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Pronounced /ˌpænəˈrɑːmə/Help with pronunciation

The panorama was invented by an Irishman, Robert Barker, a painter of portraits and miniatures. He was sketching on the summit of Carlton Hill at Edinburgh in 1787 when he thought of the idea of reproducing the view on a large cylindrical painting that would encircle the viewer.

After a lot of experimentation, he produced a work painted on paper stuck to canvas, which he took up to London to show to the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy. Sir Joshua said it was impracticable, because of the difficulties of getting the perspective right, and of mounting and lighting such large pictures, but added that he would cheerfully leave his bed at any time of night to inspect such a work of art if it could be made.

Robert Barker persisted, and eventually produced a view of London that he exhibited in premises in Castle Street, off Leicester Square, in 1792. True to his word, Sir Joshua left his breakfast-table and walked in his dressing-gown and slippers to Castle Street to inspect it (he liked it). Mr Barker patented his invention, calling it La Nature à coup d’Oeil at first, but he soon renamed it, taking the word from the Greek pan, all, and horama, a view (from horan, to see). The enterprise was a huge hit with the public and Robert Barker made a lot of money from it.

Panoramas became very popular in the nineteenth century, sometimes being as much as 300 feet long and 50 feet high; they included some that advanced on rollers to give an illusion of movement. (They seem to have been more common in the US than they were in Britain, where they were often called cycloramas, a term which is first recorded from the 1840s.) These days, the word doesn’t so much bring to mind a painting or photograph as the original view that Robert Barker so successfully simulated in his constructions.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 29 Jan 2000; Last updated 05 Feb 2000