panorama, even those that are largely positive. According to the review from The Times quoted earlier, which imagined the panorama as a vehicle for bringing “views of distant countries” before the royal family, this extension of the king’s sight is achieved by subordinating substance to surface: in the panorama it is the artist who instructs the king, brings distant scenes before him, and places him in the centre of an illusory world. From this position, the king’s view is oddly quotidian, merely “the same as those who travel” and, moreover, accessible in principle to anyone able to purchase an admission ticket.

In 1794, when the king actually did come to see Barker’s panorama of the Grand Fleet at Spithead, the scene was remarkably similar to that imagined by the reviewer. According to the account provided by Robert Aston Barker,

the king asked many questions; and when answered, turned around to Lord Harcourt, to whom he gave the answer verbatim, always beginning with ‘He says’ so-and-so. His majesty had a large gold-headed cane, which he pointed with, and sometimes put into my hand, making me stoop down in a line with it, to be informed of an object so small that I could not otherwise understand him.

qtd. in Corner 7

In the panorama, the king is unable, without the help of the artist, to mediate between first order and second order realities, still less between second order realities and the ideal. The artist here plays the role of Plato’s “wise man,” as he gives the names of things to artistic appearances. With the centre subject to the periphery, the king becomes an imitator, repeating verbatim what he has been told. Curiously, it is now the artist/proprietor who must stoop if he is briefly to assume the king’s point of view; and this point of view is now available to all.

Rather than presenting a finite set of appearances ordered in relation to an ideal, the panorama created an Umwelt, an environment or milieu for the spectator, filled with a relatively unstructured, and in its detail unmanageable, profusion of visual data. Henry Aston Barker’s panorama of the coronation in July 1821 of George IV, for example, included “30,000 figures, ... 14,000 of whom [were] in costume for the occasion” (Altick 177). A rival version, “exhibited at the Great Room, Spring Gardens, contained 100,000 figures, of which 500 were life size” (Altick 178). This extraordinarily rich visual field creates for the spectator an experience of split causality, or as Wordsworth was to describe it in “Tintern Abbey,” albeit in relation to nature rather than the panorama, of a “mighty world” that is half perceived and half created (ll. 105-7). [14] The milieu conjured by the panorama establishes a field of open causality, each determination of which is an enactment by the spectator of only one of the possibilities it contains. The consequent interpenetration in the spectator’s mind of passive registration and active construction, a sense of disorder and of emergent order, is nicely illustrated by the anamorphic diagrams that accompanied early panoramas, designed to help spectators orient themselves within their virtual worlds.

The anamorphic diagram of the Panorama of London reproduced as figure 3 is a characteristic example, made by transferring the panorama’s 360-degree view, as reflected on a circular globe, onto a sheet of paper. This is indeed a “view at a glance” of the panorama’s virtual world, although still not one that claims all of its details “in one swoop.” Only the most prominent of the objects contained by the panorama are represented, and these objects are present all-at-once only to an observer outside and above rather than inside the image. Moreover, even from this vantage point, and although all 360 degrees are visible, only a portion of the circle appears in perspective at any one time. One views this diagram by turning it slowly full circle, as if it were a primitive kaleidoscope, watching first one and then the next element come into and move out of focus. Whether seeing the diagram all-at-once or in serial progression, the effect is of an almost surreal conjunction of disparate elements, suggestive of a world whose parts can be brought together only in multiple, contingent “wholes,” forged by the contingent interaction between spectator and visual environment. The lists in the centre and to the left of the diagram (in English and French respectively) number, name and arrange in a sequential order, twenty-four of the panorama’s most prominent sights. But this is only one of the paths that spectators can take through the spaces conjured by the anamorphic diagram or by the panorama.

Figure 3

“Panorama De Londres”. Orientation Plan for the Panorama of London, 1792. Guildhall Library, City of London.

“Panorama De Londres”. Orientation Plan for the Panorama of London, 1792. Guildhall Library, City of London.

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If one increases still further the distance dividing the observer from the panoramic environment, then the ordering role of the observer is emphasized, at the expense of the visual date he or she arranges. The interaction between order and disorder consequently becomes a more straightforward opposition. In Richter’s cyclorama of Dresden (1824), for example, the elevation of the implied observer allows him or her to see Dresden all-at-once; but rather than being surrounded by the city, as would be the case in the panorama, the city has been reduced almost to a map: the panorama’s mass of visual data has become an impenetrable labyrinth of buildings (fig. 4).

Figure 4

Karl August Richter, cyclorama, taken from the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Engraving, 1824 (Nordost-Bibliothek, Lüneburg).

Reproduced with the kind permission of Nordost-Bibliothek, Lüneburg, who hold the copyright for this work (Sk-D5).

Karl August Richter, cyclorama, taken from the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Engraving, 1824 (Nordost-Bibliothek, Lüneburg).

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The inverse occurs in the myoriama “invented in 1802 in Paris by ... Jean-Pierre Brés” and later “considerably refined by John Heaviside Clark ... in London” (Oettermann 67). These were typically small-scale panoramas, composed of parts that could be assembled in any order. “The text of a twenty-four-card myriorama dating from about 1810,” for example, claims that “‘If every human being on earth (more than three billion people) laid a new combination every second, it would take them more than sixteen million years to exhaust the possibilities’” (Oettermann 355, 27n). Here any particular view is dwarfed by the vast multitude of possible views.

In Thomas Horner’s remarkable collocations of map and landscape, such as the “Plan of the Town and Parish of Kingston Upon Thames” (1813), which date from the decade before he began work on his own panorama of London in the early 1820s, map and milieu, the order that the mind actively constructs and the visual data it passively receives, move into such close proximity that one can see each at work: the map resolving the milieu into a two-dimensional view, the latter unsettling the former’s smooth surface with a wealth of visual data it is unable to assimilate (fig. 5). It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that in the centre of the design, elements of the map and milieu together suggest the contours of a human face.

Figure 5

Thomas Hornor, “Plan of the Town and Parish of Kingston Upon Thames; with a view of Kingston from the Hill and of the Market Place taken from near the Post Office” (1813).

Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Thomas Hornor, “Plan of the Town and Parish of Kingston Upon Thames; with a view of Kingston from the Hill and of the Market Place taken from near the Post Office” (1813).

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The interpenetration of (and oscillation between) passive impression and active construction, and the experience of double causality that this provokes, are what allow the panorama to extend the domain of imitation from things to the field of vision within which those things appear. Arguably this is what the original name of the panorama, “La Nature à Coup d' Oeil” (nature at a glance), and phrases such as “view at a glance,” were designed to identify as distinctive about the experience it offered: simulation of the visual field in its passive and active dimensions.

That perception is both passive and active is, of course, a commonplace of eighteenth-century empiricism and of the psychologies that developed from it. For Locke, the mind passively receives from sensation the simple ideas that it then uses to build -- through combination, comparison and construction -- our rich fund of complex ideas, including our ideas of modes; substance, whether spiritual or material; and relation, including time, cause and effect, personal identity and morality.

In the philosophy of David Hume, the exchanges between active and passive powers of the mind are still more evident, and the result of these exchanges potentially much more uncertain. On the one hand, Hume describes the mind as “a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their apperance (sic); pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (301). On the other hand, without evidence for the congruence of external objects, impressions, and simple ideas, that had been assumed by Locke, the active powers of the mind become still more prominent. Perception, knowledge, and culture all become provinces in the empire of the imagination.

Early accounts of the panorama repeat again and again the language of primary sensation and construction used by Locke and Hume and characteristic of empiricist philosophy and psychology, deploying it to describe an experience in which impressions are the manifold from which a sense of reality is constructed: the scene can be retained “perfectly in idea, the same as nature could impress”; “the painting refreshed all my impressions of the place”; the proprietors aim “to impress the spectator with such feelings as accompany those who visit the desolate and unpeopled ruins of Pompeii”; “Oh! If I could only re-create for you the impression this ravishing counterfeit made upon me” (Times 24 April 1789: 4; “Das Panorama. Die Ansichten von Windsor” 319; DESCRIPTION of a VIEW of the Ruins of the City of POMPEII ...” 2; "“Das Panorama. Die Gegend um Brighthelmstone” 314-5).

The challenge this poses to more conventional views of nature or of cities can be seen in Thomas Malton’s A Picturesque Tour Through the Cities of London and Westminster, published the year after Barker’s panorama of London was first exhibited. Malton’s orderly, sequential presentation of picturesque views is brought to a halt, appropriately enough, on Blackfriars bridge, by a “prospect so extensive and various” that it defeats his powers of verbal and pictorial description. Only the panorama, he admits, in which “the spectator turns, and views the whole circle of the horizon,” can “do justice to such a scene” (Malton 59). Like the person viewing the anamorphic diagram discussed earlier, the observer is here a connecting device for a dizzy variety of views, scenes and prospects. The panorama itself, mentioned almost in the exact centre of Malton’s two-volume work, is figured as an artistic form that contains and exceeds the finite elements of his particular Tour.

In Wordsworth’s paradoxical formulation, the panorama confronts its spectators with the “absolute presence of reality, / Expressing as in a mirror sea and land, / And what earth is, and what she hath to shew” (The Prelude ll. 249-51). Rather than appearances already shaped by secular or religious absolutes, such as god, spirit or life; or impressions framed and idealised by the artist; or sensation combined in the mind to form unified experience, in the panorama reality’s presence is absolute, an assemblage of visual data that because it is divorced from its ground is, like the appearances in Plato’s mirror, available to be formed by the mind of the spectator.

The panorama’s simulation of the field of vision is the foundation for yet another remarkable extension of the realm of mimesis, this time to the sublime, defined by Kant as anything that is “absolutely, and in every respect (beyond all comparison) great” (97 par. 25). The sublime is a defining feature of all panoramas, but for the purpose of this paper we can most economically see it at work in Barker’s panorama of London. Arguably this is the panorama that framed early perceptions of the phenomenon. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that “[The panorama of] London cover’d the whole Earth” it did appear in some of its most significant cities. A reconstructed version opened in New York in 1795. When no longer displayed at Leicester Square Panorama, the original toured Europe, being exhibited in Hamburg (1799), Leipzig (1800), Vienna (1801) and Paris (1802). For our purposes, this panorama can be reconstructed from a set of engravings aquatinted by Frederick Birnie, based on drawings made for the panorama, in November 1790 by Henry Aston Barker (figs. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11). [15]

Figure 6

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 1. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“The City with St. Paul’s Cathedral”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 1. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“The City with St. Paul’s Cathedral”.)

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Figure 7

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 2. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“View east across the roof of the Albion Mills showing the eastern part of the City, London Bridge and Southwark”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 2. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“View east across the roof of the Albion Mills showing the eastern part of the City, London Bridge and Southwark”.)

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Figure 8

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 3. Guildhall Library, City of London. (South-east London from the Albion Mills, with Sydenham hills on the horizon”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 3. Guildhall Library, City of London. (South-east London from the Albion Mills, with Sydenham hills on the horizon”.)

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Figure 9

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 4. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“Albion Street, looking south across St. George’s Circus”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 4. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“Albion Street, looking south across St. George’s Circus”.)

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Figure 10

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 5. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“Albion Place, with Adelphi Terrace and Somerset House in the distance”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 5. Guildhall Library, City of London. (“Albion Place, with Adelphi Terrace and Somerset House in the distance”.)

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Figure 11

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 6. Guildhall Library, City of London. (Blackfriars Bridge, view across the Thames to the north bank showing the Temple and St. Bride’s Church”.)

Frederick Birnie (aquatint after Henry Aston Barker), “A View of London taken from the top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars”, 1792, no. 6. Guildhall Library, City of London. (Blackfriars Bridge, view across the Thames to the north bank showing the Temple and St. Bride’s Church”.)

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IV. The Panorama of London

Even at first glance, Barker’s panorama of London provides a remarkable catalogue of the elements contained by late eighteenth-century London; rather than attempting to list even the most prominent, we will begin with the less exhausting task of noting that it is composed of four roughly-horizontal bands. Nearest to the spectator, the Albion Mills dominates the design as a whole. Next, the Thames runs east to London Bridge and beyond, and north to the only dimly seen Westminster Bridge, Parliament House and Westminster Abbey. Third, stretching from left to right, occupying the middle of the design, is the city of London itself. It reaches up into the foreground of the picture, along Surrey and Albion Street and then into Albion Square. And above the horizon, occupying about a third of the design, the sky draws together the composition as a whole.

It would be difficult to overstate the dynamism of this circumambient world, the impression it gives of London as both a locus of order and scene of dramatic change. This is perhaps most evident to a twentieth-century audience in the treatment of the sky, with its remarkable cloud formations, intersected by plumes of acrid smoke rising from furnaces belonging to the Falcon Coal Wharf (immediately in front of the Albion Mills), Watt’s short manufactory to the right, and so on. Guidebooks of the period claim London’s pollution as a tourist attraction, boasting that “In the spring ... during a calm day ... Vesurius (sic) itself can scarcely exceed [its] display of smoke” (Malcolm 1: 12).  [16]

This aerial spectacle mirrors the one beneath it. Malton refers to the “rage for building” that was transforming the city (Malton 1). Some years later, James Peller writes in Londinium Redivivium (1802) that “It would be a labour of little less difficulty to attempt to describe the varying form of a summer cloud, than to trace from year to year the outline of London” (5). In the panorama itself, although the city is anchored by its churches, St. Paul’s the most prominent amongst them, there are everywhere signs of constant, radical change. Albion Place was laid out in 1765. The Georgian Terraces on Surry and Albion Streets were built at intervals from about 1780. On the far side of the Thames, the Adelphi Terraces, described by Malton as a “stupendous undertaking,” had been completed in the 1770s (54). Closer to Blackfriars Bridge, Somerset House, considered by Malton to be “the greatest national structure of the present century,” was in 1792 still being built; [17] and to the south, there are signs of the urban development, stretching south to Camberwell and Peckham, that was rapidly transforming the countryside (Malton 49, 50; Pragnell 14).

The Thames repeats this pattern, being a synecdoche for the communication and transport system that, on the one hand, binds together England’s empire and, on the other hand, was one of the chief vehicles for the transformation of time and place that created the world’s first global economy. To many the amount of traffic on the Thames was evidence that England did encompass “the Nations, / And all the Nations of the earth [could be] seen in the Cities of Albion” (Blake, Jerusalem, 79.22-3). Thomas Pennant wrote in 1790 that the Thames supplied “the mutual wants of the universe ... We send the necessaries and luxuries of our island to every part; and, in return, receive every pabulum” that the universe has to offer (281). In the early 1790s, nearly 65% of England’s imports and exports passed through London, and there were so many ships on the Thames that congestion was a constant problem (Malton 83, 88). This degree of movement and change provides an apt mirror of the sky above it and the city through which the river runs. In Barker’s panorama, well over a hundred vessels of one kind or another can be seen on the Thames or moored at one of its many wharves, such as St. Paul’s wharf and Queenhithe. In the distance, just behind London Bridge, what was routinely described as a “forest of masts” arises from the Pool.

The centre of each of these layers of fluctuating appearance, the building from which the view is taken and that in the panorama appears to give spectators their view of London, is the appropriately named Albion Mills, built “by Samuel Wyatt in 1784 to grind corn into flour”. This was the first building in the world “designed to use rotary power from steam,” with machinery constructed by the engineering firm of Boulton and Watt (Mosse 47). In size and power the Albion Mill dwarfed its competitors. It was designed to work “thirty pairs of stones,” giving it on paper a capacity some fifteen times greater that the average output of its competitors (Mosse 49). The building itself was also revolutionary, a forerunner of “the fully framed building, with flexible interior space” (Mosse 47). The size, power and novelty of the building and its machinery ensured that “It was bitterly opposed, not only by the Millers, but also by those who saw in machinery a threat of unemployment” (Mosse 52).

The Mill dominates the panorama as a whole, covering more than half the surface area of two of Birnie’s aquatints, while having a significant presence in two others. Its central position, prominence relative to the rest of the panorama, the distance that seems to divide it from its surroundings, and its abstract shapes create a sense of height, solidity and power. This vantage point, like the peak on which the Wanderer stands, places the spectator at the point of fracture between the actual and the virtual, a world that is being swept away and another that is in the process of coming into being. The Albion Mills, London, the Thames, and the empire they imply are each emblematic of a modernity in which, as Marx and Engels were to observe more than fifty years later, “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” create a world in which “All that is solid melts into air” (31-63). [18] It seems appropriate, therefore, that by the time spectators were able to see the Panorama of London, only the walls of the “real” Albion Mills were in existence. As reported in the popular press, on 2 March 1791 a man charged with watching over the steam-engine during the night had fallen asleep, with the “consequence ... that the engine burst, and, in a moment of time ... dispersed an immense volume of fire, in every direction” (qtd. in Cox 1: 152). [19] The Albion Mills had fallen victim to the sublime powers it channelled.

In Friedrich’s “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists,” dissolution of the actual, tangible world can be seen as an indirect presentation of the panorama. Barker’s “Panorama of London” goes one step further. The location of the Albion Mills at the centre of the panorama and its role as the viewing platform on which the spectator stands suggest that the panorama is in turn an indirect presentation of the sublime commercial, industrial and colonial forces at the heart of modernity. These “invisible immense power[s]” radiate from the Albion Mills driving, on the one hand, the radical dissolution of a world that had once seemed substantial and, on the other hand, the almost apocalyptic sense of an emergent whole, evident in each of the panorama’s layers (Usher 109).

This sublime narrative, like the list at the centre of the anamorphic diagram discussed earlier, attempts to frame and so order the field of split causality established by the panorama. As in all experiences of the sublime, whether in the panorama or in the actual world, its power depends on its ability first to engineer the experience of a disordered, unmanageable whole, which stops us in our tracks, and then to induce the spectator to read this disorder as the indirect presentation of a primary power. It is the attenuation of the link that normally binds perceptions and things, signifier and signified, that allows perceptions and signifiers radically to be reordered in relation to a fundamental ground. In Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, for example, the sublime refigures “Chaos” as “a glorious world,” and what had merely been a world as “an Eden” (IV.503-4). In strong contrast, the primary power evoked by the Panorama of London is arguably modernity itself, and the “Eden” that emerges is a global empire.

Of course, the Panorama of London does attempt to identify the spirit animating modernity as a natural power, sanctioned by the divine. The Mills after all harness a natural force, whose relatives are present in both water and sky. And its prominence, along with that of the manufactories and warehouses that dot the cityscape, are to some extent balanced by St. Paul’s , routinely described as “a most stupendous object,” and the line of Church steeples that extend from its walls, to the north and the south (Malton 62-3). The panorama is here an early example of the technological sublime, and it would be foolish to deny that for many of its audience the power it indirectly presented, whether progress, commerce, empire or the divine, was taken as a fundamental ground. Nevertheless, to the extent that it is successful in simulating an experience in which one glimpses these purportedly fundamental powers they, like the visual field they attempt to stabilise, become vulnerable to a contrary movement. They become vulnerable to what one might call a logic of simulation, a logic that we have rehearsed in relation to “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists.”

In a work of high art, such as those characteristic of the eighteenth century, the viewer’s attention is drawn from the surface of the painting to the ideal or abstract truth that orders it. In an art of realistic illusion, such as the panorama, the recognition that the painting is not the object represented shifts attention in the opposite direction, to the work of art itself [20] and, in the case of the panorama, to the optical environment that enables the illusion to appear. Verisimilitude of this degree therefore paradoxically undermines even as it mimes reality. Eberhardt once again provides a vivid description of the effect: “I am swinging between reality and unreality, between the natural and the unnatural, between truth and appearance. My thoughts, my animal spirits are set in motion, pushed here and there, with the same effect as if [I were] turning round in a circle or [subject to] the rocking of a boat” (1: 179 L28). [21] And to the extent that the panorama’s illusion is indistinguishable from the actual world, this experience of the reality of unreality helps foster a sense of the contingent nature of all perceptual worlds, the unreality of reality. The world inhabited by the panorama becomes, like the postmodern world described by Derrida, one of actuvirtuality and virtuactuality (3).

As this suggests, the panorama emerges in concert with and itself intensifies a crisis in representation characteristic of modernity. In the late eighteenth-century and, indeed, in the now global culture of modernity, the steady increase in the ability of new technologies to simulate and so dominate the actual is inextricably involved with its contrary. By drawing attention to the system within which perception occurs and, therefore, to the extent to which perception is contingent rather than necessary, constructive rather than reproductive, the extraordinary verisimilitude of the panorama paradoxically suggests that the actual is virtual, the contingent product of an cultural or perceptual apparatus. In so doing, it helps foster the modern interest in the observation of observation, while also playing a role in the development of the modern preoccupation with poiesis, rather than poetic imitation of the real. Although beyond the scope of this paper, this suggests that when seen in this light, the relations between romanticism and the panorama, and between subjective and objective accounts of the actual, are closer and much more agonistic than is usually admitted.

This can be seen in, for example, the work of artists such as Thomas Hornor (1785-1844), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851); the remarkable psychological and political optics of William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) and Jerusalem (c.1804-20); Wordsworth’s attempts in The Prelude (1805,1850) and the sonnet “Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” (1807) to trope the panorama as a reduction of a more fundamental perceptual system; and, of course, the spiritual optics that Friedrich seems to believe, in works such as “The Cross in the Mountains (The Tetschen Altar)” (1807-8), is enabled by the virtualisation of the real.

But it can also be seen in the contemporaneous development of, for example, Bentham’s panopticon project, perhaps the most radical of attempts to shape the actual by controlling the environment on which it depends. More broadly, the panorama becomes iconic of a world in which the virtual has become actual, in the sense that it can be used to explore and control, but also extend and vie with the real. One might go so far as to suggest that in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century responses to the panorama, many of modernity’s long history of attempts to manage the relations between first and second order realities can already be seen.

To these summary points we should add one that they imply, namely that the panorama plays a key role in the development of the romantic, modern and now postmodern valorisation of the actual, not as an index of the real, but as an appearance within psychological and cultural systems of perception. We can gauge the extent of this shift if we return one last time to Friedrich and “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists,” this time to notice that the elements that seemed most evocative of the actual are in fact already deeply corroded by the virtual.

If compared with the evanescent forms of the sea of mists, the outline formed by the Wanderer and by the rocky peak on which he stands seem solid and unmoving, apt emblems of an actual as opposed to a virtual world. Yet, on closer inspection, these same elements seem almost without depth, as if they were paper cut-outs or silhouettes. A silhouette is, of course, made by tracing the shadow thrown on a flat surface by a figure illuminated by a source of light, such as a candle. Where a traditional portrait attempts to represent the sitter’s essential character, whether revealed by expression, physiognomy or social standing, a silhouette claims to record the product of a contingent collocation of light, expressive form, and two-dimensional surface. The portrait belongs to an ontological world, its object complete before the act of observation. The silhouette is an emblem of a de-ontologised world, in which identity is contingent, the product of a network of interacting forces. [22]

In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defines spectacle as “A show; a gazing stock; any thing exhibited to the view as eminently remarkable.” It is spectacle’s difference from the actual that makes it seem such a dangerous cultural and political force for a tradition that brings together such unlikely bed-fellows as Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Edmund Burke (1729-97) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), amongst many others. In the de-ontologised world that “The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists” takes as its subject, and of which the early panorama is a key emblem, the actual itself becomes the site of spectacle, an indirect presentation of the acts through which it has been produced and, proleptically, of the acts through which it will one day be transformed. In this transformation one can see already the surprising and disturbing proximity of the regressive and progressive dimensions of modernity, in their deconstructive and constructive phases. Which is to say in conclusion that the panorama should be identified not with “The Age of the World Picture” but with the aesthetic, epistemological and political problems of virtual reality, an identification that brings it once more into intense dialogue with the present.

Parties annexes