Barker, Robert (1739–1806), inventor of the panorama, was apparently from a respectable family, though nothing is known of his life until 15 February 1764, when ‘Mr Robert Barker of Kells in the county of Meath’ married in Dublin (Freeman's Journal, 18 Feb. 1764). His wife was Catherine Aston, of Frederick St., said to have had a handsome fortune; she was the daughter of an eminent physician, and was possibly a granddaughter of Henry Aston, counsellor-at-law and property developer – Aston Quay in Dublin bears his name.
Despite the dowry his wife brought him, Barker seems to have been unsuccessful in Dublin, and moved to Edinburgh as a portrait painter; he devised and taught a system of representing perspective by mechanical means. One account suggests that he was in a gloomy cell in a debtors’ prison in Edinburgh when he first had the idea for the panorama; the idea is also said to have occurred to him while he was looking at the extensive view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Perhaps both stories hold some truth; paintings depicting a wide perspective on a landscape were not novel, but Barker's innovation was to devise a means of viewing such a picture within a specially designed circular building. The idea of lighting the building entirely from the top could well have derived from an experience in a cell lit by a high slot window; lighting was crucial in achieving the effect of reality through art (as opposed to artifice) that was Barker's goal. After many difficulties and experiments in altering the perspective of the painting to counteract the curve of the viewing building, Barker succeeded in producing a watercolour picture of Edinburgh, fixed to a half-circle of linen panels; and despite initial discouragement from Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy, he successfully mounted an exhibition of his picture in a special temporary structure inside Holyrood House, Edinburgh, in January 1788, and later in Glasgow.
Barker specified in his patent application of 1787 that viewers should feel themselves ‘as if really on the very spot’, and he sought to achieve what would now be called ‘virtual reality’ by the use of ‘a fair perspective, a proper point of view, and unlimiting the bounds of the art of painting’ (Repertory (1796)). He even seems to have attempted to produce the sensation of a wind blowing from the scenery to add to the illusion of reality that viewers experienced. Other aspects of the design were likewise contrived to increase the power of the experience: the pictures had no frame, and visitors were kept at the optimum distance from the image and entered the room from below, so that a door would not break the 360° of painted landscape. In later developments, spiral staircases were used in order that visitors would be still more disorientated. The word ‘panorama’, derived from Greek roots, was first used by Barker; later, other neologisms used the same suffix – ‘cyclorama’, ‘diorama’, and so on.
His exhibition of a 25-ft (7.5 m) diameter full-circle painting at the Haymarket in London from March 1789 attracted many visitors, and Barker and his younger son Henry Aston Barker (1774–1856) were encouraged to produce a still larger painting, of London viewed from the roof of the huge Albion Mills. This was exhibited in a building in the garden of their house, and when it also was successful the Barkers set up a joint-stock company to build an elaborate exhibition building, also called the Panorama, in Leicester Square. It is said that Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had exclaimed that he would leave his bed to see the exhibition if it was successful, actually did walk through the streets in his dressing gown to congratulate the Barkers. The Panorama could display two paintings on different floors; and over the years, until it closed in 1861, it displayed a series of pictures, such as views of English cities, a view of Dublin Bay (1807), and naval battles. Visitors felt as if they were seeing real places, rather than painted images, and some found the experience overwhelming: Queen Charlotte is said to have become seasick while viewing the 90-ft (27.4 m) diameter picture of the navy at Spithead, with which the building opened in 1793; and a Newfoundland dog is said to have jumped into the canvas, mistaking it for the sea.
Barker thus pioneered not just an artistic technique, but also an extremely popular form of mass entertainment which is the ancestor of many types of entertainment still current 200 years later. Photography, cinematography, IMAX theatres, and even the virtual reality of computer and video games all derive part of their appeal from the same phenomena of perception and optical illusion which were for the first time harnessed, manipulated, and cleverly and successfully marketed by the Barkers. When Barker's patent expired in 1801, imitations sprang up throughout the western hemisphere. His elder son, Thomas Edward Barker, joined one of his father's former assistants in establishing a rival exhibition in the Strand, London, in 1802.
The popularity of Barker's ‘triumph of pictorial illusion’ (Davenport (1831)) was at its height during the fifty years after his death, but his role in developing the ‘large-screen immersive image-based environment’ crucial to the entertainment business since the early 1900s has been acknowledged more recently by media historians (www.edvec.ed.ac.uk).
Robert Barker died 8 April 1806 in London, and was buried at St Mary Lambeth, London. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1844 aged 98, and by two sons and at least one daughter.