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Original Perspective: Robert Havell Jr. and the Significance of Panorama

By Margaret Fisher

From their origin in the late 18th century, panoramas were designed to immerse the viewer in the visual reality of the depicted scene. Because of this, the individual perspective of the viewer was highly important in determining the panorama’s significance. However, panoramas quickly became a kind of spectacle genre in the 1800’s and were therefore intended to do more than simply surround the viewer with a highly realistic picture.19 They were meant to engage the viewer as well, connecting them with the scene and, depending on the style of the panorama, with the events depicted. Panoramic viewing thus became a method of re-visitation, of witnessing something again, in modified form, which has occurred at another time and place. For example, panoramas sometimes depicted scenes of battle or other events. In this way the image functioned much like a newspaper, allowing the panorama to convey narrative information.20 Panoramic artists could claim the ability to bring the viewer back in time to a specific scene because of the historical and geographical realism they incorporated into their work. Every effort was made to correctly reconstruct the topographic qualities of the landscape in question, and the effect was highly realistic and engaging.


Panoramic artists also attempted, as the genre developed, to add the illusion of movement and energy to their images, trying to recreate the depicted moment. This made the panorama not just a re-visitation of a scene but also a subtle reenactment of the scene. They introduced these elements of movement and kinetic energy into the panoramic view using techniques that later give way to the moving panorama in the mid 19th century, and eventually, to cinema.


The sense of movement and energy was a common feature in most panoramas, often conveyed by a large number of depicted ships. Panoramic artists of the 19th century, “motivated by civic pride and the desire of the city fathers to encourage commercial growth…choked” their harbors with ships, to the extent that safe navigation through the waterway would have been impossible in reality.21 Panoramic maps and images of particular cities were intended to depict the vibrancy of that metropolis, drawing people from all over the world to contribute to this vibrancy. Specific views were even endorsed by chambers of commerce and various other civic organizations as advertisements for the city’s commercial and residential potential. 21

The river view of London was a particularly popular subject of panoramic images during the 19th century.22 As one of the most important world cities during this time period, panoramic images of London conveyed a sense of the city’s excitement and commercial growth. When panoramic images of London are compared with similar, contemporary images of New York City, we begin to note key characteristics of panoramas that might suggest why views of this kind were, and remain, so interesting to so many people.


The two images below, that of the famous Rhinebeck panorama of London and Currier & Ives’ The City of New York, share several key commonalities. The first and most obvious being the river (the Thames and Hudson, respectively) as the center of the image. John Bold suggests in Bird’s Eye-Views, that the reason for this is simply because the “open expanse of the river” in contrast with the dense surrounding city, offers the most expansive view of a city.23 However, there seems to be something grand about the way in which the city wraps around the natural curve of the water, suggesting harmony, perhaps, of urban and natural space. The Rhinebeck panorama was among the first to utilize “the river as a central artistic device”, and Currier and Ives follow after.22

The Rhinebeck Panorama of London (1810)19

The City of New York (1870)24

The presence of bridges and other common landmarks in each image reinforce the function of the panorama as a marketing tool of sorts. The goal of many panoramic artists was to depict the city in as intriguing a way as possible, highlighting all its most easily identifiable features and emphasizing features that would be of interest to travelers and businessmen. For example, the number of ships in each suggests that the artists were attempting to convey commercial potential, and the Brooklyn Bridge (a key identifying monument of New York) present in the New York panorama suggests an attempt to establish it as one of New York’s great icons.21


If one of the goals of these panoramic views was to advertise the excitement and special features of the city depicted, then perhaps that is just what people take from panoramic images, and from images of the skyline in general. Also, these two images both include an element of land connection, meaning they depict two metropolitan shorelines connected by a bridge and the swirl of ships between. Perhaps connection is a key element of panoramic views as well, and Brooklyn is being highlighted in the New York panorama for its own significance in relation to Manhattan. Brooklyn was not part of New York City until 1898; therefore, the Currier and Ives New York panorama is a depiction of two distinct places.25 Brooklyn’s inclusion in this panorama suggests the importance of its location relative to New York City, perhaps even its potential as place from which to view New York.

Robert Havell Jr. was born in Berkshire, England, in 1793. He learned the art of engraving from his father, Robert Havell Sr., who was a skilled painter and engraver. Prompted by his father to enter a more academic profession, he instead left home in 1825 and worked at a publishing firm. Havell Sr. later recognized his son’s talent and, despite his disapproval of art as a permanent career, commissioned Havell Jr. to be the engraver for Birds of America, a collection of paintings by American Artist John James Audubon. Havell Jr.’s work on The Birds of America won him both praise and fame, and he moved to New York in 1839, having grown close with Audubon during the creative process. While in New York, Havell Jr. resided primarily in Brooklyn and continued his engraving work, notably his work on city panoramas.26

By the year 1839, Havell Jr. had already created his earliest panoramas, which depicted London and the Thames River around the year 1830. The “panorama” art form had itself originated in London as a 360-degree image style patented by artist John Burke. Panoramas typically depicted expansive city or natural landscapes and were relatively similar to maps, allowing the viewer to make spatial sense of a large and complex scene. Similar to many 19th century panoramic artists, Havell often depicted his city scenes from some elevated vantage point, or “bird’s eye view”. The bird’s eye view was originally an imaginative conceit of landscape artists, an attempt to “get above” the landscape in one’s mind.27 However, as hot air balloons and other methods of sky travel became a reality, cities began to be drawn realistically from above.

Robert Havell Jr.’s 1831 panorama, “An Aeronautical View of London”29, sketched from a vantage point east of the current Tower Bridge, is a prime example of the bird’s eye view, and may also illustrate a key characteristic of panoramic images: the implied significance of the viewer’s individual perspective. The wide expanse of this specific panorama scene, and the large size of the actual image (about 43 by 112 cm), allows the viewer to experience the landscape in a vivid, almost tangible way. This was the case with most panoramas of the time: they attempted to make the viewers feel part of and absorbed by the scene. Panoramas were often kept and displayed in large round rooms for this reason, and viewings were controlled to make the illusion of reality as startling as possible. Some viewers were even said to shout in surprise upon viewing panoramas, shocked to find themselves visually transported.19


Havell’s “An Aeronautical View of London” successfully shocks and transports its viewers not simply because of its realistic composition, but also because of the subtle ambiguity of the vantage point. The viewer of a panorama would feel “shocked” and “transported” only if there was some slight confusion as to their exact position. In other words, experiencing a 360 panorama tended to be disorienting because the viewer was suddenly unsure about their exact location in space; confronted with a new visual “world” they were forced to re-orient themselves using the landmarks and distinguishing features of the panorama. This confusion regarding one’s location, and the process of re-orienting oneself, indirectly highlights the importance of the individual perspective and position of the viewer.27 By casting doubt over the viewer’s exact location within a scene, the panoramic artist encourages the viewer to question the location from which the scene can be viewed in reality. Put simply, panoramas beg the question “where exactly am I?” from their viewers, and the answer pertains to both location in physical space and location in time. Panoramas necessarily emphasize the significance of the viewer and the individual perception of the scene in which they “find themselves” (a perception bound by the emotional, historical, political, etc. context of the person in question). The panorama, well done, challenges observers to make sense of their position within the world of the image and to actively engage with the scene, giving the view a kind of private significance.

Havell Jr.’s “Aeronautical View” of London, 1831 29

While Havell Jr. was developing his panoramic engravings, a new mass-produced print genre became an integral part of urban European pop culture: panoramic texts. Panoramic texts can be viewed as a 19th century attempt to “make sense of the world” through word and image and were a hodgepodge of little stories, anecdotes, and informative text blurbs.30 This genre, developed primarily in London and Paris, is helpful in analyzing what the deeper significance of the panoramic view might have been and why artists and viewers alike were so fascinated by panoramic images during the 1800’s. Parisian panoramic texts largely focused on particular details of everyday life in Paris, and the written content was juxtaposed with images of the city itself.31 Some of the images used were simply street views while others were larger, more panoramic views of the city. These texts are early examples of the use of urban images to reflect something deeper and more specific about the lives of a city’s inhabitants.


Panoramic texts, perhaps more importantly, did not prompt only one response from a reader, but many. The texts often did not refer specifically to any real person. They encouraged both anarchy of thought and imagination on the part of the individual reader.30 In other words, the panoramic texts lent to the reader the power of perspective. The reader was responsible for the final judgment of the text, as well as the interpretation of what the text said about life in Paris. Likewise, panoramas, by their very nature, place personal perspective at the forefront. The panoramic scene offers a “snapshot”, a single image to be experienced and interpreted by individual viewers, while simultaneously leaving the location and context of the viewer open to interpretation. In this way, panoramic literature and panoramic images overlap in effect and function.

The emergence of panoramic literature in conjunction with the panoramic image suggests the importance of an individual attempt to make sense of, or perhaps “read,” the skyline. Exemplified by not only Havell Jr.’s work but also the work of many other panoramic artists and writers of the 19th century, the individual’s perspective is of the highest significance to the panoramic genre. This implies that there may be something intelligible within a panoramic scene, something to make out and understand. One may even sense that panoramas were designed to be “read”, and that each viewer’s reading might be different. If panoramas, and the skylines they depict, can be “read”, then all detail included in the panorama and each creative decision made by the artist becomes key to deciphering its intended meaning.

19 Hyde, Ralph. Panoramania!: The Art and Entertainment of the "all-embracing" View. London: Trefoil in Association with Barbican Art Gallery, 1988. Print.

20 Griffiths, Alison. "Spectacle and Immersion in the Nineteenth-Century Panorama." Shivers down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 37-71. Print

21 "Panoramic Mapping -- Panoramic Maps | Collections | Library of Congress." Panoramic Mapping -- Panoramic Maps | Collections | Library of Congress. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

22 The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2013.

23 Bold, John. "Bird's-Eye Views: From Hollar To The London Eye." The London Journal 35.3 (2010): 225-35. Print

24 Image. The City of New York. Currier and Ives, 1870.

25 "History of Brooklyn - From Village to City." History of Brooklyn - From Village to City. January 1, 2012. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://www.thirteen.org/brooklyn/history/history3.html.

26 Williams, Gray. "People of Westchester: Robert Havell, Jr." People of Westchester; Westchester History. (accessed October 29, 2014).

27 Watson, Petra. Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser University, 2007.

28 Image. Birds Eye View of the City and County of New York with Environs. Lange, Gustav Georg (publisher), 1800’s. Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection.

29 Image. Aeronautical View of London. Havell, Robert Jr., 1831.

30 Cohen, Margaret. "Panoramic Literature and the Invention of Everyday Genres." Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz. Berkeley: U of California, 1995. 227-52. Print.

31 "Paris: Capital of the 19th Century." Paris: Capital of the 19th Century. Accessed October 22, 2014.

32 Image. Lower New York from Brooklyn Heights. Del'Orme, E. G. H. (engraver), 1800’s. Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection.

33 Image. View of New York Taken from the East River. Havell, Robert Jr.; 1844. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.