Cycloramas were a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th century until the arrival of the cinema diminished their appeal. They depicted a famous historic event in a huge 360-degree oil painting fixed to the internal wall of a large, purpose-built, circular building. The picture was viewed from a central platform with real objects, such as trees, bushes, tents, and realistic mannequins filling the space between the platform and the painting to give a 3-D effect. Music and special effects (bugle calls, smoke and cannon-fire) heightened the illusion created by the picture. Cycloramas were different from moving panoramas – the audience did the moving, not the picture.
Australia’s first Cyclorama opened in George Street, Sydney in March 1889 presenting ‘The Battle of Gettysburg.’ Mary Ramsay Ellen Blair described her visit: We entered a dark passage; how we did stumble, then some stairs we mounted and then a gas jet appeared, darkened and so on till we arrived on a platform with the Battle of Gettysburg raging all around us…My eyes devoured all before them; the peaceful meadows, rich with ripening grain; the trees, models, everything and then the soldiers fighting, the wounded, the nurses assisting, the burning haystacks, the red flames and curling smoke, the maddened horses wildly careering or the cannonballs – all at our very feet. It was just perceptible – the painted from the real – logs, stones and dripping water. MS-Papers-0014-09/3
Two months later, Melbourne’s Cyclorama opened on Victoria Parade, East Melbourne and displayed ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’ The company claimed it was seen by over 700,000 people during its four year tenure.
An added attraction was the veteran soldier, 100-year-old Jeremiah Brown, who entertained the audience with his reminiscences of the battlefield. After the Waterloo display closed in 1893, poor old Jeremiah was arrested for vagrancy and it came to light that he was really only four years old at the time of Waterloo. He did not join the army until 1829, his only foreign service being a few years in the West Indies. He was sent to the Geelong Gaol where he died 8 March 1894. The Argus, 20 February 1893.
The Fitzroy venue also showed displays of:
- The Eureka Stockade (1891). Below is an over-painted photographic print of the painted canvas exhibited in the Cyclorama building, Fitzroy, ca. 1891.
- Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion (1893)
- The Battle of Gettysburg (1895, from Sydney)
A smaller ‘Cyclorama of Early Melbourne’ was prepared for the Exhibition Buildings in 1892. It remained on show there until 1918, then was rolled up for storage until water-damaged in a fire in 1953.
In 1891, a second Melbourne Cyclorama was built on Bourke and Little Collins Street which displayed ‘The Siege of Paris’ until 1896. This is the frontispiece of the booklet available to viewers. It follows a similar format to the Gettysburg booklet — a background history lesson, a key to the painting and detailed description, a map of Paris, and information about how the Cyclorama was made.
Cycloramas in New Zealand
Sections of the Jerusalem Cyclorama were brought to Dunedin in 1893 and displayed at the City Hall. The Rev George Chapman, accompanied by a choir, lectured on Jerusalem and its history to meagre audiences until the show folded after a curtain caught fire and the scenery collapsed. Evening Star, 6 November 1893.
It wasn’t until the International Exhibition at Christchurch’s Hagley Park in 1906, that New Zealand gained a purpose-built Cyclorama to show ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’ from the (now closed) Sydney Cyclorama. A gigantic corrugated-iron blister is how one critic described it, but despite this, the display drew large crowds during the Exhibition’s six-month run. In the picture below, the Cyclorama is the octagonal building on the left.
The Gettysburg painting, a pirated “buckeye” version of Paul Philippoteaux’s original, came to an ignominious end and was eventually hocked off at an auction in 1921, its subsequent fate unknown. The 1913/14 Auckland Exhibition also included a Cyclorama of ‘Scott’s Dash to the Pole’ but the public was beginning to lose their enthusiasm for this form of entertainment.
- Memories of Old Melbourne: The Argus, 13 April 1946
- Cycloramas in Melbourne
- Kete Christchurch: The Cyclorama
- Cycloramas: The Virtual Reality of the 19th Century
- Colligan, M. (2002). Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand. (1 ed.) Carlton Vic Australia: Melbourne University Press.
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