In a word – panorama, which has outlived its original invention

A panorama is an image, usually broad in its extent, of landscape, and has seen extensive figurative application. What is remarkable is that it did not exist until 1789, and still thrives today.

The word was coined by Robert Barker, and applied to an invention of his which he patented, number 1612 of 1787 according to the OED. Barker is variously claimed to be Irish or Scottish. In that patent he referred to the invention as la Nature à coup d’Oeil, but clearly felt that a better term was required. It is claimed that his first such panorama depicted a view of Edinburgh, and was exhibited in Leicester Square, London, which much later became (and remains) the centre for London’s cinemas (movie theatres).

Barker’s original panoramas were painted on long rolls of paper, and either stuck to the inside of a large cylinder which could be revolved around the viewer, or kept rolled up and scrolled in front of the viewer. The former was also known as a cyclorama.

Panorama is derived from two Greek elements: pan- meaning all, and horama a view.

By 1801, the word had reached the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and spread with the popularity of such views. By the early nineteenth century it had expanded its meaning to include a series of (possibly mental) images passing in front of the viewer, and an unbroken view of the whole of a region.

Although in its original invention, a panorama would have been very much broader than it was high, modern usage in the visual arts is normally for paintings, views, paper, canvases, and other materials which are 2.5 (or more) times broader than they are high.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Avignon from the West (1836), oil on canvas, 34 x 73.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. WikiArt.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Avignon from the West (1836), oil on canvas, 34 x 73.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. WikiArt.

It was also being used figuratively by 1801, when the OED records its use in “the political panorama”.

Three words have been derived from panorama:

  • panoramal, an adjective which thankfully died out rapidly;
  • panoramic, the adjective which has survived and thrived;
  • panoramist, a painter of panoramas.

It has also been shortened to panoram, which was used as an alternative to the original noun, and verbalised to mean the revolution of a camera about a vertical axis, something that we would now refer to as pan, or panning, which is a further shortening for panorama.

Panoramic view of the Isle of Wight from the Worsley Obelisk, 22 March 2015.
Panoramic view of the Isle of Wight from the Worsley Obelisk, 22 March 2015.

The panorama has long outlived its original invention, and has enjoyed renewed vigour with digital photography, something that its inventor could hardly have envisaged.