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Jacob Janssen Singapore from on board the sunken ship Pasco, December 28, 1837, watercolour (detail)

Grand vistas

Richard Neville
Sixteen panoramas will displayed in the inaugural exhibition of the Library’s new Drawings, Watercolours and Prints Gallery.

In December 1841, a peripatetic Prussian artist, Jacob Janssen, exhibited in his studio an in-progress panorama of Sydney, the city where he had only recently arrived. The panorama could be viewed alongside his illustrated vistas of Calcutta, Singapore and Rio de Janeiro, all places he had lived and worked. Now, 180 years later, Janssen’s panoramas of Calcutta and Singapore will be on display again, in the Library’s Watercolour, Prints & Drawings Gallery.

This new gallery will showcase the Library’s vast collections of watercolours, drawings and prints. We are excited about being able to unearth and explain — in many cases for the first time — the hidden strengths of our pictorial collections.

Singapore from on board the sunken ship Pasco

The first exhibition, Grand Vistas: panoramas from the collection, shows a selection of this intriguing genre, which flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. In their most commercialised formats, they were large 360-degree paintings of cities, landscapes or events such as military engagements. Panoramas were displayed in purpose-built spaces that positioned the visitor at the centre, surrounding them with the image.

Their scale could be enormous. Henry Ashton Barker’s 1801 City of Constantinople and its Environs, taken from the Town of Galata, for example, was said to cover 10,000 square feet. It is represented in this exhibition by a wonderfully detailed 4.4 metre-long print. And visitors to panorama impresario Robert Burford’s 1831 panorama of Hobart, based on Augustus Earle’s watercolours held in the Library, encountered lifesized paintings of convicts and First Nations people. 

A series of Eight Views, forming a Panorama of the celebrated City of Constantinople and its Environs, taken from the Town of Galata [picture] : by Henry Aston Barker, and exhibited in his Great Rotunda, Leicester Square.
A series of Eight Views, forming a Panorama of the celebrated City of Constantinople and its Environs, taken from the Town of Galata

While panoramas were presented as truthful renderings of a place, audiences and the media were often sceptical: the Morning Post facetiously described Burford’s Sydney as a ‘Panorama of England’s Arcadia’, while the Times wondered why it was that ‘one of the finest spots in the universe is appropriated … to the reception of the very dregs of society’.

Amateur Australian artists and other colonists, however, enthusiastically incorporated panoramas into their own work. Sensitive to European ambivalence about Australia’s convict origins, artists appreciated the panorama’s emphasis on detail. They showcased public buildings, churches and private residences in their quest to prove the success and moral integrity of the colonial enterprise.

Panorama of Calcutta from the Octerlony Monument on the Meydan

Soldier and prolific amateur artist Edward Close appeared to have no interest in gaining commercial benefit from his 3.6 metre-long panorama of Newcastle. But only two days after he finished it, on 11 June 1821, he wrote to Governor Macquarie asking for a land grant in the Hunter district because he had decided to leave the army to pursue farming. Indeed, his panorama reflects the potential for investment — his own — in the land surrounding Newcastle.

Jane Currie’s panorama of Fremantle, c 1832, appears to have been drawn as a personal record of the new colonial outpost to which her husband was briefly posted. Similarly Robert Perrott’s 1862 panorama of Port Macquarie (where he was posted as a court official) was dominated by a disproportionately large St Thomas’s Church, perhaps an attempt to salvage the town’s unsavoury reputation as an earlier penal settlement.

Panorama of the Swan River Settlement

Artists understood that panoramas were mostly read by audiences as statements of fact. Whether for public exhibition in London or for private circulation amongst family, colonists felt that panoramas spoke to their truth of the success of the British Empire in the antipodes.

Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian