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  • Panoramic Sites and Civic Unrest in 1790s London
  • Joshua Swidzinski (bio)

In 1787, an itinerant Irish painter named Robert Barker patented the panorama: a vast, perfectly circular canvas housed in a specially built rotunda and lit in such a way that observers, viewing it from a central platform, could suppose themselves a part of the seamless, surrounding illusion. The innovation would prove to make Barker’s fortune. In the 1790s, London became a city obsessed with panoramas and this obsession quickly spread to the Continent.1 Immersive cityscapes, battle scenes, and exotic locales could be experienced for the price of a shilling, bringing to life what went unillustrated by the newspapers.2 In his comprehensive study of the spectacle, Stephan Oettermann describes Barker’s invention as “the first true visual mass medium” and a key precursor to a number of the visual technologies that would emerge during the nineteenth century.3 A wealth of recent literary criticism has asked how the panorama’s novel manner of “conceptualizing and managing the field of the visible” influenced the Romantic imagination with regard to notions of the sublime.4 By and large, these accounts focus on the panorama’s tendency to model a form of sublimity that disembodies and nationalizes vision. In Mary Favret’s recent formulation of this argument, panoramic visions of British victories and imperial possessions “taught the public to ‘see’ and to see as a nation” by “dismantling the priority of the individual viewer and assembling instead a mobilized and nationalized public” whose collective gaze figured the workings of Britain and its empire.5 According to this line of thought, to partake of the panorama is to surrender to a uniquely incorporeal and national logic of vision. By contrast, this article returns to the earliest instances of Barker’s experimentation with the panorama and addresses the medium’s initial concerns with the physical site, in addition to the sight, to which it gathers its observers. Elaborating Denise Blake Oleksijczuk’s recent and salutary contention that the panorama “operated on both intellectual and somatic levels to convey ideologically powerful messages,”6 this article recuperates the bodily politics of Barker’s inaugural panoramas. Not only did these early spectacles conjure sublime visual illusions, [End Page 283] but they also fashioned vexed civic spaces at their center. They could not free the eye without also, significantly, fixing the body.

The importance of the panoramic body emerges from a comparison of the two equally apocryphal stories that seek to account for Barker’s invention of the medium. In the first, while Barker sits comfortably beneath an umbrella and sketches a bright landscape, he suddenly conceives of his umbrella as a frame: a carefully placed circle of shade, he realizes, can domesticate Nature and render its totality viewable.7 The second creation story offers the same epiphany with regard to painterly technique, but it makes this epiphany contingent upon the corporeal status of the painter. That is, instead of placing Barker at leisure in the countryside with his brushes and umbrella, it immures him in solitary confinement in debtors’ prison, where

his cell was so feebly lighted by means of a small air-hole in one of the corners, that the only way in which he could read the letters that came to him was by holding them up at arm’s length against that part of the wall which was opposite to the air-hole. By so doing the words not only became perfectly distinct, but the effect produced was very striking. It then occurred to him that if a picture were placed in a similar position it would produce a still more wonderful effect.8

In this tale, the epiphany of the panorama is born not of intellectual and visual freedom but of physical confinement, not of seeing but of being seen: the constriction of the body makes possible the liberation of the eye. One can only go so far in the analysis of apocrypha. Yet the association, however fanciful, between the panorama and incarceration invites a comparison between Barker’s invention and another creation of 1787, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon penitentiary:

The building is circular. The apartments of the prisoners occupy the...


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pp. 283-301
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