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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Origin of the Enterprise

At the time of writing (1992) the facade of the Diorama in London exists at 18 Park Square East, Regent's Park, with the word DIORAMA prominently displayed high along the frieze. It is an Arts Centre having survived planning proposals in the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast nothing is known about the Diorama building in Manchester, although in a maps of 1824 [-1825] and 1829, its bell shape is clearly displayed on the west side of Cooper Street at the corner with Dickinson Street (62) and it may have had an entrance at 10 Dickinson Street.

Central Manchester, from Swire's map of 1825

Map of Central Manchester (detail), 1824 [-1825]
William Swire, Manchester and its Environs, 1824 [-1825]
Courtesy of Local History Unit, Manchester Central Library

Map of central Manchester 1829

Map of Central Manchester (detail), 1829
Pigot's General Directory of Manchester, Salford, &c., for 1829
Courtesy of Local History Unit, Manchester Central Library

By comparing this map with the one above it can be seen that the area was being considerably rebuilt in the mid and late 1820s and several new buildings had appeared close by the Diorama in the intervening 4 years.

As can be seen from the following map and photograph of the 1990s, the site where the Diorama stood in the late 1820s is now occupied by the Local History Unit of the Central Library and Library Walk between the Library and the Town Hall extension along side of St Peter's Square.

By courtesy (2002) of Geographers A-Z Map Company Ltd 1990

Map of Central Manchester (modified detail), 1990

This map above of the area as it is today shows the Central Library with ‘Library Walk’ (the word ‘Walk’ being masked on the map by the symbol i, designating an Information Centre at the Town Hall extension on the north side) where the Diorama building had been. Bootle Street and Lloyd Street exist now as in the 1820s, but the southern end of Cooper Street has gone, although the north part still exists. Only the south-east end of Dickenson street remains on the east side (from where the following photograph was taken) of what is now St. Peter's Square.

View of Central Library across St Peter's Square, Manchester, in 1998, photograph by R. D. Wood

Central Manchester today, 1998
View across St Peter’s Square, showing Library Walk
and the north side of the Central Library, Manchester.
Photograph: R. Derek Wood, 1998

Information about the building in Liverpool is just as limited. It has been possible to glean only that in Liverpool the building was considered when it opened as ‘worthy of being ranked among our public edifices and does credit to the ... taste of the architect ... so imposing a structure’. (63) A contemporary guidebook to Liverpool spoke of the exhibition being at the upper, ie.south, end of Bold-street, and indeed a city map of 1829 shows the building about one-quarter of the way down the east side of that street. (64) In the following year it was ‘about to be appropriated to other purposes’, (65) but it did continue as a Diorama certainly to the end of 1832.

On at least two occasions in Liverpool when the final weeks of a program approached (‘Roslin Chapel’ in March 1829 and ‘Environs of Paris’ in January 1832), a fortnight was set aside 'for the benefit of the Superintendants'. (66) This may suggest that the owners lived elsewhere having local managers. Yet why is it that the two Dioramas built outside of London were both in Lancashire within forty miles of each other? They certainly had greater populations than, say Birmingham or Leeds, yet as those last two towns would also have offered considerable audiences, maybe the English Diorama proprietors were of Lancashire.

But who could they, or he, have been? There is no firm evidence. Because of their names, it is difficult to entirely avoid considering that Egerton Smith and his partner John Smith in Liverpool might have some link with the Diorama patentee. It will be recalled that Daguerre's wife and brother-in-laws were an Anglo-French family called at various times Smith or Arrowsmith. But then Smith is the most common surname in England so it would be foolish to merely assume that there might be some connection not only between the ending of a business relationship in Liverpool with the final days of the Diorama in Bold Street but to then extend such a flimsy idea to the Mr. [Jacob (67bis) ] Smith (67) who was the proprietor of the London Diorama when it first opened: equally such a potential connection cannot be entirely ignored in future research of this area filled with uncertainties. The only further contribution this writer is able to make to such a debate is that Egerton Smith may indeed have had some connections with France as in 1831 he was co-author of a book on the French language. (68)

The most interesting and tantalizing information about the way in which Daguerre's Diorama came to England comes from unique surviving copies of the programmes sold for three pence at the doors of the Liverpool (69) and the Manchester (70) Diorama during first week they opened in 1825. In these booklets of fifteen pages a description of the opening exhibit was given first, followed by a general account of the development of the Diorama enterprise since the Paris Diorama had open three years earlier with the double program of 'Valley of Sarnen' and

 ...  Struck with their uncommon merit, some English gentlemen, then in the French capital, resolved to secure so valuable an acquisition for their own country, and contracted with Messrs. Bouton and Daguerre for the purchase of these two paintings, as well as of any which they might subsequently execute for the Diorama. Those who have seen the building erected about eighteen months ago, in the Regent's Park, in London, need not be told at what a vast expense this exhibition was established in this country. Not less than £15,000 were expended before the two pictures above mentioned were displayed. ... The unbounded success of the undertaking in London being a guarantee for its meeting a similar reception in a few of the leading towns in England, as well as in Dublin and Edinburgh, arrangements were entered into with the proprietor, for the purpose of carrying this plan into effect. The vast expense and inconvenience of erecting buildings of such immense size for this exhibition, must preclude its extension beyond a very few places in England. Liverpool and Manchester have been selected as the proper starting posts for the introduction of the provincial Diorama.

This information from the Diorama’s booklet was used to form a report in the Manchester Courier about the opening show. Indeed the Manchester booklet had been printed at the Courier office and the paper's reporter, obviously with a close relationship with the people at the Cooper Street Diorama, was able to comment that one of the Englishmen who had purchased Daguerre's dioramas 'has distinguished himself as the author of one of the most popular works of the day'. (71)  Well ! Author of work of literature or art? The search for him must continue. He or the other 'English gentlemen' must have been men of considerable capital as they had been planning Dioramas not only in Liverpool and Manchester, but also in Dublin and Edinburgh. Their venture did indeed extend to Ireland and Scotland, although the situation there was not identical to that in England as the patent obtained by John Arrowsmith in 1824 applied to England only.

The fact that a diorama was put up for auction in Manchester in December 1827 is a puzzling event, for the need to have a well organised distribution network for the dioramas would be better served if they remained the property of a single proprietor. Local managers in Dublin and Edinburgh could have greater independence because there was no patent to restrain them. Indeed either Daguerre or Bouton would be able to operate themselves in Scotland or Ireland even if Diorama rights had been purchased by English proprietors.

The commercial situation is complex. First, because of the wide nature of the patent (building/rotating saloon/lighting-control mechanisms/diorama painting); secondly it was a patent taken out only in England so the relationship between France, England, Scotland with Ireland, has many varied aspects; thirdly, because of the requirements for a distribution network and need for technical support. Whether or not Daguerre's dioramas were rented from London or purchased, even in Scotland and Ireland the services of someone, even from Paris, would be needed to erect the dioramas with their individual lighting control mechanism. Maybe one day a researcher will find a diorama Contract: if not, further speculation can bear little fruit. At the very beginning of the 1830s, Charles Bouton moved to Britain, and there is little doubt that the situation in this later period was markedly different to that during the 1820s.

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Scotland and Ireland

We have seen that Liverpool Public Library have what is probably the only surviving copy of a pamphlet published by the Diorama in Bold Street, 1825, which provides the following statement regarding the Diorama in Great Britain.

'The unbounded success of the undertaking in London, being a guarantee for its meeting a similar reception in a few of the leading towns in England, as well as in Dublin and Edinburgh, arrangements were entered into with the proprietor, for the purpose of carrying this plan into effect.'

In work on Panoramas and related shows, other authors have indeed already found that Dioramas were built in Gt. Brunswick Street, Dublin (72) and in Lothian Road, Edinburgh. (73) The Diorama in these two places each deserves a detailed study of their own, no doubt best done by local historians, to develop the exploratory findings presented here.


Information about the Diorama in Dublin is somewhat limited, and advertisements for the shows were only rarely placed in the Dublin press. (74) It opened in March 1826, showing Daguerre’s ‘Valley of Sarnen’. Only three more tableaux appeared: Bouton’s ‘Trinity Chapel, Canterbury’, followed by Daguerre’s ‘Roslin Chapel’ and then ‘Holyrood Chapel’ with which the Diorama finally closed within only three years on 20 December 1828. A short review in The Freeman’s Journal of Dublin provides a glimpse of the ‘magical illusion’ offered by the 'Ruins of Holyrood Chapel': (75)

The twinkling of the stars, and the agitated flame of a lamp before a female at her devotions before a ruined altar while her figure, and the objects surrounding, brighten as the flame expends itself in the breeze.

The building probably had a similar arrangement to the one in Liverpool with identical prices of two shillings in a front gallery, and one shilling for the back gallery.

An advertisement placed in the Dublin Evening Post at Christmas 1826 provides some unique information and so is here given in full: (76)

THE PROPRIETOR of the DUBLIN DIORAMA situate Great Brunswick-street, near Trinity College, begs leave to announce, that the splendid Original Painting of CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL, which is to replace the Valley of Sarnen is arrived, and will be ready for inspection, so soon as the Artist engaged by the company shall have completed the putting up of a Picture in England, by which he is now detained. Those Persons who have not as yet seen the beautiful and interesting representation of the Valley of Sarnen, are respectfully informed, that a fortnight, in all probability, will find the Picture on its way to America, a contract having been completed for its transmission.

Three points in the above advertisement merit our attention. First that the building was in Great Brunswick Street, near Trinity College. There is no street of that name now in Dublin but the information about Trinity College does show that this street should not be confused with Brunswick Street (North) which existed in the 1820s and still today, north of the Liffey, not to the south like Trinity College. 'Great Brunswick Street' ran east from Trinity College to Grand Canal Docks and in the 1920s was renamed to the present day Pearse Street. (77) The building has not been identified on contemporary maps or found in Local Directories which before 1834 were listed by merchant and traders names not by Streets.

Who could have been the 'Artist engaged by the company' to put up the diorama? If any significance can be placed on the fact that John Arrowsmith married the daughter of a Steward of a Viceroy of Ireland (78), then there is a small chance that this man could have been an Arrowsmith (see the introduction to this article). But there is obviously also a chance that it was Charles Bouton. He certainly had occasional trips from Paris across the channel at this period and indeed in the next decade lived in England.

In the above advertisement in the Dublin Evening Post a seemingly firm statement was made that the diorama 'Valley of Sarnen' was very shortly to be sent to America, 'a contract having been completed'. Yet this diorama appeared in Liverpool only four months later, (79) and to Edinburgh in July 1828. (80) It was again in Edinburgh in the summer of 1831 'for a short time, before its final removal from this country'. Even so the final fate of this 'Valley of Sarnen' is uncertain for in the first week of August 1831 it was damaged by an accident at the Edinburgh Diorama just before it was due to be moved. (81) Whether or not this contract to send Daguerre's dioramas to America in 1827 was ever realised, it offers an intriguing line of enquiry for future investigation.


More facts can be established about the dioramas exhibited in Edinburgh. A Diorama building opened there in Lothian Road, just to the west of the castle, on 12 December 1827. (82). Like the other three Dioramas built after the renowned ones in Paris and London, the building was designed for programs showing only one tableaux. The opening program was 'Interior of Chartres Cathedral'. It was advertised as 'lately exhibited in Regent's Park, London ...and all the accessories are by the same proprietors'. The Lothian Road Diorama was managed by a Mr J. Hall. (83) Not only has a picture survived of this Diorama which was engraved by the manager, but, as can be seen from the reproduction here, (84) his other business – ‘Hall’s Lithographic Establishment’ – was integrated with the building in Lothian Road.

Diorama, Lothian Road, Edinburgh (from Edinburgh Directory for 1835)

Diorama, Lothian Road, Edinburgh
Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory for 1835-36
By courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries.
A larger image of the engraving is also available [HERE]

The Diorama opened in Edinburgh at least two years after those of Lancashire and Dublin. With the exception of the opening program of Decmber 1827 the tableaux went north after visiting those other places. But a fuller range of twelve dioramas (85) was seen (two had two separate seasons), for the Edinburgh Diorama survived for many more years. During the twelve years there was the opportunity to see three dioramas (all by Daguerre) that had not reached Liverpool.

The success of the Diorama in Edinburgh is a little surprising. The changing effects undergone by the tableaux depended so much on the control of daylight. In the summers there would be no problems but a northern city with very short winter days hardly provides optimum conditions. Not only had the Lothian Road Diorama opened for the first time in a December, it consistently remain open during the winters (and pains were taken to reassure their visitors that the building was 'warmed by patent stoves'), although during 'the short days' it closed at 3.30p.m. Summer opening times were usually from 9.00a.m. to 7.00p.m.

Adequate light was definitely a problem in Edinburgh. On the day of the opening press preview the weather 'was very gloomy' and so the first response of the representative of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal was a little subdued on that account. (86) Between 1830 and 1832 considerable attention was paid to improving the light available. Obviously the windows providing the main transmitted light through the diorama were at the back of the building, while the engraving features the front entrance with only skylights visible.

For the first two years the Diorama had provided two galleries, so the cost of entrance was either one or two shillings. In the summer of 1829 not only had the two classes been abandoned, but for a standard charge of one shilling four cosmoramic pictures could also be seen while waiting for the main attraction. (87) This extra feature was provided for a good reason. The visitors would conveniently 'beguile that time', looking through the lenses of the small cosmorama peepshows, while they were of necessity kept for a time in very subdued light before being brought, suitably dark-adapted, to the diorama. Within a short while, the exhibition was renamed the 'Diorama and Cosmorama, Lothian Road'.

1839 : an End (and a Beginning)

Ten years later at Lothian Road the diorama being exhibited was Daguerre's 'Village of Thiers', It was the beginning of 1839, the year that his name leaped to fame on the announcement in Paris of the discovery of the Daguerreotype, the event generally considered to mark the birth of Photography.

As well as in Edinburgh, the well known Dioramas in London and Paris were still in business. But at 11.30am on Friday, 8 March 1839, a fire swept through the original building at rue des Marais in Paris. This news reached Edinburgh within a few days and the Caledonian Mercury had a translation of a short report on the event from a Paris newspaper . By the end of the month the consequences of that fire on the future of the Diorama in Edinburgh were under consideration in the Edinburgh paper: (88)

The disastrous event which recently destroyed the Diorama in Paris, with two views then exhibiting and one in a state of preparation, has reduced the number of Dioramas to two, one in London the other in Edinburgh. We know not what stock of pictures the respective proprietors of these two establishments have on hand, but as it must be a considerable length of time ere the one in Paris can be rebuilt and new pictures executed - for it was there where originated those wonderful works of art, which have so pleased and astonished all who have seen them -, it is to be hoped there are enough on hand in this country to serve till a new supply can be produced.

A few weeks later the current show at the Lothian Road Diorama was billed as closing positively on 1 June, but on that day a notice was issued extending the program for another two weeks, and so this Diorama closed on Saturday 15 June 1839. (89)

All of the dioramas that had been seen in Edinburgh throughout its twelve-year existence had been produced and exhibited in Paris in the 1820s before being brought over to Great Britain. By 1830 the excitement and profit had gone out of the enterprise. Bouton withdrew from the partnership with Daguerre in Paris and he settled permanently in London. Although Daguerre was declared bankrupt on 27 March 1832, and remained so for almost three years, he continued to produce dioramic pictures in Paris (soon with a new co-painter, Hippolyte Sébron) for the Paris Diorama only. Daguerre's dioramas were not sold across the channel in the 1830s. (90) Presumably the ownership of the London Diorama remained in the hands of the unidentified English proprietors, with Bouton employed as manager and painter.
The division between Daguerre in Paris and Bouton in London was obviously severe. At a small rival dioramic exhibition, the 'British Diorama' in London at the Queen's Bazaar, Oxford Street, there could be seen in the early 1830s several contributions by Daguerre's brother-in-law Charles Arrowsmith, and by Sébron, his diorama co-painter. (91) After 1832 the dioramas shown at the Regent's Park Diorama were new ones painted in London by Bouton. None of them were sent out of London.

After the fire in Paris in 1839 Daguerre wound-up the affairs of his Diorama. Bouton soon moved back to Paris and opened another Diorama there in 1843. (92)

Interior, Charles Bouton's new Diorama building, Paris 1843

Interior of Charles Bouton's new Diorama building in Paris in 1843,
showing his tableaux of the Church of St Paul, Rome, after a fire
L'Illustration, 30 Septembre 1843

By permission of the British Library.

End of ‘The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s’

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
Non-commercial and or scholarly research usage should clearly display the above copyright statement.

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