the broader picture: Taking the long view

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THE CONCEPT of the panorama came to Robert Barker, a painter of portraits and miniatures, when he was walking on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh in 1787. He suddenly imagined a circular representation that would display the whole of the magnificent landscape that he could see. He took the idea to Sir Joshua Reynolds, then President of the Royal Academy, but his reaction was scornful. What interest could there be in such a notion, particularly given the technical difficulties of the lighting and dimensions of a circular painting? But Sir Joshua was soon eating his words. The following year, on viewing one of Barker's first full-scale attempts (a view of London), he conceded: "Nature can be represented so much better there than in a painting restricted by the normal format."

Panoramas soon became popular all over Europe. They could be up to 120m long and 18m tall and were installed in rotunda, to be viewed from a central platform (shown right). To add to the illusion of "reality" created by the encircling scenes, viewers approached the observation platform along a darkened corridor and were then plunged into the lighted scene. The most frequently-illustrated themes were cityscapes and battle scenes (such as the Panorama of the Struggle for Tyrolean Independence in 1809, reproduced above in two strips, painted in 1896 by Michael Zeno Diemer). As well as providing entertainment, panoramas were travelogues, historical documents and propaganda machines. To reproduce battle scenes, artists would often visit the sites and interview eye-witnesses. Indeed, once the panorama had become established as an art-form, entrepreneurial travellers and soldiers would take notes and make drawings of their adventures to sell as raw material. Nelson thanked one panoramist for "keeping up the fame of his victory in the battle of the Nile for a year longer than it would have lasted in the public estimation". The panorama remained popular throughout the 19th century; eventually, though, it was ousted by photography. A painting that took time, trouble and expense could be recorded on photographic plates at the click of a button.

The award-winning Swiss-French author Bernard Comment first came across this kind of painting in 1993, while researching a thesis about Proust. Puzzled by references to panoramas, he went off to find out about them, planning to include a footnote. Then he became hooked, and ended up spending three years chasing his new subject round Europe. The result is his beautifully illustrated book, The Panorama, which has fold-out reproductions that show not only the scale of the paintings, but also the meticulous detail: every rooftop, every soldier, is tiny but perfect.

The Panorama was published in France some months ago, and since then more and more panoramas have been brought to Comment's notice. Antiques dealers wondering what these immensely long canvases are have taken to ringing him up for help in identifying them. Comment hopes that renewed interest in this art form will mean that curators will be able to attract funds for restoration of their collections. "Often people haven't heard of panoramas, but as soon as they see them they are fascinated," he says. "It's a real joy to help bring them back into the public eye."

`The Panorama', by Bernard Comment, is published on 1 December (Reaktion Books, pounds 45)