Wednesday, November 13, 2013


In the digital age in which we live, it's sometimes easy to forget that on demand electronic media is a new idea. iPhones are only 5 years old and iPods just over ten. And cable TV and home internet barely twenty. Even the old analog mediums that digital technology has replaced aren't that much older again; their entire history can be encompassed in a single human lifetime.

Generations who lived before these everyday innovations were commonplace sought other forms of entertainment, most of which are now marginalised or forgotten outright. One of these is the Cyclorama.

First appearing in Scotland in the 18th century, a Cyclorama is a large scale painting exhibited in a purpose built, circular building. The paintings themselves normally depict a historical event, or sometimes a natural landscape. The viewer stands on a viewing platform in the centre of the display area and so is entirely surrounded by the image. Often the painting is augmented to make the experience more immersive; information panels or audio narration may accompany the picture, music may be played or sometimes props may be added to try and make the image more three dimensional.

Before the movies took a stranglehold on the popular imagination, Cycloramas were popular and were found all across Europe and North America.

A Cyclorama in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1890. 

From an image displayed in Indianapolis, this flyer serves as
a guide to a Cyclorama of the civil war battle for Atlanta.

There were also two purpose built Cycloramas in Melbourne; one on Victoria Parade in Fitzroy (built in 1889) and one in the city on Little Collins Street (built 1891). The Fitzroy Cyclorama showed imported scenes including 'The Battle of Waterloo' and 'The Battle of Gettysburg,' while the Little Collins version showed the imported 'Siege of Paris' along with the locally produced 'Eureka Stockade.'

The Fitzroy Cyclorama

A section of the 'Battle of Waterloo' displayed in Fitzroy.

In addition to these, a smaller Cyclorama was presented at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. Here the attraction was a remarkable 100 foot long, 360 degree depiction of the city itself; Early Melbourne 1842. Commissioned by the Colonial Government and created by German born artist John Hennings in 1892, the Cyclorama image was based on a sketch of the fledgling city drawn by Samuel Jackson in 1842 and thought to be one of the earliest depictions of Melbourne surviving.

Two images of Early Melbourne 1842; showing the image
in full (top) and a close up from one section of the picture.

But the Cyclorama's day in Australia was short lived. Cinema arrived in 1896 and immediately caused a sensation, quickly superseding the static Cyclorama's as a piece of entertainment. In fact, the Little Collins Cyclorama closed that same year. The Fitzroy version continued until 1906, when the enormous paintings were removed for the last time and almost certainly (and tragically) destroyed. The circular building on Victoria Parade was thereafter used for a circus, as an athletic club, for boxing matches and even as a cinema, before being demolished in 1928. Part of St Vincent's hospital now stands on the site.

The Victoria Parade site; rebadged as an 'Athletic Pavilion'
(although the Cyclorama sign is still visible).

The display at the Royal Exhibition Building was a popular attraction, however, and remained in place until about 1920. The Cyclorama was part of the Eastern Annex of the Exhibition Building complex, which also featured a museum, a fernery and an aquarium. You can see the Cyclorama marked on a guide to the complex published around the turn of the 20th century:

When the Cyclorama became defunct, Melbourne in 1842 was simply rolled up and put into storage and then forgotten about. It was rediscovered in the 1950's and subsequently donated to the State Library, where it is now safely in the permanent collection.

While Cyclorama's appear to belong to a vanished, and somewhat quaint, past, there are a surprisingly large number still on display around the world. The International Panorama Council (amazingly a real thing) lists three currently in operation in Australia; in Broken Hill and Glenbrook in NSW and  Hawker in South Australia.

'The Big Picture' in Broken Hill; a 100 metres long and 12 metres
high, it bills itself as the world's largest acrylic painting.

'Australia in the Round,' painted by former Penrith mayor
Jim Aitkins, is on display in Glenbrook NSW.

Accompanied by music, the 'Wilpena Panorama' in Hawker
depicts a 360 degree view of the Flinders Ranges.

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