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.
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