Cinema before cinema: dioramas of London

London nowadays is renowned for its numerous cinemas, catering to every taste and palate: from magnificent Odeon on Leicester Square (don’t miss its operatic red curtain!) to quirky little venues. Some now count among the top London attractions. However, what is perhaps more unusual is the fact, that London audience loved “going to the pictures” long before the first film as we know it was produced. How?
For the answer, we need to go back in time slightly more, than I have expected myself.
The year is 1793, the fashion is cumbersome, and situation is dubious. On one hand, the country is enjoying a level of social mobility, which had been unheard of for centuries. One constantly hears stories about enterprising young women, who became popular printers and publishers, or adventurous young men, who made their fortune in trade. Britain is now connected with the whole world, and the masts of all the merchant ships, crowded in Thames, together resemble a dense forest. Spices from the East – so prized once, and so overpriced – are not an exotic luxury anymore, and neither is sugar from Jamaica. And – have you heard? – passengers, waiting for a tide near Billingsgate Market, have spotted some ships, carrying whales from Greenland!
But professionals, who get to see these faraway places by the virtue of their business, are still a minority. The number of people, who can afford travelling for leisure, is even smaller. How could we satisfy our own wanderlust? Of course, travel writing is now increasingly popular, and we could visit one of the bookshops of Paternoster Row. But a picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t it? So, if we have spare 3 shillings in our pockets and some free time on our hands, what can be better, than going to the panorama!

The interior is still vaguely cinematic...

The interior is still vaguely cinematic…

First panorama in London was opened by Henry Barker in magnificent rotunda building in Leicester Square (this place seems to attract these sorts of establishments…). He put a stake on human curiosity – and made a fortune. For a fee, visitors could see giant, intricately painted panoramas of distant lands or battle scenes. These panoramas spanned 250 square meters and took ages (and plenty of investment) to complete. An arrival on new panorama to Barker’s establishment was as important, as a cinema premiere is now. It was reported in the newspapers; it attracted crowds of new visitors. And who can blame them? After all, who, caught up in windy London winter, wouldn’t want to enjoy sun-drenched, colourful views of Cairo? A landscape of Malta, filled with dazzling light and glow of the warm sea? Majestic mountains of Sicily?
Or, if you wanted some excitement – why, after the Napoleonic Wars you could see a magnificent panorama, depicting the Battle of Waterloo. But, in this case, be prepared for queues and crowds – this one is a real blockbuster. The success was such, that Henry Aston – the artist, who prepared it – retired comfortably afterwards. After the visit, you could purchase small prints, that modestly recalled the experience. Although, before buying them, I’d seriously think, where am I going to put them. After all, they stretched to 3.25 meters.
The building, which once housed Barker’s Panorama, still survives, although now it attracts very different kind of audience. In 1868 it was converted into Church of Notre Dame de France (2, Leicester Square). It is still functioning and still splendid, and its rounded shape and airy space are preserving the memory of its original purpose.
SAM_1086Barker’s fortune must have been quite inspirational, for during the next century more, than a hundred panoramas were opened in London. But none outshone the new “object of wonder and delight”, as the contemporary newspaper put it – the Diorama of Regent Park. Strictly speaking, it was (well, still is) not in Regent Park itself, but in Park Square nearby. A herald of a new century, enamored with technical progress, the Diorama boasted ingenious mechanical contraptions and complex lighting systems. Being put together with the talent of the organizers, they could all but bring the pictures to life – whether they were showing Royal Castles of the Rhine or cobblestone streets of Dublin. Despite these new effects, admission fee was more modest, than that of Diorama’s predecessor, and constituted only 1 shilling. May be, the fear of competition played its role?
The Diorama still exists. Until 1993 it housed, quite fittingly, an arts centre. Unfortunately, now both its use and its future are somewhat murky. However, I strongly recommend you to see this magnificent building, as well as its lesser-known Rotunda (18 Park Square East, Regent’s Park). Where the Diorama itself is genteel and classic, Rotunda is dark and imposing. It seems to belong to a later era, and looks especially striking among creamy terraces of John Nash, that surround Regent’s Park.

Rotunda, now hidden in a cobblestoned courtyard.

Rotunda, now hidden in a cobblestoned courtyard.

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How our ancestors lived two centuries ago, Roy and Lesley Adkins.
Dr Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century, Liza Picard.
Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis.

Food: a Cultural Culinary History, Ken Albala.















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