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.

Shows black and white photograph of Cyclorama located in East Melbourne, of the Battle of Waterloo.

Cyclorama, H91.325/1953

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.

A hand-coloured photograph showing a bird's-eye view of events at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, 3 Dec. 1854.

[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.

Photographs of sections of the Jerusalem Cyclorama painted by Paul Philippoteaux, depicting scenes from the Crucifixion of Christ and images of Jerusalem and surrounding country as it might have appeared at the time. Also a print of the Melbourne Cyclorama Company building pasted in centre of backing between the images.

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.

Oil on cotton colour painting based on Samuel Jackson's Panoramic Sketch of Port Phillip dated 30 July, 1841 and includes the overlay of development in Port Phillip in 1892.

  The Cyclorama of early Melbourne, H17709c

Bibliography

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

This article has 4 comments

  1. Hello Sarah – You may not be contactable at this address but
    I was in having a cup of coffee at Quist’s and saw the poster for the Cyclorama. Henry Byron Moore ( one of the Directors you list above) is my Great-grandfather. I have been going through his papers in the State Library and found some information on this amazing form of entertaining and imparting important information.

    • Hi Jane

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog. I certainly enjoyed reading up on the heyday of the cyclorama. Entertainment has changed dramatically in today’s digital age. Maybe there will be a cyclorama renaissance in a bid to re-engage with the analogue world. Your great grandfather was a real mover and shaker. I do love the bushranger/hipster beard he sports in the portrait accompanying his entry on the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

  2. I am writing the first spreadsheet from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. Reed & Gross from 1885-88 produced units of BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG and JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION at their studio in Englewood, then a suburb of Chicago. In autumn 1888 they removed their studio, panorama artists, and cycloramas to Australia, to set up 2 rotundas in Melbourne,1 in Adelaide,1 in Sydney.INFO TO SHARE

    • Hi Gene

      Thank you for sharing the information you’ve come across in your research about 19th century rotunda panoramas. The panoramas certainly were immense. The Imax of the day. What a huge undertaking for Reed & Gross to completely uproot and move their operation Down Under. They were very popular until cinema took over as the preferred mode of entertainment.

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