The late nineteenth century was a time characterised by a boom in popular entertainment. As people began to have more leisure time to spare, they also demanded new forms of entertainment to fill them.
One such place was the Sydney Cyclorama-the nineteenth century answer to IMAX.
But first we need to step back a little to 1787 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In that year a local artist produced a 360° painted view of Edinburgh from the top of Carlton Hill. To view this masterpiece, Barker patented a new style of theatre. A circular building was erected, with the image round the inside wall. The building was designed so the audience could see nothing above or below the painting, giving the feeling of immersion in the scene.
The idea quickly took off, with shows in London and Europe.
Back in Sydney the town was beginning to grow and citizens were taking some pride in it. However in England Sydney was still viewed as a convict backwater with little appeal.
One way to address this perception was through art. Painting of landscapes of Sydney and surrounds were popular with many being sold in London. In 1820 a Major James Taylor, recently returned to London, exhibited a four panel panorama of Sydney at Barker’s London Panorama theatre. This was the first of a series of panoramic images of Sydney taken back to London through the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s to show the old country how we were going.
The panorama of Sydney joined those of Constantinople, Pompeii, Jerusalem and Hobart on display in London. They served to show the people of London a world that they had only read about. And they came back to Australia as well, with panorama’s regularly being shown in Sydney or Melbourne to entertain locals. The first one shown in Australia was in 1835 at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, where a moving panorama titled ‘The Aquatic Pageant’ represented a whaling expedition.
By the 1880s the display of panorama’s had evolved, with a new idea coming out of America-The Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama was a purpose built theatre, much like Barkers of the 1780s. However these included large scale painted scene with props and sets in the foreground to add realism.
In March 1889 the Sydney Cyclorama Company opened its new theatre in George Street west, near Central Station. The cyclorama, designed by Norman Selfe, was a 16 sided, 15 metre high enclosed theatre, topped with a domed roof and flag pole. Audiences entered via a tunnel that took them up a spiral staircase to a viewing platform.
The new attraction was met with approval by the local press, who reported that all the great cities of America had one and Sydney was due.
The opening was quite a show, with the Governor and the Premier and his wife in attendance. The first panorama displayed was imported from America and depicted the Battle of Gettysburg. This remained on display, with regular retouching, until at least 1903, while other panorama’s were added such as a panorama of Jerusalem in 1895.
The Cyclorama also included musical performance and other entertainment to attract the crowds. However by the mid-1890s the writing was on the wall. In 1894 the first screenings of the new motion pictures had taken place in George Street, not far from the Cyclorama.
Cinema killed the audience for Cyclorama’s elsewhere in Australia (there were five in total: Sydney, Adelaide, Launceston and 2 in Melbourne) by 1896, but Sydney’s struggled on. Partly it seems this was due to the popularity of the Gettysburg picture, but also because it diversified to include other attractions. By the late 1890s it even included a cinematograph in an attempt to head the motion picture craze off at the pass.
Alas in July 1910 the Sydney Cyclorama Company went into voluntary liquidation and the cyclorama closed. It was Australia’s first and last one. The building survived a bit longer, taken over by the Sydney Ice Skating Rink and Cold Storage Company, living on as Sydney’s Glaciarium.