Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand

Mimi Colligan,
Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand
Melbourne: Melbourne University Press 2002.
ISBN: 0522850197
250 pp
Au$59.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Melbourne University Press)

The first thing that impresses about this book is its presentation: hard covers, glossy paper, clear type, lavish illustrations (some in colour) – the sort of book that is as good to feel and lift and feast the eye upon as to read. It could be left on a coffee table for browsing through the pictures, but it would be a pity if that were the only way it was consumed.

It tells a story that will be unfamiliar to all but a small number of afficionados – in this case the dust jacket claim that the author is “the only historian to have made a detailed study of Australasian panoramas” is absolutely accurate. It will be of particular interest to those who have followed the research on panoramas in other parts of the world, or to those whose own research interests intersect at various points with that of the panorama in Australia and New Zealand, which includes any historian of Australasian silent film. But it also chronicles in fascinating fashion a particular period of Australasian history (the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century), and a particular facet of that history – the craze for “moving pictures”.

The archaeology of the cinema extends way back further than this of course – back to Asian shadow puppets and the various optical toys that intrigued fairground audiences in Europe and the British Isles. But the panorama was seen from the beginning as more than a mere gimmick to make images appear to move – the content was as important as the form, and was often of the kind of subject that was later the stuff of documentary film. Well before the cinematograph, and even before the peep-show kinetiscope, audiences flocked to see images of far-off places or of significant events (battles were a particular favourite). These were presented on a vast canvas, up to four metres high, with the illusion of movement provided either by moving the audience around or across the image or by moving the image past the audience.

In the earliest examples of the form, starting in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, huge rotundas were constructed with the panoramic painting mounted permanently round the inside of the walls, perhaps with objects installed in front of the picture to provide a further illusion of three dimensions. The audience entered along a passageway under the image, and mounted the stairs to view the “panorama” from a central platform. If the image was painted on both sides of a cloth, with transparent sections through which lights could play to shift focus or to achieve special effects such as dawn rising or night falling, or the glow of battle, it was known as a “diorama”. A “modelled panorama” was yet another specialist form – a huge painting in an outdoor setting, used as the backdrop to modelled figures and other architectural features and with fireworks spectacularly displayed above and behind the model.

When the image was moved from one huge spool to another, it was known as a “moving panorama”. This could not be quite so spectacularly presented, but was more portable, and could be transported for display in theatres and halls all over the country, often with a speaker providing a thrilling or amusing commentary as the images scrolled past. This could be an entertainment in its own right, and might in that case be very big – up to 1500 feet long. Or it might be displayed across the back of a stage, as an element of a larger presentation, particularly a pantomime. To further complicate the terminology, all of these terms could be used less specifically, even interchangeably, or to refer to quite different spectacles such as lantern slide shows or dissolving views. This book clarifies the terminology about as far as possible, given the shifting and ambiguous usage of the main terms.

The first chapter sets the scene, with a brief survey of the beginnings of the fixed panorama form in Britain, Europe and USA. At this time, Australasia was among the exotic locations depicted panoramically, for the benefit of audiences unlikely ever to see that part of the world for themselves, and the result is the permanent record of features of geography and social life in a form useful to historical researchers. Later chapters explore in more detail the spread of the panorama to Australasia. Only the moving panorama reached New Zealand, while in Australia the moving panorama preceding the fixed variety, which was known as a “cyclorama” when permanent buildings were eventually constructed in Melbourne, Sydney, Launceston and Adelaide. Then there is the use of moving panoramas in theatrical presentations, and the modelled panoramas in outdoor pleasure venues such as the ubiquitous Cremorne Gardens. Over time, the whole affair lightened up – where it was at first deadly serious in intent, making much of exact replication of localities and landmarks and the realistic presentation of events, gradually humour and even irony entered the commentary. Audiences included all social classes – it was sufficiently respectable for the gentry, but also appealed to the working class enough that trade unions conducted excursions as fund-raisers.

The entrepreneurs who presented these entertainments were colourful characters. Some saw themselves primarily as painters, an under-appreciated segment of the artistic community. Some saw themselves as educators, with a responsibility to enlighten a public that had little opportunity to travel and a thirst for knowledge of the wider world. Some saw only the opportunity to make money – and, though some did make a fortune, others were unlucky to buy in at the wrong moment or chose a subject that had lost its pulling power, and so to lose their shirt on the venture. So, we follow the individual story of some of these characters – the Stoqueler family (or, more accurately father and son), or the stage designer Hennings, or the pyrotechnicist Pain.

The longest-lived venture was the cyclorama of old Melbourne (based on a sketch done in 1841), displayed in the Melbourne Exhibition Building from 1892 for nearly thirty years, as part of an entertainment complex sponsored by the Government of Victoria and including an aquarium and fernery (with performing seals) and a small gallery and museum. At the time of its construction, it was one of three cycloramas in Melbourne, but within a very short time the cinematograph displaced the panorama/cyclorama: it could move so much more convincingly, and provide so much more variety. So by the early 1900s these huge paintings were redundant, and most simply disappeared. The book ends with a description of the fate of the cyclorama buildings, and the claim that “canvas panoramic entertainments helped prepare audiences for the newsreel and the documentary in every respect”.

This is the definitive text on the subject – other historians may well follow up some of the leads here in more detail, but as a general survey this book is unlikely to ever be superseded. It is possible to feel overwhelmed by the wealth of detail offered here, but it remains a most impressive achievement, and witness to a passion that has persisted over a lifetime of research.

Ina Bertrand

Created on: Wednesday, 25 June 2003 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June 2003

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Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →