Fantasies of Old London: Nineteenth-Century ‘Virtual Reality’

– Patricia Smyth

London in the Olden Time as exhibited at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens, 1844, lithograph.
courtesy of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

When we think about nineteenth-century panoramas of cities, it is most likely the triumphalist portrayals of the modern metropolis such as Thomas Hornor’s Panorama of London of 1829 that come immediately to mind. Hornor’s 360-degree painting, exhibited at the Colosseum in Regent’s Park, showed the contemporary city in an all encompassing view taken from the top of St Paul’s cathedral, but simulations of old London, featuring urban locations that had long disappeared, are less well known. These often appeared as part of a theatrical performance in the form of moving panoramas, long paintings unrolled on stage in such a way that the spectator experienced the sensation of moving through a long-vanished urban environment. They were a regular feature of nineteenth-century productions of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, for example, where, to musical accompaniment, the audience witnessed a journey down the Thames by barge through sixteenth-century London from Bridewell Palace to Greenwich.

The old city could also be an attraction in its own right. This lithograph held in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum relates to a show called London in the Olden Time, presented in 1844 at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens in South London, a pleasure ground and zoo in which visitors were invited to experience various ‘pictures’, as they were described. For one shilling, spectators could witness what was billed as a ‘daylight picture’ of London before the Great Fire, seen from the far bank of an artificial lake, mocked up to recreate the Thames. The scene was reportedly modelled and painted using 303,000 feet of canvas by the artists Danson and Telbin, who were both well-known theatrical scene painters, and was described as ‘correctly representing’ Old St. Paul’s, destroyed by fire in 1666, London Bridge, shown here with its shops and houses still intact (they had been removed in the 1760s), and ‘all the principal churches and buildings of the locality’.

The publicity also cited Baynard’s Castle, a medieval riverside palace that had also been destroyed in the fire, although fragments of it reportedly survived into the nineteenth century before being pulled down to make way for an ironworks. The site is now occupied by the brutalist office block, Baynard House. The entertainment didn’t stop there, however, since every evening visitors could experience ‘the most astounding exhibition ever yet offered to public notice, viz., a representation of the Great Fire of London, under the direction of Mr. Southby, the unrivalled pyrotechnist. Doors open at Nine, Feeding time for the Animals, Five. Conflagration at Dusk.’

Spectators, pictured here as well-turned-out family groups and including several children, gather in the foreground. At first it seems that they are excitedly pointing out the various landmarks to each other. A group to the left stand on a bench to get a better view, while to the right a small child is lifted shoulder height. But another version of this lithograph includes a further detail of the scene, which may in fact be the focus of their attention: General Tom Thumb, as the performer and impersonator Charles Stratton was known, ascending in a hot air balloon. In this print, you can just make out two men in the crowd pulling on a rope that rises like a kite string through the buildings in the centre of the composition. It is clear that those ropes are part of the mechanism involved in this additional attraction, which in the other image appears dead centre in the sky above the mock up of London’s north bank. A poster in the British Library confirms that Stratton did indeed on more than one occasion ‘go through the entire of his performances, on a stage prepared in front of the orchestra, and afterwards traverse the Gardens In a Balloon!’

With or without the added appeal of the ‘Lilliputian Wonder’, it is not difficult for us to imagine the lure of old London to this crowd of 1840s urbanites. Just like our own time, this was a period of accelerated transformation that saw the demolition of many ancient streets and landmarks under the banner of progress and modernisation. How blank and dispiriting are the widened streets and shiny new edifices that take the place of familiar sites, and how disconcerting it is, when some old building is destroyed, to find that, faced with the now vacant lot, we cannot even call to mind what was previously there. Immersive spectacles of old London allowed inhabitants of the modern metropolis to imaginatively experience the city of the past, the remains of which continued to disappear bit by bit around them. Such attractions naturally invited comparison with the contemporary environment. Like us, these Londoners appear fascinated by the spectacle of Old London Bridge with its houses intact. In fact, it is the relationship between the old city and the river that is really emphasised here. With its buildings opening directly onto the water, this is an urban environment still in harmony with the natural topography. This connection to the water was, of course, gradually eroded over the course of the nineteenth century, first with the building of the warehouses in the construction of the new docks at Wapping in the 1820s, and finally in the 1870s with the building of the Embankment.

The pre-Fire panorama presented to spectators at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens was, of course, no longer within living memory in 1844, but the ancient riverside came to symbolise not only what had been destroyed in 1666, but also the more recent losses associated with the programme of slum clearances and modernisation that cut swathes through old neighbourhoods. While the pre-Fire city was often represented as violent and disordered as well as insanitary and disease-ridden, it is nevertheless possible to detect a note of nostalgia in these evocations. Stage directions for the opening scene of Samuel Atkyns’ play The Fire of London; or the Baker’s Daughter, performed at the East End theatre the Royal Albert Saloon in 1849, cite a view of ‘London Before the Great Fire from the Southwarke side of the River Thames’, which would have been much like this one. The characters on stage in that first scene are religious zealots who deliberately set fire to what they regard as a hopelessly corrupted city, but at the start of the play, they nevertheless pause to admire the view of the riverside in an implicit invitation to the audience to appreciate its beauty. As one of the plotters laments, ‘to think that those goodly habitations, those towers, temples halls and palaces, should so soon be levelled with the dust’. The drama of old London going up in flames was an exciting enough proposition, but I think that in these careful reconstructions of a lost world there are some more complex emotions at stake – longing, perhaps, and the desire to restore, at least in the imagination, a connection to the past.

Modern Immersive Panoramas

From the early days of the project, I found myself noticing modern equivalents of panoramic images. Watching my project team members, Patricia Smyth and Jim Davis, interacting with the 1844 Illustrated London News pull out printed panorama1 led me to draw comparisons to Google Streetview even before our project started in 2018. What I found striking was how they mapped routes via this ‘new’ visual nineteenth century technology in a similar manner that twenty-first century digital technology invites. Connecting past analogue and present digital experiences influenced my approach to curating our project exhibitions and to my noticing more and more screen-based experiences that mirror their nineteenth century analogues.

Possibly the most obvious of all of these analogues is 360 video2 and its similarity, in experience, to circular rotunda panorama such as Burford’s in Leicester Square whose curved drapes of painted fabric enveloped audiences. Both the technology of 360 film and the innovative technical perspective painting skills required to make a circular canvas appear lifelike, create a feeling of immersion in the image; the rotunda panorama obscured the edges of the image to create its illusion just as VR headsets create a visual tunnel that removes all other outside stimulus. Our nineteenth century counterparts would have been more likely to use the word ‘illusion’ but today ‘immersion’ evokes the embodied experience more evocatively to our twenty-first century ears. When wearing goggles or standing on a panorama platform, moving your head from side to side retains the impression of immersion, as you see what would be located to the left and right of you if you physically stood in the represented place.

However, there are some significant differences between today’s and yesterday’s virtual technologies. Attending a circular rotunda panorama was often a communal experience, whereas the immersion created by wearing a VR headset creates individual experiences. People who had visited locations demonstrated their cultural capital by interacting with the image to show their familiarity with the far off places they had visited.3 Something that was particularly significant at a time when foreign travel was becoming increasingly open to a wider proportion of people through early travel agencies such as Thomas Cook’s. Yet, the nature of the image is also different. Rotunda panorama were eeriely static images of grand events or vistas,4 whereas 360 video provides a snippet of moving and aural time amid action. Today we are also able to act as creators in a way that was impossible for our nineteenth century counterparts because technology such as GoPro cameras and Google Cardboard headsets that accept mobile phones, are affordable to many.

What is fascinating is how many of the themes that were evident in the nineteenth century are common topics today.

Follow the buttons below to take you to some modern 360 video and VR experiences that echo the themes of their nineteenth century counterparts:

Although virtual experiences are not limited to these topics, in these media I see the echo of nineteenth century experiences where emerging media enabled viewers to experience the world anew. Audiences were given the opportunity to re-experience their world through their ability to re-view their local topography from a different perspective or to undertake armchair travel5 by seeing somewhere they could not go:6 an experience that defamiliarises the local and familiarises the exotic. Ceremonial event panoramas provide a similar experience that gave individuals the chance to reimagine their experience or the past as a knowable place.


1 ‘London in 1842’ printed panorama, Illustrated London News, Bill Douglas Cinema Museum EXBD 70576.

2 Terms like Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 video are sometimes confused. VR allows the user to interact within a world, whereas 360 video gives the individual an opportunity to be immersed in a recorded experience. Some of the confusion comes from the fact that both experiences use the same headset.

3 Richard Altick describes how Mary Shelley pointed out where Byron lived to Thomas Moore at the panorama of Geneva, (1978) Shows of London, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 182

4 Griffiths, Alison (2013) Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, & the Immersive View, New York: Columbia University Press: 75

5 Erkki Huhtamo describes moving panorama as representing armchair travel, but I think this applies to rotunda panorama too, (2013) Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles. Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press.

6 Although these Japanese cherry blossom 360 videos tend to be produced by Japanese companies their hosting on YouTube gives the opportunity for them to be viewed globally. The topic of cherry blossom, with its significant role in Japanese culture, means that this particular example also affords those who live in Japan the opportunity to relive a ceremonial event.


Some of these themes are explored in our display Transporting and Evolving Views at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

Ladies & Gentleman! I present to you: the Vampire Peep Show!

When this project started in October 2018, we could all gather together in small groups. We could even peer into a large box with several other people and enjoy a showman conjuring a story from figures and small scale stage effects. At that point, we commissioned one of our project partners, Tony Lidington of Promenade Promotions to create a Peep Show.

We wanted Tony to adapt a melodrama and fixed upon The Vampire; or the Bride of the Isles by JR Planché. This was because of its unusual treatment of the vampire before the cultural trope became fixed, and because of its use of innovative stage technology. If you’ve heard of the Vampire trap, where a character falls away quickly from the stage, it is called precisely that because of The Vampire!

…the Peep Show was due to premier in the Summer of 2020.

Coronavirus shut down the UK in March.

Together, we decided that the world needed a coronavirus safe version of The Vampire Peep Show. As an academic showman Tony uses his performances as a means of educating his audiences on the history of popular culture and its links to today. That is why he has made us these two videos:

The Show

Making of:

Although we don’t know when it will be safe to do so, Tony will be touring the Peep Show at festivals. When he does, you’ll be able to find out more at his website because we’d love you to also have the full embodied experience of peeping!

Concluding & Continuing Conversations

Josip Martinčić reflects on our final online colloquium and where it leaves the community we have created. Josip is a third year University of Exeter and University of Bristol PhD student funded by the SWW DTP. His research looks at marginalised voices in theatre criticism in fin de siècle London. He has presented at BAVS, RSVP, TaPRA and London Stage and Nineteenth-Century World annual conferences. He teaches in the Drama department and is a visiting lecturer at Plymouth Marjon University. He has most recently been awarded a Doctoral Fellowship from the National Trust and British Library for a project called ‘Creative Networks and Authors’ Houses’ which looks at links between Shaw, Woolf and Kipling.

The December 2021 Colloquium for the ‘Theatre & Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’ was a reluctant conclusion, one which signalled a possible and necessary continuation.

This event was the last forum for this three-year project and the attendees noted the comforting feeling of consistency the project’s annual conferences and panels have provided in a world of academia and beyond which feels like it’s constantly shifting. The themes covered during this one-day virtual gathering included material objects and culture, technical innovation, ideology of aesthetic and networks of power, as well as, unsurprisingly, visual culture more broadly. Jim Davis, one of the leaders of the project, noted that through the developments and insights gained in the colloquium, the word ‘performance’ would be better suited in the title, replacing theatre to reflect the world beyond the theatrical culture.

A panel on popular lecturing by Joe Kember and John Plunkett commented on an often discussed structuring system, that of a division between local, national and international. Though it can be helpful to focus on a particular piece by noting its link with the local environment, as demonstrated in Catherine Hindson’s paper on performance in chocolate factories, an awareness of the broader influence and impact is equally, if not even more revealing and enlightening. This is where the attendees commented on the significance of the transnational. The project started with a focus on Britain with France presented as a contextual comparison, but the topics presented truly demonstrated an international breadth of visual culture in the long nineteenth century.

The way this breadth is being approached is through interdisciplinary research. Sarah French discussed the Japanese Village Exhibition through the lens of both performance and visual culture theories, arguing that people were likened to pictures. The ‘other’ is visualised, identified and photographed and the language of ‘picturesque’ is often used. Jim Davis picked up on these notions, arguing that the West was visualising the East through its own understandings of it, perpetuating the oriental representation and being stuck in the self-sufficient line. Visual culture grew by adapting itself beyond the accuracy of the original into performance conscious of the expectations of the observers.

It is useful to reconsider our methodological approach to research, as a more active engagement with the sources develops our understanding of the performance practices we research. This is why it is significant to employ a variety of visual culture to express the research on it. Tony Lidington’s work on popular seaside entertainment aimed to do just that, and discussions surrounding his peep show, including the film of the process, were rich and fruitful.

There is an undeniable impact of the pandemic on the impact that this project had. The organisers wanted to do more, including more exhibitions and activities, as does everyone when conducting research. However, what cannot be denied is the power visual culture had in the long nineteenth century and the contemporary interest in this fascinating world reflects it. This colloquium, this project even, is hardly the last we will hear of it. Thank goodness for that.

Call for Articles: Nineteenth-Century Visual Technologies in Contemporary Practices

Yadegar Asisi, Pergamon Panorama, 2011-12 (c) Creative Commons

We invite proposals for a collection of essays on the ways in which contemporary art and heritage practices have been engaging with forms of nineteenth-century immersive spectacle. The parallels between the technological transformation of our own time and the experiments of the early nineteenth century have long been noted and the origins of twenty-first-century immersive experiences are arguably traceable to that earlier period. In recent years, artists have revisited nineteenth-century visual presentations such as the 360-degree panorama, while museums and heritage sites have experimented with various types of virtual environments as a way to bring the past alive for modern audiences. We welcome contributions that explore and interrogate the ways in which these interventions reinterpret nineteenth-century visual technologies. The edited volume will appear as a special issue of the online peer-reviewed journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century

We are interested in testing the ways in which nineteenth-century spectacle has come to be understood. Immersive entertainments of this period have long been associated with notions of passive spectatorship and what Jonathan Crary refers to as the ‘private chamber’ mode of isolated, absorbed engagement, which he sees as characteristic of modern subjectivity. Guy Debord’s text The Society of the Spectacle (1967) has been particularly influential in readings that posit nineteenth-century optical entertainments as offering seductive yet dangerous illusions, with Maurice Samuels, for instance, arguing that the spectacular mode of presenting history ‘promoted passivity and alienation’. Against this, recent accounts such as that by Alice Barnaby in her book Light Touches: Cultural Practices of Illumination 1800 – 1900 stress qualities of ‘agency, play and experimentation’ as inherent to nineteenth-century visuality, while Lynn Voskuil has argued for the communal nature of nineteenth-century spectatorship. Victor Burgin has long drawn attention to the productive excesses of a panoramic subject position and the possibility of an agency that can resist hegemonic mechanisms of representation. 

We invite papers that investigate the renewed relevance of nineteenth-century immersive spectacles in contemporary artistic and museological practices: why do such highly-curated embodied experiences of the world in flux find a new relevance in contemporary times? What varieties of subjectivities are articulated for contemporary viewers in these encounters? How do such new sites of memory—lieu de mémoire­ as conceptualized by the French historian Pierre Nora—thematize the contemporary against the background of ideologies of race, alterity and cultural heritage? 

We invite interested authors to send their 300-word abstract and a short 100-word biography to the editors Patricia Smyth (P.M.Smyth@warwick.ac.uk) and Gülru Çakmak (gcakmak@umass.edu ) by 1 March 2022. Accepted essays (c. 7000 words) will be due to the editors on 1 October 2022. Since the papers will be published in an online platform, the editors are open to suggestions for incorporating multi-media resources to the published papers such as video, sound file, animation, etc.

Visualising Pantomime Audiences

Jim Davis considers what another item from one our exhibitions reveals about how pantomime audiences were visualised by illustrators. Jim connects an item displayed in our Art of Innovation exhibition, at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, to other illustrations of pantomime audiences.

Hablot K. Browne (Phiz), Pantomime Night (Illustrated London News 8 January 1848, 7)

This illustration of a Christmas pantomime audience by Hablot K. Browne (1815-1882) – better known as Phiz – was published in the Illustrated London News on the 8 January 1848. A copy of this is also held in Bristol University’s Theatre Collection.

As we shall see, this is typical of many such illustrations, following a template already established by such illustrators as George Cruikshank in Pit, Boxes and Gallery (1836). This particular illustration is accompanied by a written description by Angus B. Reach entitled ‘A Pantomime Audience – Boxes, Pit and Gallery’. He tells us that, in his opinion, the pantomime audience is as well worth seeing as the Pantomime itself and starts by describing the affluent inhabitants of the Boxes. ‘The children are all in front’, he says. ‘See their little, fat, round, shiny faces, almost blue with mirth, garnishing, as it were, the crimson velvet ledge. And papa and mamma are stationed in a more dignified state of enjoyment at the rear’. Nevertheless, whatever their age or feigned restraint, all the box spectators, according to this account, are enjoying the pantomime. Some of the ‘Pittites’ are more critical of what they see, hardened by regular theatregoing, but others are less frequent visitors – affluent tradespeople from a wealthy suburb, families from Clapton or Hackney, spectators up from the country.

The gallery is subject to the type of formulaic description customary in such accounts, a ‘chaos of struggling arms and legs, and grimy grinning features—and ginger-beer bottles, which do not hold ginger-beer but something stronger—and half-smashed straw-bonnets…and shirt-sleeves—and half-sucked oranges—and thick sandwiches—and perspiring public-house boys struggling through dense rows of humanity with tin pails [of porter]’. The author describes the gallery audience crowding to spend their ‘Christmas Boxes’ – this being Boxing Day – on admission to the pantomime, but hints it is impossible to elaborate on the further exploits of these spectators or to comment on ‘how many pots of porter were consumed—how many oranges were chucked into the Pit—how many fights were begun…how many hats were knocked in—how many shawls were torn…’

Phiz, who provided illustrations for a number of periodicals as well as illustrating the work of many nineteenth-century authors, is best known today for his Dickens illustrations, ranging from The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby through to Bleak House, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities. Just as our image of so many of Dickens’s characters is derived from Phiz’s depictions of them, so his representation of the pantomime audience here and also in a similar illustration for the Illustrated Times in 1855 suggest a commensurate relationship with the world as conceived by Dickens. This is also reflected in the prose descriptions attached to both illustrations, which also have an arguably Dickensian tone. 1848, when the illustration discussed above first appeared, was to be a busy year for Phiz. Not only did he provide illustrations for Dombey and Son, but also for W. B. Jerrold’s The Disgrace of the Family, Harrison Ainsworth’s Crichton, Angus B. Reach’s The Romance of a Mince-pie and Henry and Augustus Mayhew’s The Image of his Father.

As I have discussed elsewhere, nineteenth-century audiences were often described in formulaic terms by journalists and were frequently represented graphically through caricature as rather comical. This is regularly the case with pantomime audiences, especially those who occupied the gallery. In fact, gallery audiences were not always as disorderly as sometimes indicated, since they usually demonstrated sufficient self-discipline and self-regulation to respond to the pantomime, even amid the unruly atmosphere of a Boxing Day (or Night) performance.

Edmund Yates, in his commentary published alongside Phiz’s 1855 illustration of pantomime audiences for the Illustrated Times, draws attention to the different classes attending different parts of the theatre auditorium. Paradoxically, the Christmas Pantomime brings together the different social classes, whilst the architectural structure of the auditorium ensures they remain segregated from each other. (In an 1826 print, A Christmas Box, George Cruikshank had also stressed a visit to the pantomime as a family occasion for those able to afford private boxes, a perception echoed in both of Phiz’s illustrations.) Yates draws heavily on Reach’s 1848 account, especially in his description of the gallery as ‘a chaos, a confused mass of shirt-sleeves, fustians, and belcher handkerchiefs, of whistles and cat-calls, screams, yells and fights…of suspended bonnets and lost hats, of warm porter and sodden oranges, of escaped gas and exuded perspiration, of policemen’s staves and single combats and stolen handkerchiefs, of black eyes and hoarse voices, and maudlin discontent, and childish laughter’. Both Edmund Yates and Phiz are presumably reflecting familiar behaviours and images, but the question as to how far they are constructing our perception of the audience also remains.

Below are Cruikshank’s 1826 and 1835 representations of a Christmas Box and a theatre audience and Phiz’s 1855 illustration for the Illustrated Times. An undated sketch of a theatre audience by W. M. Thackeray in the Morgan Library, New York, is similar in structure.

– Jim Davis

George Cruikshank, Pit Boxes & Gallery, 1836
Phiz, The Pantomime, Boxes, Pit and Gallery, 1855
George Cruikshank, A Christmas Box, 1826

Visit our The Art of Innovation Display at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection until early 2022.

Visualising the Artists and Technologies of Stage Spectacle at Drury Lane

On 27 August, 2021 Frozen opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The theatre had been dark for over 2 years, but not because of the global pandemic of COVID-19. Drury Lane closed it doors to public audiences on 5 January 2019, with that most theatrical and spectacular of musical revivals – 42nd Street. Drury Lane may have closed its doors to paying audiences then, but two weeks later, on 26 January 2019, it was opened to a group of about 100 theatre history aficionados – historians, architects, backstage personnel. We were the last audience allowed into Drury Lane before the theatre went completely dark for a major renovation, which included not just a renovation of the auditorium and foyer spaces, but refurbishment and almost complete rebuilding of the stage and the back stage. You can see the official LW Theatre company videos of the transformation here: Drury Lane Restoration but there’s another story to tell about my experience of the materiality of theatre history.

On that cold dark Saturday morning, in a theatre stripped of all its seating and scenery, we were given a unique chance to play in the stage space. And what we could play with was one of the last remaining traces – albeit a rather large mechanical trace – of the hydraulic stage machinery that made the theatre such a centre of stage spectacle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were the hydraulic lifts installed in 1890, then the most advanced technology available, and a continuation of Drury Lane’s reputation in the late nineteenth century for realistic spectacle, under the aegis of Augustus Harris and his ‘Autumn dramas.’ The hydraulic lifts raise and lower large scenic elements smoothly and silently, and also tilt laterally. We were given this wonderful demonstration. (Thanks to theatrecrafts.com for the expert video recording – far better than my mobile phone moments!)

We walked from the emptied auditorium and through the pass door at the side of the stage on that cold Saturday morning, and found our ways to the under-stage through badly lit passages across the back of the stage, and down metal staircases. Then we could see the hydraulic machinists’ area and work the pumps hands-on, to control the stage risers operated by hydraulic power. We could see the trickles of water and oil below us, and see the way the lifts worked, and also feel the ways to work them, as stage mechanists, learning how to control the qualities of the movement of these bridges.

Apart from the frisson of being allowed into the usually ‘forbidden’ places of the back stage, the whole experience led me to ponder on the materiality of the theatre. I found it exciting and also moving that we could walk where thousands of theatre workers had walked doing the daily taxing and exhausting work of staging a performance – the performers, of course, but also the anonymous and generally unseen mechanists and backstage technicians with high levels of craft and technical knowledge. What are the ways to mark the histories of those theatre workers who risk life and limb (in the past, and also now) in climbing high, dragging and hauling and directing the very material details of stage spectacle? These thousands of unknown theatre practitioners are the backbone of the production of stage spectacle, yet their presence in historical records is ghostly.

From the 1910 The Stage Yearbook (London: Carson & Comerford Ltd)

Drury Lane auditorium and foyer spaces have now been completely reworked to give space and a very modern sense of luxury – valuable commodities in a space-poor city. Were it not for COVID regulations and safety measures, I would also have been able to see the Frozen dress rehearsal on the day I wandered into the Theatre Royal (I was in the company of a Disney Theatricals colleague). So I didn’t see backstage – where no doubt, conditions are much safer, cleaner, lighter and more airy. In one of the many glamorous marble tiled foyers, there is a video of a CAD animation of the new auditorium and its stage affordances. You can watch the transformation of the huge and hitherto fairly rigidly designed space – an end on proscenium arch theatre – into an auditorium and stage space able to be converted into other arrangements, including in-the-round staging. We can start to imagine the possibilities of different kinds of stage spectacle opened up by this flexibility and space.

The tilting reality created by these hydraulic bridges was staged for excited audiences who were drawn to Drury Lane for spectacular shows. In her essay “‘Speaking to the eye rather than the ear’: The Triumvirate’s Autumn Dramas at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,” Hayley Bradley offers detailed accounts of the spectacles produced via this technology at Drury Lane, including the ‘Boulter’s Lock scene’ in The White Heather (1897), in which producers used hydraulic lifts to recreate a boat rising in a lock, and the Alpine avalanche scene in The Marriages of Mayfair (1908). While modern spectacle can do extraordinary things with digital technologies, blue or green screens, and electronically-powered lighting effects, its wonders can sometimes obscure an appreciation of the layers of past theatrical machinery, able to offer other kinds of spectacle. We should never indulge in the ‘presentism’ of thinking that twenty-first century stage spectacle is always or necessarily superior. It is good to know that this machinery is being preserved, with a view to its permanent display, as an important material aspect of West End theatre history.

Further reading and sources:

Christmas Pantomime’s Painted Panoramas

Jim Davis considers what one of the items in our Transporting and Evolving Views Bill Douglas Cinema Museum display reveals about Christmas Pantomimes and scene painters’ careers.

Panorama Publicity Handbill: Theatre Royal, Covent Garden / Roberts’ Moving Panorama in Ten Compartments (EXEBD 77257)

This advertisement for David Roberts’s moving panorama at Covent Garden Theatre reflects an annual aspect of the Christmas pantomime in this period. Held in the Bill Douglas Collection, it represents a series of episodes relating to the Russian advance on Turkey in 1828, after hostilities had broken out subsequent to the Greek War of Independence. A feature of the pantomime at a number of theatres was a moving panorama of around 20 feet high and up to 300 feet in length. This often had nothing to do with the pantomime plot and was based on topical events, enabling well-known scene painters to demonstrate their skills through vast compositions created at great speed. By the late 1820s the two patent theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, were in competition as to who could stage the best pantomime and the best moving panorama, the latter created respectively by David Roberts (1796-1964) and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867), both later better known for their easel paintings. Many (but not all) of the moving panoramas created by these two artists were dependent on secondary sources rather than direct experience of the events and locations displayed. They drew frequent applause and were presumably shown to some form of musical accompaniment.

This particular moving panorama featured in Harlequin and Little Red Riding Hood, or The Wizard and the Wolf, first performed at Covent Garden on 26 December 1828. The Morning Chronicle (27 December 1828, 3) considered that nothing compared to it had yet been seen on the stage and that it was applauded throughout, claiming it to be the triumph of the evening with its ‘views of the scenery through which the Russian army marched into Turkey, and the encounters that took place in the course of the last campaign’. More critically, the Examiner (28 December 1828, 7) complained that it had induced ‘an intolerable fit of gaping’. The Times (27 December 1828, 3) acknowledged the diorama as ‘the greatest attraction in the way of scenery’ in the pantomime, adding that ‘The views of St. Petersburgh [sic] and Constantinople are extremely well-executed, and are at once beautiful as paintings, and faithful representations of these two cities. The intermediate parts of the landscape are equally well painted, but are more fanciful’. However, The Times was less happy with other aspects of the panorama, feeling the figures were badly drawn, feeble and ill-coloured, and that these and some aspects of the landscape were plagiarised from the work of other artists. The men and horses depicted in the battle scenes were considered to be in a ‘very vicious and exaggerated style’. These faults were mentioned because the commentator believed an artist of Roberts’s talent owed it to himself to demonstrate greater originality of invention and skill in execution in such a task.

If Roberts was aware of the comments in the Examiner and The Times, he may have found them all the more galling given that both journals heaped considerable praise on the moving panorama commencing at Spithead and concluding at Gibraltar created by Stanfield (a specialist in maritime landscapes), for the Drury Lane pantomime. Although ostensibly friends, they were also rivals and competitors. Roberts claimed Stanfield was one of the reasons for his move from Drury Lane to Covent Garden Theatre in 1826 and confided to his journal in 1829 that Stanfield ‘will stand on little ceremony in pushing aside any who stand between him and his advancement in art—as I afterwards found by sad experience’.

Roberts commenced his career as a scene painter in 1815 at the Edinburgh Theatre Royal, from the gallery of which theatre he had discovered in his youth that ‘the scenery of Aladdin and the Forty Thieves had irresistible charms for me’ and he would often return home to make sketches based on the scenery he had just observed. Theatre scenery rather than the work of great artists was his introduction to painting and perhaps (given the appeal of dramas and pantomimes sourced from The Arabian Nights) one reason for his lifelong fascination with the scenery and buildings of the Middle East, which were to become the subjects of so many of his later works. He also claimed to have learnt about perspective through scene painting, which remained his major source of income until 1830.

David Roberts numbers among several well-known and not so well-known artists and architects whose early experience included employment as theatrical scene painters. These include Stanfield, Augustus Pugin, Charles Marshall (also noted for his dioramas and moving panoramas), John Wilson, Thomas Sidney Cooper and William Leighton Leitch, several of whom have left accounts of their theatrical experiences. Subsequent commentators have sometimes referred to the theatricality of Roberts’s later art works (just as Pugin has occasionally been criticised for the theatrical nature of his architecture). The popularity of the scenery and particularly of the moving panoramas created by Roberts and Stanfield for the theatre certainly begs the question as to the influence of this phase of their work on the way they perceived the world in their easel paintings. Did they help theatre audiences to appreciate the natural world around them through their moving panoramas of the 1820s or did their later work encourage their admirers to see the natural world as a form of theatrical representation?

– Jim Davis

Visit our Transporting and Evolving Views Display at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum until November 2021.

Wide Angle Photograph of Wilhelm Model Box & Set Designs

Wide-angle photograph of Wilhelm Model Box & Designs
Wide-angle photograph of Wilhelm Theatre Model Box (Ref: TC/O/M/8) with Model Scenary from Aladdin (Ref: TC/O/M/9) courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

This image is a digital component of the current display at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection curated as part of this project.

Take a closer look at the Star Trap

Feel free to zoom in on this picture of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s Star Trap:

University of Bristol Theatre Collection Star Trap
A Star Trap from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection (TC/M/306)

This image is a digital component of the current display at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection curated as part of this project.

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