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University of Exeter - Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Film and Popular Culture


The aim of this project is to reconsider the continuities between nineteenth-century optical recreations and the cinema in both its formative and mature phases. Using the extensive resources of the Bill Douglas Centre, consideration will be given to two key issues in the production of screen practice before film.   

1. The history of large format and projected images from the panorama and magic lantern to early cinema and subsequent widescreen formats up to and including IMAX.     

2. The identification and mapping of distinct public and domestic spheres of consumption. Optical media were produced for a variety of market and the public popularity of entertainments like the peepshow and magic lantern was complemented by the consumption of domestic versions of these media.



Given the comparative nature of this project, I think that a categorical rather than a historical approach would be the most effective way of structuring the proposed research. One of the major difficulties in mapping the family of nineteenth century screen practices is the interrelationship between the different visual and optical media. Critical histories of the panorama and diorama have usually treated them as individual and distinct entities (Richard Altick, The Shows of London(1978); Ralph Hyde, Panoramania! (1984); Stephen Oetermann, Panorama: History of a mass medium (1997); Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow(2001)). Foregrounding individual media necessarily downplays the way that peepshows, panoramas and magic lanterns were affected by similar aesthetic and commercial demands.

My work will be structured around four key categories in order to argue that screen practices have a longstanding role in popular leisure and entertainment; exhibition practices; modes of spectatorship; genre; and domestic consumption. These categories provide a framework to map the relationship between nineteenth-century screen practices and the cinema.  


Chapter One: Public Exhibitions and Picture Palaces

Chapter One will identify a set of common production and exhibition practices for public screen entertainments, especially panoramas, dioramas and magic lantern shows. The functioning of large-format images can be separated into two distinct genealogies. The first of these stems from the way in which panoramas and dioramas constituted an independent entertainment industry through the development of purpose-built institutions. Robert Barker's patent for the panorama relied on the creation of a purpose-built rotunda for its visual impact. A circular building ensured that the sight of the viewer was directed towards the only possible reality: that which was portrayed on the 360-degree painted scene. The first rotunda opened in Leicester Square in 1793, and another soon followed it in the Strand. Daguerre's diorama similarly relied on a purpose-built venue to blur the relationship between screen and audience. The Diorama first opened in Regent's Park in 1823, and temporary buildings soon followed in Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Dublin.

Large screen media housed in specific venues were notable for their visual spectacle and optical scale. The pictures displayed were enormous. The largest panorama circle at Leicester Square was around 90ft in diameter, and the diorama screen in Regent's Park was 45ft by 72ft. However, while architectural features were crucial in producing their initial attraction, purpose-built panoramas and dioramas functioned as fashionable rather than popular entertainments. They were inherently limited in their attraction. Outside London, most of these venues were very short-lived. The large outlay of capital required for each picture, along with the consequent inability to change the scene more than once a year, meant that, their success could not be sustained. The rotunda in Leicester Square closed in 1861 and the Regent's Park Diorama in 1851. 

One way that large-format images survived was to become one element of venues that offered multiple attractions. The most significant example of this is the London Colosseum, which opened in 1829, and claimed to have been visited by more than 1m people in the first fifteen years. Its main attraction was a panorama of London viewed from an imaginary standpoint at the top of St Paul's, and which measured 40,000sq feet. Additionally though, the Colosseum offered a Saloon decorated with sculpture and object d'art, a cleverly constructed landscape garden in which had been cut ravines, mountains and dells, and a Conservatory 300ft in length that was filled with exotic flowers and plants [Figure 1]. An imitation Swiss Cottage, which looked out onto a cleverly constructed mountain waterfall, completed the range of entertainment. On the roof there was a circular veranda that housed an enormous camera obscura. In 1844, an arena was even installed for the newly invented sport of roller-skating.

  Figure 1: EXEBD79285 - Colloseum, Regent's Park (London: J.T. Wood, n.d.)  
Figure 2: EXEBD70281 - Wyld's Monster Globe (London: Read and Co., c1855)

The 360-degree panorama thus remained something of a novelty. It was viable only for large fairs and exhibitions. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, 360-degree screens were standard exhibits at the Crystal Palace in London, and the Universal Expositions in Paris. The Universal Exposition in 1889 included no less than seven different panoramas, and at the Universal Exposition of 1900, visitors could see the Pleorama, Stereorama, Cineorama, and the Lumiere Brothers photorama. There is a clear link between this mode of exhibition - where the panorama functioned in a fashion akin to Tom Gunning's notion of cinema of attractions - and the subsequent development of widescreen formats like Cinemascope, Cine 180 and IMAX. These have remained limited to theme parks and individual venues, and rely on an overwhelming sensory experience rather than narrative appeal.

The second mode of exhibition practice stems from the standard product provided by panoramas, dioramas and magic lanterns. The key feature in the standard organisation of large-format images is the number of different venues that travelling shows could be seen at, both in London and the provinces. Moving panoramas, operated between two rollers, could be transported to a number of venues. They were consequently the industrial norm. These first moving panoramas came into operation in the early 1820s. One of the most famous was Marshall's Grand Moving Panorama of the Coronation of George IV, which was accompanied by a band playing suitably patriotic music at the correct moments. By the late 1840s, the majority of large-format screen shows were of this type.

The number of different venues for optical entertainments suggest that there has been an underestimation of the extensiveness of nineteenth-century screen practice. In Leicester Square alone, the institutions showing optical entertainment in the 1850s included Wyld's Great Globe; the Panopticon of Arts and Sciences; the Linwood Gallery, the Western Institution, and the Apollonicon Rooms [Figure 2]. Individual screen media usually formed only one element in larger exhibitions of technological curiosity and optical entertainment. The Regent Street Polytechnic, which opened in 1838, had a typically eclectic program that included oxyhydrogen microscopes alongside phantasmagorias, dissolving views and elaborate lantern shows. Employing a combination of magical illusion and scientific realism, its motto was 'If you want science you can have it. If you want instruction you can have it. If you prefer amusement you can have it. You can have either or all three by paying the admission price of a shilling'. Institutions like the Polytechnic existed alongside numerous galleries of science, full of anatomical displays and cabinets of curiosities

Optical shows could be found as part of pantomimes and theatrical performances, alongside wax-works, and at several pleasure gardens. Screen and stage practices were closely integrated. Professor Pepper's famous ghost shows at the Royal Polytechnic, for example, inspired numerous stage effects in plays such as A Christmas Carol, Hamlet and Faust. Screen entertainment was also very much part of the new world of leisure and retailing. Cosmoramas became standard attractions at bazaars, which were early forms of department stores. The first Cosmorama opened in London in May 1821, and Cosmorama rooms were soon part of the Saville House Bazaar, St James's Bazaar, and the Oriental Bazaar in High Holborn. What bazaars offered was an integrated leisure complex, offering a variety of pleasures.

In addition to London venues, there was a thriving network of provincial distribution. After exhausting their appeal in London, the most successful tours would visit forty or fifty provincial towns. Hamilton's Panorama of 'An Excursion to the Continent and Back' played for seventeen weeks at the Trade Hall in Manchester and was reputed to have been visited by over 80,000 people.   


Chapter Two: Of Visual and Other Pleasures

Chapter Two seeks to identify the appeal of the different visual media. It examines the relationship between their attraction and the dominant genres associated with nineteenth-century screen practice. Optical shows played upon both realism and spectacle; they were consequently predisposed towards subject matter that accentuated the impact of the screen experience.

For domestic artefacts and public exhibitions, exotic landscapes, vast cityscapes, natural disasters and large news events formed the staple subject matter. Oft repeated shows included the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Battle of Trafalgar and journeys across America and the Orient. Such generic categories also constituted the usual fare of the magic lantern, illustrated journalism, and, to a lesser degree, early film. Magic lantern travelogues used elaborately painted slides in order to conjure up the allure of far-off lands. The dominant genres produced existed in a symbiotic nature with the nature of the screen experience. Panoramas that revealed the new urban phantasmagoria of London and Paris did so through a screen practice that was itself part of the opening up of new forms of consciousness.

Despite the common subject matter of screen entertainment, visual shows had widely different forms of appeal. Different modes of exhibition invariably produced different types of attraction. At one end of the spectrum is a concern with the opening up of what Walter Benjamin has called the optical unconscious [1] . With the proliferation of optical inventions, the supernatural illusion of natural magic was superseded by a new technological visuality. Barker's patent for the panorama described it as 'La Nature a Coup D'Oeil'. Its appeal depended as much on the topographical realism of the scene portrayed as on its scale. Similarly, solar microscopes and achromatic telescopes were regularly included as part of optical exhibitions. One typical show at Short's Carlton Observatory in Edinburgh promised to show the eye of a fly 'magnified into an expanse of 12 feet, each of its many hundred pupils assuming the size of a human eye' [2] [Figure 3]. Optical technology opened up a realism whose modernity made gave it a general scopic fascination.     

  Figure 3: EXEBD12785 - Short's Observatory, Calton Hill, Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1852)  
Figure 4: EXEBD17418 - Mr. Albert Smith's ascent of Mont Blanc (London: Egyptian Hall)

Realism and spectacle, however impressive, were nevertheless not enough to sustain screen entertainment. Screen practice is usually identified with visual pleasure but the most successful shows incorporated a variety of attractions. They relied on narrative appeal and instruction as well as spectacle. The success of many shows stemmed from their employment of a lecturer rather than the quality or novelty of their visual experience. During the 1850s and 1860s, moving panoramas and dioramas were closer to live theatrical shows than to fashionable art exhibitions. The lecturer cum showman emerged in the late 1840s, when several American panoramic shows arrived, usually accompanied by vivacious American showman. John Banvard's panorama of the Mississippi played at the Egyptian Hall with enormous success between 1848 and 1850. One condescending reviewer from the Saturday Review, when describing his visit to Hardy Gillard's Great American Educational Panorama, declared that 'in the absence of a poet we have Mr Gillard screaming until he becomes almost inaudible, and making terrible cuts and slashes with a long wand, as of he were performing sword exercises against a giant' [3] . In contrast with the grand history paintings of the early panoramas, the showman acted as a democratic interlocutor between picture and audience. The performative aspect of many large-format screen shows makes them much closer to the magic lantern than has commonly been realised.

A figure who exemplifies the success of the showman is Albert Smith. His shows, The Overland Mail to India, The Ascent of Mont Blanc, and To China and Back, were incredibly successful. The Ascent of Mont Blanc started its performances in March 1852 at the Egyptian Hall. It ran for six years, playing for over 2,000 shows. The Mont Blanc show was a dioramic journey of Smith's own mountain ascent. Its success, however, stemmed from his showmanship. The stage contained a mock-up of a Swiss chalet with a pool in front of it surrounded by Alpine plants [Figure 4]. Smith gave his performance in full evening dress; it consisted of anecdotes, literary description, impersonations and patter songs. It was also regularly rewritten to include allusions to current news items. Significantly, the cultural frenzy around The Ascent of Mont Blanc created a host of spin-off products. These included engravings, dances, stereoscopic pictures, plates decorated with Smith's portrait, magic lantern slides, and even a Mont Blanc game.

Screen practice developed a dominant mode of exhibition that ensured the provision of multiple attractions. During the 1880s and 1890s, this is exemplified by the most successful of the surviving visual tours was Poole's Myriorama [Figure 5]. Poole's usually had six shows on the road at once, each with a staff of thirty-five including musicians, machinists, a lecturer and other artistes. The basic element of Poole's shows was invariably a panoramic travelogue across Europe and America. Their entertainment, nevertheless, belongs to the genealogy established by the showmen of the 1850s and 1860's. They offered hybrid variety shows that included songs, anecdotes and frequent references to topical events. Short films were included after 1896. The visual spectacle was only one element of a form of entertainment that was heavily influenced by the music hall. The auditory and communal experience were as much the attraction as the visual extravaganza.

The differing nineteenth-century optical recreations feed into the range of attractions subsequently offered by the cinema. One mode of appeal, best embodied by the purpose-built panoramas and dioramas, was almost wholly reliant on visual spectacle. This is a genealogy that stretches forward to Cinemascope and IMAX. The dominant form of appeal, however, was much closer to the hybrid narrative and performative pleasures of the cinema.

Figure 5: EXEBD17872 - Chas. W. Poole's Great Myrioramic Realisations (c1903)


Chapter Three: Domestic multi-media: screen practice in the home

Chapter three maps the existence of public and domestic spheres in the consumption of popular visual entertainment. There are two important reasons for identifying the predominance of optical toys within the nineteenth-century drawing room. It locates twentieth-century domestic image production in terms of a tradition of screen entertainment within the home. Secondly, it exemplifies the extent to which the nineteenth-century was what Isobel Armstrong has described as an avidly scopic culture, 'obsessed with the disorientating thrill of reflection, refraction, projection and anamorphosis'. Perspective games competed with stereoscopes and praxinoscopes as favourite drawing room recreations.

This chapter seeks to demonstrate that domestic optical activities were widespread and demonstrated all strata of society. In London Labour and the London Poor, for example, Henry Mayhew records a conversation with a London street peddler selling a range of what he called 'magical delusions'. These included a crude version of the thaumotrope that relied merely on carefully cut out sheets of paper to throw grotesque silhouettes on the nearest wall. Sold for the bargain price of a penny, these magical attractions mimicked many of the effects of more expensive magic lanterns and dissolving views. Mayhew himself specifically mentioned his encounter with the street seller because of the 'improving' nature of these occupations. In his words, it showed 'something of a change in the winter's evening's amusements of the children of the working class' [4].

The second way that this chapter identifies the different spheres in which optical media were consumed is through tracing their aesthetic influence over a diverse range of graphic media. The technological effects of the panorama and diorama were often reproduced as a set of formal characteristics by small-scale artefacts and prints. During the 1830s, for example, cleverly designed protean views mimicked the effect of a diorama so that when held up to the light the scene underwent a dramatic transformation. Illustrated journalism and hand-held reels, when portraying large public events, invariably mimicked the conventions of the panorama [Figure 6].

Figure 6: EXEBD69322 - Panorama of Lord Mayor's Procession (London, S. Marks and Sons, 1894)


Chapter 4: Spectatorship and the screen

Chapter four examines the similarities in the spectating process associated with the different optical media. Merlau-Ponty has argued that seeing is a kind of possession, and one recurring feature of the nineteenth-century relationship with the screen is the desire for interactivity. There was an abiding fantasy and fear of possessing the world of the screen.

This chapter explores the experience of optical toys, arguing their pleasure was keyed into the changing and uncertain relationship between the self and the world. Screen practices manipulated both the properties of light and the phenomenological working of the eye. Isobel Armstrong has argued that optical toys offered sensory experiences without a sensory, tactile image - they were caught in a constant play of materiality and phantasmagoria.  The eye was less the organ of truth than the most fertile source of imagination and illusion. For the spectator, optical toys like the kaleidoscope offered a multiplicity of subject positions. Anamorphic prints, whose distortion had to be unravelled through viewing mirrors, subverted the rules of conventional perspective [Figure 7]. In so doing, they also disturbed the viewer's comfortable relationship with the world. The thrill of many optical toys derives from the unstable subjectivities they produced: where the spectator, nevertheless, remained in control of the image.

  Figure 7: EXEBD69246/5 - Print of Napoleon from Anamorphic Speculum and Set of Cards (c1850)  
Figure 8: EXEBD39155 - F. Drouin, The Stereoscope and Stereoscopic Photography trans. Mathew Surface (London: Percy Lund and Co. with the Country Press, 1895)

Domestic optical media were equally concerned with screen interaction. Portable peepshows and stereoscopic photographs offered the opportunity to become at one with the world of the screen. The term stereoscope derives from two Greek words, stereo meaning solid, and skopein meaning to look at. Seen through specially designed viewers, stereoscopic pictures provided a three-dimensional experience [Figure 8]. They were an incredibly popular parlour-room pastime from the mid 1850s. The London Stereoscopic Company was set up in 1854 and by 1858 its trade list included more than 10,000 titles.

Large-scale screen formats intensified the spectating process provided by small optical toys. Like the kaleidoscope, panoramas offered a disorientating optical experience. In contrast to the singular spectating position assumed by conventional perspective painting, the panorama offered an unending simultaneity of viewpoints. Its effect was accentuated by the all-enveloping experience of the trompe l’oeil painting. In this early form of virtual reality, the viewer became part of the world of the screen. She or he passed into the panoramic world in much the same way that Lewis Carroll's Alice passed into the looking glass. This is a condition that forms of cinema have subsequently sought to achieve with ever greater veracity and scale. Cine 180 and, more recently, IMAX, have all advertised themselves through the immediacy they claimed to achieve.

Dr John Plunkett
Junior Research Fellow

All images © Bill Douglas Centre


[1] .  Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Illuminations trans. Harry Zohn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970) 212.

[2] . EXEBD12785, Handbill for Short's Carlton Observatory (1851-2).

[3] . EXEBD10072, Handbill for Hardy Gillard's Great American Educational Panorama (1873)

[4] . Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 1 (London: William Clowes, 1861) 287.


Dr John Plunkett
School of English
University of Exeter
Queen's Building
The Queen's Drive
Exeter EX4 4QH


Professor Steve Neale
Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture
School of English
University of Exeter
Queen's Building
The Queen's Drive
Exeter EX4 4QH




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