Jane Austen’s London, 1815

February 7, 2019 at 2:51 pm (history, jane austen, london's landscape, research) (, , , )


During the Christmas holiday, author Charlotte Frost gave me a two-page spread from Art Quarterly that announced a FABULOUS purchase from Sotheby’s by the Museum of London. It is “an epic 20 feet wide panorama of London, painted around 1815 by the French artist Pierre Prévost (1764-1823).”

The Museum is thrilled with their purchase, partly because it shows the Houses of Parliament pre-1834 (the year the buildings burned down; to be replaced by the Houses of Parliament we see today). Partly, also, because only one other Prévost panorama is known to exist – it’s of Constantinople, and is now housed in the Louvre.

So, the Westminster Panorama is HUGE, RARE, and a piece of HISTORY! An exciting part of the story is how the UK ART FUND came together with the Museum to help fund (with the aid of some individual donors) the bid.

  • The Guardian‘s story on the purchase, “Museum snaps up panorama of lost London landscape”
  • Wikipedia has put up a photograph and background information
  • Sotheby’s catalogue of the Prévost Panorama of London

“The illusion of depth, height and distance is testament to Prévost’s ability to work on such a large scale, and this complete, circular image, joined at Westminster Abbey, is one of the finest drawings of its type to have survived.” Mary Gosling (also known as Lady Smith, once she married, in 1826) and Emma Smith (also known as Emma Austen, after her marriage in 1828; and Emma Austen Leigh after 1835) – my Two Teens in the Time of Austen – have written about viewing various “Panoramas”. So it is a thrill to see what has survived from that period. This is a watercolor, a preliminary study for the canvas that would have hung in a panoramic theater (in this case, in Paris) for viewers like Mary and Emma to experience in the round.

What caught Charlotte Frost’s eye, though, was the proximity of Great George Street – where Emma’s grandfather, Joshua Smith MP for Devizes, lived. This section of the panorama:

Westminster by Prevost

Of the street running across the picture, the left-hand side shows the opening addresses along Great George Street. Charlotte’s *hope,* for me, was that one was Smith’s address. But he was at No. 29 Great George Street – which would be a few doors further down (and therefore hidden from view).

george street

No. 29 Great George Street, in the map above, is marked XIX.

However, No. 29 obviously must NOT have differed significantly from those townhouses beside it! So to see an approximation of its exterior is a decided thrill. Some photographs exist of the interior (see Collage; also BRITISH HISTORY ONLINE). I remember coming across some drawings of No. 29 interiors, done during the years the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) existed at this address (NPG’s first ‘home’). The National Portrait Gallery opened in January 1859. I do now wonder if Emma Austen Leigh would have visited…. One of these days I’ll go through her late and later diaries, and (hopefully) find out.

The Panorama of London, a book giving an overview of the city, circa 1830, mentions the Colosseum, Regent’s Park, “one of the most extensive exhibitions in the metropolis.” Although, obviously not the same artwork as the Westminster panorama, the description of the viewing of the Colosseum panorama is worth reproducing in full:

“The building is almost circular, with a large dome, and the front towards the park is ornamented by a noble Doric portico, with a large door in the centre. On entering the edifice by this door, a staircase on the right leads to a circular saloon hung with coloured drapery. This room, which is the largest of the kind in London, occupies the whole internal space, or the basement of the building, with the exception of the staircase leading to the summit, which rises like a large column from the centre. The circular saloon is intended for the exhibition of paintings and other productions of the fine arts. The wall of the [page 306] building, above this room, represents a panoramic View of London, as seen from the galleries of St. Paul’s cathedral. The view of the picture is obtained from three galleries, approached by the staircase before mentioned – the first corresponds, in relation to the view, with the first gallery at the summit of the dome of St. Pauls; the second is like that of the upper gallery on the same edifice; and the third, from its great elevation, commands a view of the remote distance which describes the horizon in the painting. Above the last-mentioned gallery is placed the identical copper ball which for so many years occupied the summit of St. Paul’s; and above it is a fac-simile of the cross by which it was surmounted. A small flight of stairs leads from this spot to the open gallery which surrounds the top of the Colosseum, commanding a view of the Regent’s-park and subjacent country.

An amazing part comes next, in describing how may visitors ascend:

The communication with the galleries is by staircases of curious construction, built on the outer side of the central column already mentioned. This column is hollow, and within it a small circular chamber is to be caused to ascend when freighted with company, by means of machinery, with an imperceptible motion, to the first gallery. The doors of the chamber will then open, and by this novel means of being elevated, visitors may avoid the fatigue of ascending by the stairs, and then walk out into the gallery to enjoy the picture. In extent or acuracy, the panorama is one of the surprising achievements of art in this or any other country. The picture covers upwards of 40,000 square feet, or nearly an acre of canvas; the dome of the building, on which the sky is painted, is thirty feet more in diameter than the cupola of St. Paul’s; and the circumference of the horizon, from the point of view, is nearly 130 miles. The grand and distinguishing merit of this panorama is the unusual interest of picturesque effect with the most scrupulous accuracy; and, in illustration of the latter excellence, so plain are the principal streets in the view, that thousands of visitors will be able to identify their own dwellings.

To read more about the Colosseum (including entrance prices), as well as the Diorama; Burford’s Panorama, Leicester-square; the Cosmorama, Regent-street; and other entertainments, see the book The Panorama of London, amd Visitor’s Pocket Companion, by Thomas Allen (1830).

It is no wonder then, that the Museum of London “snapped up” such a treasture as this panorama of Westminter. These entertainments simply no longer exist.

An Aside:

An interesting thought occurred to me, IF the Byrne portrait could be proved as being Jane Austen the author, then JA would have walked these very streets. For one of the last items I read was that the artist was housed with a studio overlooking Westminster Abbey.

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3 Comments

  1. Janeite Deb said,

    Wow Kelly! this is fascinating – thanks for posting – and very excited that the Museum of London has snapped it up – if it couldn’t be me, at least it’s in a good place with them!

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      A nice little gazebo in the backyard might have been just the ticket, Deb… You missed your chance. k

  2. The Pemberley Post, No. 6 (Feb 4-10, 2019) ~ Jane Austen and More…! – Jane Austen in Vermont said,

    […] The Museum of London has acquired an 1815 panorama of London painted by Pierre Prévost; Kelly McDonald on her Two Teens in the Time of Austen blog writes all about it: https://smithandgosling.wordpress.com/2019/02/07/jane-austens-london-1815/ […]

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