Thursday, 3 December 2009

Panorama in Liverpool 1797

I am transcribing a letter sent from Liverpool in 1797 by an Alicia Gaskell.
In her letter she states that one day she went “to the Panorama”.
Unfortunately she does not say much about what it was. I wondered if you knew what the Panorama was?
Possibly a camera obscura ?
Or an exhibition staged by Mr Bullock ?
Any ideas?

Yours hopefully,

Cliff Thornton
Essex, U.K.


  1. Hello Cliff,

    In 1787, the entrepreneur Robert Barker patented a new from of entertainment that would intrigue the public for a century to come. This was the panorama, a massive circular painting whose effect on the viewer was deliberately enhanced through an original apparatus for viewing it. The early exhibitions of these paintings were so successful that Barker erected a purpose-built rotunda in Leicester Square, which was the first and most prominent venue in what became a longstanding mode of entertainment in Romantic and Victorian culture. Others soon joined or competed with Barker in his successful enterprise with other venues cropping up in the Strand, Spring Gardens and Regent’s Park. Panoramas came to be used as backdrops for stage productions and museum exhibits, though they continued to form a staple of the entertainment on offer in nineteenth-century London. They even spread to America and Europe, initiating a fascinating exchange across seas and cultures. But most of all, panoramas facilitated the viewing of oneself and one’s environment in the context of an international empire and a developing global commodity culture.

    There was the DIORAMA, BOLD STREET, LIVERPOOL. A View, 80 FEET BY 50, OF TRINITY CHAPEL IN Canterbury Cathedral. 1825 but this is much later than Ms Gaskell`s letter. Information about the building in Liverpool is limited. It has been possible to glean that in Liverpool the building was considered when it opened as 'worthy of being ranked among our public edifices and does credit to the ... taste of the architect ... so imposing a structure'. A contemporary guidebook to Liverpool spoke of the exhibition being at the upper, i.e..south, end of Bold-street, and indeed a city map of 1829 shows the building about one-quarter of the way down the east side of that street. In the following year it was 'about to be appropriated to other purposes', but it did continue as a Diorama certainly to the end of 1832.

    I do not think it was Bullock`s as he cam to Liverpool as late as 1802. I do recall reading an article on the opening of a Panorama in Liverpool around this period but I have not yet located it. I will make some further enquiries.


    Rob Ainsworth
    Liverpool History Society

  2. Hi Rob,

    Many thanks for your most helpful, and prompt reply.

    My transcription of the letter is now complete and you are welcome to a copy if it would be of any interest.

    Here is the reference to the Panorama in its context….

    She is writing to her friend in Holyhead….

    “When you were safe and sick upon the water what do you think I did ? I thought I would have a nautical amusement as well as you, and I went to the Panorama; but it is kept a profound secret in our society. After I had seen it I sent Frank and Sarah, the former was so delighted with the priviledge of going again the same day without further pay, that he went nine times.”

    There are few clues as to the circumstances of the writer of the letter Alicia Gaskell.

    I might be adding 2 and 2 and getting 5, but my guess is that she was a governess to the children of the Chaloner family ?


  3. Hello Cliff,

    I am still looking for the panorama article as I only read it a few months ago. If I recall correctly it was in a purpose built building were the audience stood at the centre and a 360 degree panorama of the town of Liverpool moved so it is really a Diorama. This could be right as she mentions "a nautical amusement" and may have been a view of the ships in the Mersey but do not think it was a camera obscura.

    The reason I blog the questions is it prompts replies from people.

    I would very much like to read Alicia `s letter.

    I will let you know more when I find the article.



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    Liverpool History Society