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Edinburgh from the Calton Hill, Robert Barker, 1792

Robert Barker (1739-1806) invented the word Panorama along with the art form that it originally described and which he patented in 1787.

Barker was an Irish itinerant portrait painter. He moved to Edinburgh in the early 1780s. The story goes that he was out walking on Calton Hill with the whole vista of the City of Edinburgh laid out before him, and he seized upon capturing the scene in the round. In 1787 he opened an exhibition in Edinburgh which was to have a major impact on the 19th and 20th century entertainment industries. It featured a panoramic view of the city painted around the inner wall of a rotunda which, when viewed from the centre of the room, gave the spectator the illusion of reality. Viewers were admitted via a spiral staircase to a central gallery. Special note was made that the viewer should not see the top or bottom of the painting to improve the illusion "of being on the very spot".

Barker took his invention to London where it was an immediate success. Housed in specially built circular buildings, Panoramas subsequently became a very popular form of visual entertainment, in some ways heralding the cinema. Unfortunately none of Barker's large-scale Panoramas survive. This small, watercolour version of Barker's first full Panorama is dated 1792. Its purpose is unclear, but it is related to a set of engravings published two years earlier.


Talbot Rice Gallery websiteScottish Arts Council website
last updated 03.12.03