PIERRE PRÉVOST | A panoramic view of London, from the tower of St. Margaret's Church, Westminster
- A panoramic view of London, from the tower of St. Margaret's Church, Westminster
- Watercolour and bodycolour over pencil, squared for transfer in pencil, the squares numbered, on multiple sheets of paper laid onto canvas
- 850 by 6050 mm
The end of the eighteenth century saw something of a panorama sensation. The 1989 Barbican Gallery exhibition Panoramania! captures, in a single word, the widespread fascination with these huge visual spectacles, which was part of a wider obsession with new visual phenomena, often based on scientific and technological innovations. The term 'panorama', meaning ‘view of all’, was coined by the artist and innovator Robert Barker (1739-1806) who was struck by the idea of creating a long, circular vista which spectators could experience in purpose-built rotundas, while he stood looking down on Edinburgh from Calton Hill in 1787. The highly original concept of the panorama proved immensely successful for Barker, and in 1793 a rotunda was constructed along the lines he had imagined, in London’s Leicester Square. On entering the rotunda and using a central viewing point, visitors would find themselves fully immersed in the surrounding prospect, often of a foreign and unknown city. The rules of perspective were followed precisely, thereby creating a powerful, hyperrealistic experience, not totally dissimilar to that of donning a modern virtual reality headset.
The popularity of panoramas spread rapidly, and the concept of touring these vast canvases which depicted foreign cities or battle scenes was a natural consequence. By 1800 panoramas could be viewed in many European capitals.1 The works were usually exhibited for a short period of time in a rotunda, before travelling on, and ultimately were replaced or sold. The nature of this process has ensured the rarity of the completed panorama, as excessive handling and transportation in most cases resulted in their ultimate destruction. The two most famous panoramas of London are Thomas Girtin’s Eidometropolis (1801-2) – a view of London from Southwark, now lost – and, perhaps most remarkable for its survival, the anonymous Rhinebeck panorama (1806-1808), now in the Museum of London, which looks west up the Thames, and fascinatingly appears to depict a view drawn from a hot air balloon.2
Pierre Prévost is acknowledged as being one of the most successful and talented French artists of the genre, certainly during this first generation of the phenomenon. In 1842, Hittorff wrote on European panorama rotundas, stating that Prevost’s works were completed to 'grand effet' and that after his death his talent in the genre remained unsurpassed.3 His brother, Jean Prévost, wrote on his numerous panoramas, and recorded the involvement of his nephew, Mathieu Cochereau.4 In 1799, Prévost created a View of Paris from the Tuileries (now lost), and over the subsequent 20 years depicted various other cities such as Amsterdam, Lyons, Athens and Jerusalem, as well as battle scenes, including the Fleet at Boulogne preparing to invade England. His desire to travel to London and exhibit views of the English capital may seem incongruent with the political situation of the period, but it reflects the fact that scenes of London never lost their appeal to a Parisian audience. Prévost’s first panorama of London, now lost, was made when he visited the city during the Peace of Amiens in 1802. He is thought to have returned to London in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo to work on this panorama from Westminster. It is certain, at least, that by 1817 he had created the panorama to which the present drawing is related, as according to Miel’s Essai sur le salon de 1817, a panorama was exhibited in Paris, which depicted the exact same view, a circular image in which the join fell within the depiction of Westminster Abbey. Miel even suggests that for someone who has never visited London, viewing this panorama would allow one to orientate oneself in the capital city.5
While the final canvas created by Prévost would have been very much larger (it was exhibited in a purpose built rotunda on the rue Neuve Saint-Augustin in Paris, measuring 32 metres in diameter, over five times the size of this preparatory drawing), even this preliminary study is of an impressive size, and is highly finished. Preparatory drawings such as this must have been made in connection with other panoramas by Prévost and his contemporaries, but hardly any such works are known today. The closest comparison is with the series of ten consecutive gouache views, recently on the art market, which Prévost made as studies for a panorama of Paris (1805-13),6 but while these can indeed be compared in style with the present panorama of London, the latter is a much more coherent and complete work, with extensive colouring. The only other significant surviving work by Prévost is a preparatory study for a panorama of Constantinople, now in the Musée du Louvre, which is again similar in style to the London panorama.7
Of extraordinary length and comparatively limited height, this panorama demonstrates Prévost's ability to transcend the dimensions of his support and manipulate the viewer’s visual perception, to create depth, height and a clear sense of distance, emphasised by the imposing gothic structure of Westminster Abbey at either end of the sheet. The resulting work shows a fascinating view of London, recording the buildings that shaped the city in the early nineteenth century, the bustling activity of the Thames – still a vital trading and transport route – and the lively activity of the streets surrounding the ancient buildings of Westminster. Descriptions of the finished panorama closely match this preparatory drawing; Boutard observes in 1817 in Journal des débats politiques et litteraires, that Prévost drew from the bell tower of the church of St. Margaret’s next to the Abbey and included the Houses of Parliament, Westminster bridge, St. James’s, and the Thames in his panorama.8
Working through the composition from the far left, after the building of Westminster Abbey itself, one can see the nearby graveyard and then the Guildhall, which was constructed in 1805. Whitehall, St. Martin-in-the-Fields and what would soon be Trafalgar Square occupy the central area, with the Thames to the right. The Palace of Westminster, to the far right, is shown as it was prior to the disastrous fire of 1834, which largely destroyed the medieval Houses of Lords and Commons (paving the way for the construction, between 1840 and 1870, of Barry and Pugin's iconic London landmark). The large expanse of greenery on the left is St. James’s Park. Once marshland, the area was purchased by Henry VIII in 1532 to accompany York Palace, later Whitehall. After the accession of James I in 1603, the area was landscaped and became home to exotic animals, including camels, crocodiles, birds and an elephant. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II ordered St. James’s Park to be re-designed along the lines of formal French gardens, creating features such as walkways and canals, which would have been present at the time of Prévost’s drawing.
To the centre of the composition, one can see the only remaining component of the Palace of Whitehall, the Banqueting House. Designed by the leading English architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), the Banqueting House was commissioned by Charles I; in 1649, just 27 years after its construction, it was the site of the king’s execution. The neoclassical St. Martin-in-the-Fields stands nearby. The site of a church since the medieval period, this had been re-built by James Gibbs in the 1720s. Prévost’s view shows the area prior to the construction of Trafalgar Square in the 1820s, and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields would therefore have appeared considerably different to how it does today. Contemporary accounts of the area describe the church as crowded in by surrounding buildings, which detract from the impressive nature of Gibbs' edifice.
The street scenes in the foreground bring a sense of life to the panorama, and allow the viewer to engage fully with the daily activity of the city’s inhabitants. This aspect of the drawing distinguishes the panorama from most contemporary works of this type, which often focused solely on buildings and landscape. The Rhinebeck panorama looks down the Thames from a significant height, thereby missing the clusters of figures and activity that Prévost captures in this work. Similarly, Girtin's Eidometropolis lacks these individuals; whilst the finished work has not survived, numerous preliminary drawings can be found at the British Museum.9 These drawings illustrate the spectacular vista captured by Girtin from Southwark, but the foreground is filled with the rooftops of Lambeth, and therefore lacks the figures and daily activities that can be found in Prévost's work. Here, shops and professions are indicated in the foreground in remarkable detail. On Great George Street, the road running horizontally across the centre foreground, the shops include a wine and brandy merchant and a solicitor, whilst on Bridge Street, which runs towards Westminster Bridge, an apothecary, a shoe-maker and a children’s clothes store are indicated. To the far left of the composition, on Prince's Street, Johnson Emery's Glass Paper Manufactory is visible. The variety and quantity of establishments emphasises the affluent nature of the area, as highlighted by Boutard, who points to theatres, squares, churches and gardens, all of which are indicative of Westminster’s wealth.10
The panorama sensation came to an end before the close of the nineteenth century and could be all but forgotten due to the rarity of these panoramas today. With the noble exception of the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague, hardly anything of this hugely popular artistic and visual phenomenon survives. This preparatory study is not only remarkable in its survival, but is also emblematic of the 'panoramania' of the era. The visual spectacle that even a preparatory study for these 30-metre panoramas provides is a testament to Prévost’s total mastery of the genre.
We would like to thank Bernard Comment for his help when cataloguing this work.
1. G. Bapst, Essai sur l’histoire des panoramas et de dioramas, Paris 1891, p. 15
2. London, Museum of London, inv. 98.57
3. J.I. Hittorff, Description de la Rotonde des Panoramas élevée dans les Champs-Elysées, Paris 1842, p. 7
4.J. Prévost, Notice historique sur Montigny-le-Gamelon, Châteaudun 1852, p. 57
5. F. Miel, Essai sur le salon de 1817, ou Examen critique des principaux ouvrages dont l'exposition se compose..., Paris 1817, p. 347
6. Exhibited by Galerie Kugel at TEFAF Maastricht, 2016. See: B. Comment, The Panorama, London 1999, p. 44, reproduced pp. 31-43
7. Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. 20828. See: B. Comment, The Panorama, London 1999, p. 120, reproduced pp. 121-129
8. M. Boutard, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, Paris, 28 September 1817, p. 1
9. See, for example, London, British Museum, inv. 1855,0214.23
10. M. Boutard, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, Paris, 28 September 1817, p. 1