In 1787, the painter Robert Barker opened an exhibition in Edinburgh which was to have a major impact on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century entertainment industries. It featured a panoramic view of the city of Edinburgh painted around the inner wall of a rotunda which, viewed from the center of the room, gave the spectator the illusion of reality.
During the nineteenth century, panoramas and related forms of visual illusionism–dioramas, moving panoramas, peep-shows–became an early form of mass entertainment in European and American cities.
Cross section of Robert Barker’s Panorama, Leicester Square, London, 1789
The panoramic view itself was far from new. Panoramas are at least as old as the Bayeux Tapestry, and artists had been painting bird’s-eye views of cities long before the invention of manned flight made them a reality. What was new was the idea of putting the painting into a circular room and attempting to deceive the eye into believing that it was looking not at a painting, but reality itself. The history of panoramas is closely interwoven with that of photography throughout the nineteenth century, each playing an important part in the other’s development.