The cyclorama emerged in the 1700s and became a popular form of entertainment at the turn of the 20th century before cinema rendered the genre obsolete. Essentially the same as the panorama patented by Robert Barker in 1787, the cyclorama is a huge 360-degree oil on canvas painting (15 x 122 metres). Mounted on the inside walls of a large purpose built circular building, they presented historic events such as famous battles.
The picture was viewed from a central platform, giving the spectator the feeling of being in the middle of the depicted scene. There was often accompanying music, sound or narration and real objects, such as trees and bushes, heightening the illusion created by the picture.
Cycloramas were introduced to Australia by American promoters Howard H. Gross and Isaac Newton Reed and were popular between 1889-1906. The country’s first cyclorama opened in George Street, Sydney in March 1889 presenting ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’. Two months later a similar cyclorama opened in Melbourne presenting ‘The Battle of Waterloo’. The cyclorama building in Melbourne was a large hexagonal building designed by George Johnson situated in Victoria Parade, Fitzroy (now St Vincent’s hospital) and then referred to as Eastern Hill. It cost £6,500 pounds to build, the picture was 1858 square metres and valued at £20,000, with the whole exhibition costing £30,000.
Later that year a group of local investors bought the cyclorama from Gross and Reed to form the Melbourne Cyclorama Company. The directors of the Company included Henry Byron Moore, Henry Gyles Turner, Lloyd Tayler and theatre entrepreneur James Cassius Williamson. Gross and Reed continued to supply the newly formed company with other pictures from their collection, including ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’. Each picture cost £2,500 pounds. ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ was exhibited in Melbourne for four years and an advertisement claimed the picture had been seen by over 700,000 people.
[Eureka Stockade], H141890
A cyclorama of more local historical relevance to the Victorian public, ‘The Eureka Stockade‘ opened in 1891. The 1854 rebellion of gold-miners against exorbitant licence fees was still quite recent and the story surrounding the events was gaining legendary status. That same year, a second cyclorama building was built on Bourke St and Little Collins St (now Georges Apartments). It opened with ‘The Siege of Paris’, which ran from 1891-1896. In 1893 the cyclorama building at Eastern Hill presented the Easter attraction ‘Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion’ and in 1895 ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’ was installed. The pictures rotated between Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
The Melbourne Cyclorama, 1889-1928 : photos of the Jerusalem Cyclorama, H2012.46- H2012.46/7
In 1892 John Hennings was commissioned by the Victorian colonial government to paint the ‘Cyclorama of Melbourne’, inspired by Samuel Jackson’s 1841 Panoramic sketch of Port Phillip. The panorama shows the partly built Scots’ Church on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets. The cyclorama was displayed at the Exhibition Building in 1892. It was significantly smaller in scale than commercial cycloramas measuring 36.6 x 4 metres. It remained on show for nearly 30 years until 1918 when the cyclorama was rolled up, stored and forgotten until March 1953, when it was damaged in a fire that destroyed a section of the Exhibition building. Three years later, the exhibition trustees donated the painting to the State Library of Victoria.
The Cyclorama of early Melbourne, H17709c
1. Colligan, M 2002, Canvas documentaries: panoramic entertainments in nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic.
Written by Sarah Ryan
Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team