Studies for the Eidometropolis, a London Panorama
Although the monumental canvas on which Girtin’s 360-degree London panorama was painted has long since been lost, probably destroyed in a fire in Lyon, France, in 1807, a number of reviews and other documentary materials survive from which to reconstruct its appearance and gauge its impact as a spectacle. The canvas itself was created with the assistance of professional scene painters, and Girtin’s direct contribution may have been limited, but fortunately eleven out of his fourteen original sketches survive, and many of them have an uncommon beauty.1 They are essentially working drawings, however, produced for the use of Girtin’s collaborators, and they took two forms. Firstly, Girtin stationed himself on the roof of the Albion Terrace, adjacent to Blackfriars Bridge, from where he had an uninterrupted view of the city, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral dominating the vista to the north. From there, using a perspective frame containing a grid of lines, he produced seven highly detailed outline drawings that complete a full circle (figure 1). These were then passed on to assistants, who undertook the laborious task of scaling up and translating the lines onto the canvas. Secondly, Girtin appears to have made a copy of the pencil drawings and coloured them, again to provide models for his assistants to follow whilst painting the canvas (figure 2). Some of Girtin’s work for these colour studies may have been executed on the spot, recording the local colour of the scenes. However, the complex weather and light effects that guaranteed this was a ‘connoisseur’s panorama’ – and not just a precise topographical record of the metropolis – must have been executed in the studio in order to create a unified image across the 360-degree view.2
However impressive Girtin’s sketches are, it nonetheless requires a feat of imagination to appreciate the original immersive experience of viewing the completed panorama (figure 3). Visitors would have entered a central viewing platform from below so that the canvas, measuring ‘108 feet long, and 18 feet high’, could be seen uninterrupted.3 A carefully constructed false ceiling concealed the roof light, ensuring that the source of illumination was directed solely onto the canvas, so that from a central viewing position spectators were overwhelmed by the illusion that they were perched on the roof of the Albion Terrace. As one reviewer noted, from here the view was dominated by ‘the smoak floating across the picture from Lukin’s Foundry, the impending storm over the City, and the grandeur of St. Paul’s’, amounting to what must have been a startling image of the modern city and a suitable monument to a London-born artist who died a few months after its opening.4
Sadly for the artist and his partner in the project – his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), who provided the considerable financial backing required – positive reviews did not translate into commercial success. John Girtin’s recently discovered accounts list the weekly sale of tickets and it is clear that whatever the artistic merits of the Eidometropolis, a third London panorama taken from roughly the same location (next to Blackfriars Bridge) was not able to attract enough visitors to break even.5 The exhibition of the panorama in the Great Room in Wigley’s premises at Spring Gardens was in any case a matter of making the best of a difficult situation as the canvas was originally conceived for the foreign market, where the subject would have had considerable novelty value. Ironically, the London panorama finally made an appearance in Paris in 1804, though it was displayed anonymously as Britain and France had resumed hostilities.6
Picturesque Views in Paris and Other French Subjects
Girtin let it be known that his visit to Paris in November 1801, during the first days of the short-lived peace between France and Britain, was for health reasons, but it is now known that he took with him the monumental canvas of his London panorama, hoping to put it on display in the French capital. The owner of the French copyright to the recently invented panorama put an end to Girtin’s hopes, however, and though the Eidometropolis was eventually displayed in Paris after the artist’s death, he was compelled to find another project that might produce some return on the £100 his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), had lent him for the trip.7 The twenty aquatints that eventually made up the Picturesque Views in Paris (figure 4) were begun at the suggestion of one of his patrons, Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827), perhaps reflecting the interest that collectors had earlier shown in acquiring Girtin’s sketches. In this case, Girtin made twenty soft-ground etchings from his own on-the-spot pencil drawings, with four professional printmakers engaged to add aquatint to his plates to create a set of large prints that were only completed and published after his death in November 1802.8 The images of Paris and its environs acted as both souvenirs for travellers to the newly accessible city and memorials to the artist, whose skill as a draughtsman they celebrated.9 All but one of the twenty views features the Seine river, with the emphasis placed on the city centre, though there are also seven representations of the environs of the French capital. The drawings for the latter are relatively slight and were executed with great ‘dispatch’, as a witness of their production, the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) (figure 5), noted in his vivid account of the excursions he and Girtin undertook together around Paris.10 In contrast, the complex architectural details of the city-centre views such as The Tuileries Palace and the Pont Royal required the aid of a camera obscura in order to render them with sufficient accuracy and consistency (figure 6). Each of these more panoramic scenes was assembled from two or three pieces of paper, small enough to fit into the restricted dimensions of the mechanical aid used by Girtin.
According to a letter sent to his brother, Girtin originally intended to colour his Paris sketches on the spot, and a couple of these survive, including an alternative view, Porte Saint-Denis (TG1892).11 A fascinating image of the aftermath of an assassination attempt on the life of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, Part of the Tuileries Palace with the Louvre (TG1894), may also have been painted on the spot; given that the work is dated 1801, it must have been produced in the first weeks of Girtin’s six-month stay in the capital. In general, though, Girtin found the French landscape to be lacking in picturesque incident and unsuited to his artistic interests, as he noted to Holcroft, and he appears to have spent at least some of his time in Paris painting views of British subjects, such as A Village Scene (TG1918), as well as making watercolour versions of earlier landscape prints by a number of continental masters. There is also a group of French architectural subjects that were worked from engravings rather than sketches made on the spot, including the cathedrals at Lyon (TG1907) and Laon (TG1911), which do not fit in with the artist’s known itinerary between London and Paris. Another watercolour, which Girtin painted after a print from the multi-volume topographical series Voyage Pittoresque de la France12, shows the ruins of the Roman baths at the Hôtel de Cluny (figure 7), which were no more than a few minutes away from the artist’s lodgings but which he perversely chose to depict from a secondary source. It may be that these drawings were made back in Britain after the artist’s return in late April 1802, however, and it must have been at this time that he painted a watercolour from one of the subjects he sketched in Paris showing La Rue Saint-Denis (figure 8), which formed the basis for a painted backdrop for the theatre. ‘St. Dennis’s Gate, Paris’ was listed as one of two stage sets that were painted from ‘Drawing[s] taken on the Spot by the late Mr. Girtin’ for Thomas Dibdin’s (1771–1841) popular annual pantomime, which in 1802 was titled Harlequin’s Habeas.13 The fantastical tale of magical transformations opened on 27 December at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, with a series of scenes set in France and its capital, providing an ironic epitaph for the life of the artist who had died a month earlier, following his sole excursion away from Britain.
The 70 or so entries in the section Picturesque Views in Paris and Other French Subjects can be accessed here.
Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis
Part of the Tuileries Palace with the Louvre (Place du Carrousel)
A Village Scene
An Interior View of the Nave of Laon Cathedral