Few entertainments excited nineteenth-century audiences more than a monumental painting of a historical scene. Monumental meant the size of a wall or ceiling, but Robert Barker, a miniature painter, wanted to expand that scale dramatically. His goal was to immerse visitors in an extraordinary experience—to make them feel as if they were part of the scene, not just observers. In 1787, he patented his idea for a new delight: a circular painting presenting an entire landscape.
To exhibit his panoramic paintings, Barker built a two-story round building in London’s Leicester Square. When I was writing about an artist struggling to make her way in the city’s art market for my November 2019 release, Reckless in Red, I made her, not Barker, the proprietor of his Rotunda.
Possible topics for panoramic paintings were many. In the 1790s, the British especially liked naval scenes, then later, depictions of land battles fought during the Napoleonic wars. Henry Aston Barker’s 1826 Battle of Waterloo, for example, was so successful that he was able to retire on the profits.
Also popular were cityscapes and travel scenes, which required a single vantage point that, once chosen, had to be adhered to faithfully. A building made small from one perspective couldn’t simply be brought forward and made larger. To ensure accuracy, artists made detailed surveys of their subjects, measuring terrain and its features. As a result, depictions served a documentary function, preserving vistas from a moment in time.
But accuracy wasn’t the only restriction placed upon artists. Equally challenging was the physical construction of a piece. Painters often worked in teams, having to match their styles. Further, since the canvas was circular, weights had to be attached to keep it taut. This made the surface concave—an issue also accounted for in the design.
By the time the Rotunda closed in 1861, it had exhibited around 126 panoramic paintings. Robert Barker’s innovation brought about a popular form of entertainment during his lifetime, and, today, we acknowledge his work each time we use the panorama setting in our photography.
ABOUT RECKLESS IN RED
Lena Frost is a force to be reckoned with. A woman who has made her way in society without family or fortune, she’s about to realize her first big success as an artist. . . . Until her business partner makes off with her money, leaving her with little more than her hopes—and a dead body in her studio. Now Lena is at the mercy of a strikingly handsome stranger demanding answers she dare not reveal.
Is it her seductive eyes, or his suspicion that she’s up to no good that have Clive Somerville shadowing Lena’s every move? Either way, his secret investigation for the Home Office has him determined to uncover Lena’s hidden agenda. But the closer he gets to her, the more he longs to be her protector. Is she a victim of circumstance? Or a dark force in a conspiracy that could destroy everything Clive holds dear? Discovering the truth could have dire consequences, not only for Lena, but for his heart.
About the Author
Rachael Miles writes historical romances that are “impeccably researched and beautifully crafted,” according to the American Library Association’s Booklist, with titles lauded for their smart, independent heroines. Author of seven books, Miles is a former professor of book history and nineteenth-century literature. Visit her website at RachaelMiles.com or on the social media platforms below.