The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s

by  R. Derek Wood

First published in the quarterly journal History of Photography, Autumn 1993 (Vol 17, No.3, pp. 284-295), this online version appears with the kind permission of Taylor & Francis Group, London

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Timetable of display of the early dioramas of Daguerre and C. M. Bouton

Fig. 1
The early dioramas by Daguerre and Charles M. Bouton

compiled by R. Derek Wood, 1993

You can also view and download a [larger image] of the above figure


Paris : from Georges Potonniée's ‘Liste des Tableaux exposés au [Paris] Diorama de 1822 à 1839’ in his Daguerre, Peintre et Décorateur, Paris 1935, 79-89.

London : (opened 29 September 1823): compiled from The Times, 27 September 1823, 1; 4 October 1823, 3; 30 August 1824, pp. 1, 2; 21 March 1825, 2; 21 February 1826, 4; 5 June 1827, 2; 24 March 1828, 6; 28 May 1829, 3; 22 April 1830, 2; 16 July 1832, 3; (NB. Chartres Cathedral opened in London 30 August 1824 with Harbour of Brest (The Times, 30 August 1824, 2), but Brest was moved in March 1825 so the pairing continued (The Times, 21 March 1825, 2) with Holyrood Chapel until December 1825 or January 1826. Many years later both Chartres Cathedral and Harbour of Brest were (according to Gernsheim) exhibited again in London in 1837).

Liverpool : compiled from The Liverpool Mercury from 1825 to 1832. (the Bold Street Diorama opened 21 February 1825, apparently closed October 1832);

Manchester : from advertisements in The Manchester Courier, 2 April 1825 to 22 December 1827.(the Diorama opened in Cooper Street 5 April 1825, closed December 1827);

Dublin : Diorama in Great Brunswick Street [Pearse St], opened March 1826, closed 20 December 1828, compiled from. The Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 21 March 1826, 2; 8 April 1828, 1; 19 Apr.1828, pp.1, 3, and Dublin Evening Post, 21 March 1826, 3; 19 Oct.1826, 2; 23 Decemeber 1826, 2; 7 March 1827, 3; 26 July 1827; 16 December 1828, 2;

Edinburgh : (opened in Lothian Road on 12 December 1827, and closed 15 June 1839): Showings compiled from the Caledonian Mercury, 13 December 1827, pp. 1, 3; 14 June 1828, 1; 12 July 1828, 1; 30 May 1829, 1; 15 June 1829, pp. 1, 3; 22 May 1830, 1; 12 June 1830, pp. 1, 3; 19 May 1831, 1; 8 August 1831, 1; 27 August 1831, pp. 1, 3; 24 May 1832, 1; 29 December 1832, 1; 22 June 1833, pp. 1, 3; 14 July 1834, 1; 4 August 1834, pp. 1, 3; 28 March 1835, 1; 18 April 1835, 1; 24 October 1835, 1; 14 November 1835, pp. 1, 3; 29 October 1836, 1; 19 November 1836, pp. 1, 3; 4 December 1837, 1; 11 January 1838, 1; 7 April 1838, 1; 26 May 1838, 1; (comment relating to Paris, 30 March 1839, p3); 3 June 1839, 1.



The public are respectfully informed that the DIORAMA in COOPER-STREET, (from the Regent's Park, London,) will OPEN on TUESDAY the 5th instant, with a VIEW of the VALLEY of SARNEN, in SWITZERLAND - Admission, 2s. - Children, under twelve years of age 1s. Perpetual tickets during the exhibition of the present picture (not transferable) 7s.6d.

- Open from ten till dusk

Thus was announced the opening on Tuesday 5 April of a Diorama in Cooper street, Manchester by an advertisement in a local weekly newspaper The Manchester Courier of Saturday 2 April 1825. (36)

The diorama seen on the opening in Cooper street was the first one done by Daguerre. 'The Valley of Sarnen' had been on display in Paris three years before and then in London for almost a year from 29 September 1823 until August 1824. The Dioramas in those two places had been designed to have two dioramas at each performance. Each pair of dioramas were presented in sequence to Paris and London audiences who were seated on a rotating 'salon' presumably because this device allowed darkness and an unobtrusive audience not interfering with the required visual illusion of perspective. One double program had a fixed length of about thirty minutes.

However in Manchester, and Liverpool, the buildings could display only one painting. Price of admission to the Cooper street Diorama in Manchester was two shillings or half price for children under twelve. In London seats also cost two shillings - although there were a small number of more expensive seats in boxes at three shillings -. and as they saw two pictures it would seem that the same price for the people of Manchester was very high. However, this was relieved somewhat within two months of opening because it became possible to see the show from a smaller number of cheaper seats at the back for one shilling.

By comparison the price of a newspaper, at that period an extremely high priced luxury item, was commonly seven pennies. The sequence of changes undergone by the single diorama on display must have lasted about fifteen minutes, but as it was a fixed auditorium it is conceivable that customers at the provincial Dioramas may have been able to see the changes undergone by a diorama more than once in an almost continuous program.

Advertisement for the Diorama in Cooper Street, Manchester

Advertisement for the Diorama in Cooper Street, Manchester
Manchester Courier, July 23, 1825.

It was possible to buy ‘perpetual’ tickets lasting for a complete season of display of one picture. Costing at first seven shillings and six pence (but in later years five shillings) it may seem to us of the late twentieth century - well supplied with visual stimulation and opportunity to travel - an expensive way to get bored by one exhibit over a period of six or more months. Comment in the press about the dioramas often had a tone barely distinguishable from advertisements and probably often relied heavily on the Diorama's own literature. Even so, a few days after the Cooper street Diorama opened, a reporter of the Manchester Gazette did speak with a more individual voice about the response to the opening show of the 'Valley of Sarnen'.

‘... it requires an effort to keep in mind that that which seems so verdant and so beautiful, so vast and so sublime, is confined within the walls of a brick building in a smoky town. A little girl of four or five years of age who did not trouble herself to inquire how so a scene could extend from the bottom of Cooper-street, said in our hearing “Why papa, you said it was a picture, and these are real things.” and real things they seemed to be ... Such an exhibition is a positive increase to the stock of enjoyment of any town, and more particularly in a town like this, which has as yet so little beauty to boast of, and a lounge in the Diorama to him who toils amidst smoke and dust is as refreshing as water to the thirsty.’ (37)

The first program at the Manchester Diorama lasted for six months and, with a closure of two weeks for the change-over,was replaced on Monday 24 October 1825 with Bouton's interior view of the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. (38) The first exhibit had been transferred to Manchester directly from the London Diorama but Trinity Chapel and the subsequent dioramas had previously been in Liverpool. Trinity Chapel was exhibited for one complete year in Manchester, but was followed by Daguerre's ‘Harbour of Brest’ which had little more than four months: and indeed, being from November 1826 to March 1827, those winter months could hardly have displayed Brest to its best advantage as the Diorama displays depended on available daylight. The fourth picture had a more suitable season from April of almost nine months. It was another of Daguerre's: ‘Holyrood Chapel, Edinburgh’.

All of these four dioramas were extremely well advertised in the Manchester Courier. (39) Except for the two or three weeks closed for change-over, advertisements had appeared almost every week, and generally in a prominent front page position - almost an excessive amount of advertising in a provincial town unlikely to have had a great deal of passing visitor trade. In London the Regent's Park Diorama advertised extremely rarely in newspapers, presumably depending more frugally on hand bills and street-placard displays. For the Diorama in Manchester the total cost of press advertisements over two and a half years must have been considerable. An advertisement for the exhibition of Holyrood Chapel appeared almost weekly from 14 April to 1 December 1827, but on Saturday 8 December it did not appear: instead the following...


by THOMAS NABB, (exempt from Auction Duty), on Saturday the 22nd day of December instant, precisely at twelve o'clock on the premises
THE celebrated PICTURE OF HOLYROOD CHAPEL, by Moonlight. Painted by Messrs Boulton [sic] and Daguierre [sic] French Artists, together with the MACHINERY used in exhibiting the same.
This valuable Work of Art has been exhibited in London, Liverpool, and Manchester, with the most decided success and will form a most desirable investment for any person desirous of employing his time and capital in an exhibition of this nature. The picture may be viewed any day previous to the sale, by applying to the Auctioneer, No. 7 Ridgefield. (40)

We would have had information of real significance if this sale advertisement had revealed the owner of the diorama of Holyrood Chapel, but Thomas Nabb was not that man, merely an "auctioneer, appraiser and agent" at 7 Ridgefield, Manchester. (41) The result of the auction is not recorded, but, within four months, this diorama of 'Holyrood Chapel' reappeared at another Diorama building in Dublin and then in the summer of 1829 in Edinburgh. The 'machinery used in exhibiting' the diorama would be uniquely associated with the particular changes undergone during a performance. No further activity at Cooper Street is apparent. That Daguerre's diorama pictures did not remain in the ownership of only one person in England is the most interesting fact revealed through this research on the Manchester Diorama.

As will be seen later, there is evidence that Daguerre's dioramas were purchased in Paris by unknown Englishmen for display in London. Organisation of a timetable of display of these dioramas in more than one place would presuppose a single ownership, although it does no exclude independant management or ownership of the buildings outside London. However, putting 'Holyrood Chapel' up for auction in December 1827 could have been a isolated example. For it does appear that two dioramas ('Harbour of Brest' and 'Chartres Cathedral') were exhibited in London for a second time in 1837, with them presumably remaining in the control of the original management at Regent's Park Diorama when they were exhibited out of London in the intervening years.

No architectural documents or engravings of the Diorama building in Manchester are known, except for its shape and position recorded on a contemporary map. Without the newspaper advertisements there would have been no evidence that Daguerre and Bouton's dioramas had ever been exhibited to the people of Manchester.

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We have seen that three out of the four dioramas exhibited in Manchester had been transferred there after display in Liverpool. Indeed the Diorama in Manchester did not exhibit its first diorama until several weeks after the building in Liverpool had opened its doors on Monday 21 February 1825 (42):


THE Public are respectfully informed, that the DIORAMA will open on Monday next, the 21st instant, with a view of TRINITY CHAPEL, in Canterbury Cathedral, originally exhibited in Paris, and subsequently in the Regent's Park, London. - Admittance, 2s. Children under Twelve half price - Perpetual admission Tickets during the exhibition of this Picture (not transferable) 7s 6d. - Open from Ten till five every day.

The new building and the announcement of its opening exhibition had an effusive welcome in the local Liverpool Mercury.

A good countenance is said to be the best letter of introduction. On this principle of judging a prima facie, we must conclude that the exhibition about to be opened in Bold-street will prove far superior to anything of the kind hitherto offered to public view. The building, indeed, is worthy of being ranked among our public edifices, and does credit to the spirit of the proprietors, and the taste of the architect.It remains for the public to decide whether the merit of the interior be in keeping with the promise held out by so imposing a structure, Those who have seen the Diorama in London or Paris, will, we think, have no doubt on this head. The unqualified applause excited by it in those two capitals, has stamped its claim to universal admiration. Never, perhaps, were the effects of perspective exhibited in such colossal dimension, and illustrated by such power of design, and skill of execution. The combination of all these is such as to produce an effect almost magical on the spectactor,while it entitles these pictures to the highest praise as works of art, independently of their surpassing merit when viewed merely as specimens of the deception which painting can practise on the senses.
When Bouton's diorama of ‘Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral’ had been shown for the first few days the same reporter was confirming that...
‘The Diorama, now exhibiting in Bold-street, is, with out exception, the most complete specimen of pictorial illusion we ever yet had the pleasure of seeing’. (43)
Such glowing reports about the Diorama were quickly followed by the appearance of a letter to the editor dated 24 February and signed only by the initials 'W. I. D.': (44)
SIR, -- When an article in praise of any public exhibition, whatever its claims on public patronage may be, appears in a newspaper, it is generally put down as a "puff;" but to talk of "puffing," when the Bold-street Diorama is in question, would be nothing less than down-right nonsense.
Indeed, his letter goes on to provide a long enthusiastic comment about the diorama which seems to this reader at least to have some similarity to a 'puff'. And it ends with what would no doubt be considered in those years to be gallantry towards the fashionable ladies of Liverpool:
I must confess, the oftener I visited it the more I found myself deceived. Being, however, a great admirer of beauty and fashion, my chagrin is always lost in the pleasure I enjoy in beholding them shine there, 'in foul and fair weather,' in the fullest zenith of their glory; for to the credit of the ladies of this town be it told, that they are constant visitors, which is, in my opinion, the best proof that can be given of their extraordinary taste for the fine arts.
Four months later a wider public was sought by increasing the seating area in the Bold Street building. This back gallery, with seats at one shilling - half the standard price - became available in June 1825. (45) During that month the Diorama in Bold Street became well established with the public as it received a considerable amount of local press coverage. A letter, signed with the nom de plume of 'Dubitans' to the Mercury's sister publication, a miscellaneous cultural periodical, The Kaleidoscope, made enthusiastic comments about the diorama by raising the most common point that always seemed to come up:
Is this diorama really, as the proprietors assert, a flat surface...or is it as I suspect, painted on the principle of the horizontorium, deriving all its effects from an optical or perspective deception?. (46)
The editor promised to answer the query 'unreservedly' the following week, and indeed in both of his publications he was able to describe how...
we have, by special favour, had a peep behind the curtain, and we hereby pledge our word and character, that this wonderful picture is really painted upon one flat surface and that it hangs perpendicularly like the drop scene of a theatre.
Indeed, he was of the opinion that...
it would remunerate the proprietor, as it would assuredly gratify the spectators, it the public were admitted to a close inspection of this matchless picture... we doubt not that the spectators would cheerfully consent to pay an extra sum to have their doubts removed by a personal and close inspection. (47)
There quickly followed a letter from ‘an Artist’ extolling the spectacle presented by the painter's skill of the diorama. (48) Much of what was written about the Diorama sounds suspiciously like a successful advertising campaign, but if it was not, then it does indicate a considerable success of the opening months of the Diorama in Bold Street. The managers must have spent a considerable amount of money regularly advertising their programs, quite often with a detailed description of the diorama consisting of 200 or more words (49) They often also had a 'last-chance-to-see' type of advertisement placed for several months before the actual end of season.

The first diorama in Liverpool, Bouton's 'Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral' stayed throughout the summer of 1825 until the announcement ‘will close positively on Saturday the 1st of October ... to give place to another picture of equal celebrity by the same Artists’. Trinity Chapel was transferred to Manchester where it opened only three weeks later. The new program in Liverpool reopened after an interval of two weeks with Daguerre's ‘Harbour of Brest’. This was the pattern for the future with the dioramas transferred directly from London and, after a season of between six months to a year, moved onto Manchester until that Diorama closed in December 1827.

Altogether nine dioramas by Daguerre or Bouton came to Liverpool over the next several years, as can be seen from the Table (Figure 1) within this article. (50) In many ways the early dioramas of the 1820s seen at Liverpool were the best and did not suffer from the increasing excesses of effects and novelties such as a real goat placed by Daguerre into the dioramic displays in Paris in the 1830s. (51) A more restrained type of lighting effects could be seen during the season of late 1829 in Liverpool with the 'View of the City of Rouen':

‘Various beautiful changes of light - from Sunshine to Storm, are exhibited, during which a splendid Rainbow appears, and again fades as the storm clears away ... strikingly grand and magnificient’. (52)
By this time the entrance price had been reduced to one shilling, but the following season in 1830 brought a more significant change.

When 'Chartres Cathedral' opened in May 1830 the visitors to Bold Street also had for their entertainment three ‘Cosmorama’ pictures - such as ‘St.George's Chapel where the funeral of his late Majesty was performed’. (53) Cosmoramas (54) were glorified peep-shows, small pictures in a cabinet viewed through a magnifying window a few inches in size. Then towards the end of that year the ultimate change seemed likely, for it was announced that it was the last of the dioramas that would be exhibited in Liverpool because 'the building at the top of Bold Street being about to be appropriated to other purposes'. (55)

So began what was a period of considerable uncertainty: yet it was a long period in which another two dioramas were exhibited over another two years! The end came abruptly without any definite notification. There was no advertising after 5 October 1832, the same day as a change came in the business affairs of the owner and editor of the Liverpool Mercury, Egerton Smith, specifically with regard to his partner and friend (not a relative), John Smith. Nowhere has there been found any reference to the Diorama as part of Egerton Smith or John Smith's business interests but as the Diorama did end at the same time as the Smiths partnership facts about them do need attention.

Egerton Smith (56) founded the Liverpool Mercury in 1811 as well as in the 1820s his pleasant periodical called The Kaleidoscope, where enthusiastic reports about the Diorama also appeared. At the time of his death in 1841 a friend wrote that 'as regards the Town of Liverpool, we doubt whether any man was ever more thoroughly identified with it than Mr. Egerton Smith'. Even so little has survived about him, except that he had strong feelings against the slave trade (not an easy stand to make in such a port in his early days), he had founded a 'night asylum' for the homeless with more than one hundred beds, and the Mechanics Institute and ‘Apprentices Library’, he was a journalist, poet and even a minor inventor (although his friends seemed to consider these last as ‘innocent foibles’).

John Smith is even more shadowy, but he was certainly a lecturer in education (57) and maybe the same man as ‘Mr Smith, scientific teacher of the Writing Academy of George Street, Edinburgh’. On 5 October 1832 he withdrew his interest in the Liverpool Mercury, so as to concentrate on lecturing throughout the midlands on ‘Smith and Dolier's system of education’ (58) and to sell their recently patented 'writing tablet and delible ink' (59) and other aids for education.

The Diorama in Bold Street seems to have ended in the first week of October 1832 and so tentatively its end may not have been entirely unconnected with the following notice (60) dated 1 October.

...the partnership heretofore subsisting between the undersigned John Smith, William Dolier, and Egerton Smith, as Patentees and publishers, is also this day by mutual consent, dissolved, so far as regards the said Egerton Smith, who retires from the concern, which will be continued by the said John Smith and William Dolier, in conjunction with James Wood, at the office of the Liverpool Mercury, under the firm of “Smith and Dolier” as heretofore.
Two weeks before a ‘British Diorama’ had opened in Dale Street, Liverpool, showing three views by “an eminient British Artist”, G. Tyler, but nothing is known about this undertaking. (61) 

Continue to last page of this essay

For more discussion on the history of the Diorama see extracts of the author's
correspondence during the 1990s
with other researchers of problem issues encounted during research.

ESSAY 1 :  Part 1  Part 2   Part 3   Footnotes  |  ESSAY 2 (Paris)  |
 Diorama Patent |  More Images  |  Home Page  |

This document is © copyright R. Derek Wood and Taylor & Francis 1993.
Other than for non-commercial and/or scholarly research this document may not be reproduced in any form electronic or otherwise without the written consent of the author R. Derek Wood and the publisher Taylor and Francis
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