Thomas, "Making Visible: The Diorama, the Double and the (Gothic) Subject"

Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era

Making Visible: The Diorama, the Double and the (Gothic) Subject

Sophie Thomas, University of Sussex

This essay begins with the advent of the London Diorama in the 1820s, and examines the nature—and the technological basis—of its visual appeal. It explores the use of gothic subjects (particularly gothic ruins) to create a complete aesthetic illusion, and demonstrates its dependence upon a number of inter-related themes and techniques (doubling, death, repetition) in the uncanny re-creation of the visibly real.  This essay appears in _Gothic Technologies_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. Of the pictures opening at the Diorama in Regent's Park in 1830, The Times made the following note:

    The views at the Diorama are again changed, and France and Switzerland are once more placed before our eyes without our encountering the nausea of crossing the Channel, the roguery of continental innkeepers, and all the other innumerable and indescribable miseries of foreign travel. Thanks to the contrivances of modern ingenuity, the "long drawn aisles and fretted vaults" of the Cathedral at Rheims are now fixed snugly in the Regent's-park, and the rocks of Mont St. Gothard, torn from their old foundations, are reposing quietly in the same vicinity. All this is owing to the magic pencil of Messrs. Daguerre and Bouton, who, if they have not given us the realities of these magnificent objects, have at least given us imitations of them so wonderfully minute and vivid, as to appear more like the illusions of enchantment than the mere creations of art. (22 April 1830)

    The continued appeal of the London Diorama, after seven years in business, is neatly conveyed here: questions of convenience aside, the Diorama as a form of popular visual entertainment retained an impressive power to create and control the field of the visible, and to produce illusions so convincingly "real" that they appeared to be the result of magic rather than the "mere" work of art.

  2. Not for nothing was the Diorama referred to as a "temple of optical delusion" (The Times, 30 August 1824). If the experience of the Diorama took on religious overtones, this was not only because of the awe-inducing nature of the spectacle itself, but also because many of the scenes involved specimens of religious architecture. Churches, cathedrals, cloisters—all offered apparently fitting sites for miraculous (visual) transformations, where the stillness of art could be brought to life through subtle changes of light. But more noteworthy still was the marked preference at the Diorama for "the elegant remains of Gothic architecture" (The Times, 21 March 1825). One of the pictures on display in 1827, "Ruins in a Fog," was described at some length in a contemporary guide-book, A Picturesque Guide to the Regent's Park:

    [the scene was] a Gothic cloister in decay, situated at the extremity of a narrow valley; where all appeared sombre and desolate. All was enveloped in fog and in icy stillness. The fog gradually dispersed and was succeeded by beautiful sunlight. The fine Saxon arches and mouldering cloisters of this picture were greatly admired. (40) 

    Fig. 1 "The Effect of Fog and Snow Seen
    through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade," 1826

  3. Because such picturesque scenes were still fashionable in the early nineteenth century, little attention has been paid to this perhaps obvious choice of subject. The variegated and visually indeterminate nature of much Gothic architecture, ruined or otherwise, clearly lent itself to the special effects aimed at by the technological means of the Diorama. This paper, however, will probe more deeply the intriguing link, or secret affinity, between the Diorama and its Gothic spaces, extending this engagement to other features of the Gothic than architectural style, although there are important links to be explored there too. Certainly it is the case, as William Galperin has pointed out, that Daguerre favoured a subject that was not only materially, but also "theoretically in ruins—a subject that, as Erwin Panofsky describes it, 'enclose[d] an often wildly and always apparently boundless interior, and thus create[d] a space determinate and impenetrable from without but indeterminate and penetrable within'" (Galperin 64). Moreover, there are thematic and arguably psychoanalytic determinations attaching to the Diorama, in both means and matter, that make this subject choice peculiarly apt, particularly where its Gothic preoccupations (understood also in a literary and theoretical sense) disturb questions of aesthetic representation. Its oppositional mode of presentation involves elements of doubling and repetition, alongside a preoccupation with the uncanny grounds of illusion. The Diorama, as a revelatory visual technology that exploits the penetrable indeterminacy of Gothic interiority, apparently puts the visible clearly on display; but as this paper will show, its presentation of (in)visibility reveals the hidden as caught up in the spectral presence of the dead, and of death itself.

  4. The key figure in the development of the Diorama was Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, whose career, before his ground-breaking role in the invention of photography, involved set painting and stage design for the theatre, and panorama painting with Prévost, where his noted skill for producing naturalistic effects was put to good use (his scenery for productions at the Théâtre Ambigu-Comique and the Opéra was famous for its trompe l'oeil realism). Possibly the idea of the Diorama drew from an exhibition of diaphanoramas—transparent pictures—in Paris in 1821.2 Daguerre's Diorama, for which he designed not only the concept but also his own building, opened in 1822 and within a year, plans were in place to open a Diorama in London, which led to the opening of the Diorama in Regent's Park in the autumn of 1823. Daguerre and his partner, Charles Bouton, exhibited a fresh set of pictures each year, which would open in London after a successful run in Paris.3 Daguerre's brother-in-law, John Arrowsmith, patented the design for the Regent's Park Diorama in early 1823. The terms of the patent were ambitious and precise: the aim was to offer 'an improved mode of publicly exhibiting pictures or painted scenery of every description, and of distributing or directing the daylight upon or through them, so as to produce many beautiful effects of light and shade, which I denominate a "Diorama.'"4

    Fig. 2 Thomas Shepherd's Coloured plate of East side of Park Square,
    and Diorama, Regent's Park, London, 1829

    As the patent stipulated, the scenes were to be painted on translucent material in such a way that day-light from high windows and skylights invisible to the audience, intercepted and/or altered by "a number of coloured transparent and moveable blinds or curtains," could create the naturalistic illusion of three dimensional space. The manipulation of these blinds by an assortment of lines and pulleys introduced "many surprising changes in the appearance of the colours of the painting or scenery" (Arrowsmith 2)—thus transforming the image from a static object into a site of unexpected change, often of a temporal nature (such as from night-time to day light). The use of both reflected and mediated light gave rise to the impression that the scene was brilliantly illuminated entirely from within. The pictures were very large (roughly seventy by forty five feet) and were displayed in pairs, with only one visible at a time. One of the more innovative aspects of the building design was a rotating "saloon"; the seating area for the audience was to pivot around a central well, revolving "through an angle of 73° between scenes" (5). A complete show would take about thirty minutes, with fifteen minutes per picture, but viewers could stay on and see the sequence repeated.

    Fig. 3 "Diorama, Park Square, Regents Park: Plan of the Principal Story" 1823
    Designed by A. [Auguste Charles] Pugin and built by J. Morgan6

  5. The range of subjects depicted was relatively narrow, generally of either landscapes or architectural interiors (most shows consisted of one of each, one painted by Daguerre—usually the interior scene—and the other by Bouton). Unlike the panorama, which often displayed scenes of topical interest, the Diorama devoted itself more-or-less exclusively to "the public taste for romantic topography, the stuff of picturesque art and of sentimental antiquarianism" (Altick 166). Altick suggests these shows functioned as a spectacular counterpart to the albums of engraved scenes that were popular at the end of the Regency period. To a great extent, this is borne out by the pictures on display at the London Diorama in the 1820s and 30s: in 1823, the Valley of Sarnen and Canterbury Cathedral; in 1824, Brest and Chartres Cathedral; in 1825, Holyrood Chapel; in 1826, Roslyn Abbey and Rouen Cathedral; in 1827, Ruins in a Fog and St. Cloud, Paris; in 1828, the Valley of Unterseen and the Cloisters of St. Wandrille, and so on. This list of subjects, however, and the dynamic dimension of the Diorama, suggests an appeal of a different kind as well, though one that refers equally to lingering eighteenth-century aesthetic preoccupations—to the aesthetics of the sublime, and its correlative, the obscure horror assigned to Gothic subjects and scenes.

  6. The latent possibilities of the Diorama as a technology (for in its choice of subjects, "latency" is continually dramatized, as I shall argue below) were exploited by a short-lived competitor Diorama, the "British Diorama" at the Royal Bazaar, Oxford Street. Its producers attempted to create more spectacular effects, assisted by gas, which lent itself more readily (and often rather too effectively) to the creation of firelight. In 1829, for example, a scene of "The Burning of York Minster" was displayed, of which a vivid description was offered by a contemporary viewer: "A faint reddish light betrays itself through some of the windows of the minster; by degrees it increases in vividness; until at length the flame from which it proceeds bursts fiercely forth, illuminating the adjacent towers, and mingled volumes of smoke, and masses of brilliant sparks, now rapidly ascend to the skies; a great portion of the roof of the building falls in; and the dreadful conflagration is at its height when the scene closes" (Altick 167). A month after this scene was first presented, the bazaar burnt to the ground when some ignited turpentine set fire to the transparency on show. Even in Daguerre's Diorama, which in its dependence on natural light was arguably closer to the preoccupations of conventional painting, fire was a constant hazard: not only was his Paris Diorama building twice destroyed by fire, but along with it, much of his store of pictures.  

  7. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim suggest that competition and waning interest eventually put the London Diorama, the "first and most famous in Britain," out of business in the early 1850s (Gernsheim 41). Nevertheless, in its final years, the Diorama exhibited some intriguingly experimental  "pictures." Among these was the spectacle of midnight mass in Catholic churches. Initially, these interior views were made popular in England by Bouton, and involved the materialisation of a congregation, along with light and music (a popular choice was the Gloria from Haydn's Mass No. 1), out of apparent gloom and emptiness. Bouton's successor in London, Charles Rénoux, created a much-lauded exterior view of Notre-Dame in 1843, which recreated the changing effects of evening light—from sunset, to moonrise, and finally to the illumination of street lamps—and culminated in the emanation of song and prayer from the Cathedral, to reportedly transcendent effect.7 Impressive as these pictures were, however, they were the last to be shown at the Regent's Park Diorama, which reopened as a Baptist chapel in 1855.    



  8. The Diorama was only one of an extraordinary number of "oramic" displays to capture the popular imagination throughout the nineteenth century. The cosmorama, the pleorama, the myriorama (to name only three)—all in various ways sought to make the visible spectacular.8 Its nearest relative and rival, in scope and popularity, was the panorama, although technologically, with its use of projected light and transparencies, the Diorama descended more directly from the magic lantern, the phantasmagoria, and from de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon—which is apposite, given de Loutherbourg's own background in the theatre, and interest in the dramatic possibilities of light. The panorama was nevertheless an important stimulus to the development of the Diorama, and it is often supposed that the arrested movement and static atmospheric conditions of panoramic representations contributed directly to the invention of the Diorama.9 The principal innovation, and novelty, of the panorama was that it presented a 360 degree view of its subject. It was the invention of an Irish painter, Robert Barker, who referred to it in his 1787 patent as "Nature à Coup d'Oeil"—nature at a glance, or view at a glance. It was to offer an "all embracing view," and simulate the experience of being "on the very spot." Viewers surveyed the scene around them from a central viewing platform, constructed in such a way as to conceal any visual borders or frames, not only around the circular interior walls (where the precise location of the painted surface was obscured by the illusion of depth-of-field) but also at the level of floor and ceiling (where for example the sky disappeared behind the upper canopy or roof of the viewing area). Interestingly, Arrowsmith's specifications for the Diorama explicitly related it to the panorama, noting that in the case of the Diorama, the space between the viewing area and the pictures would need to be enclosed all around by "light screens, forming a kind of vista,… so as effectually to conceal the margins or boundary of the pictures, and thereby produce in a certain degree the effect of panoramic pictures." (Arrowsmith 3).

  9. Like the Diorama, the panorama required a purpose-built space, and Barker opened a permanent building for his exhibitions in 1793—a Rotunda in Leicester Square, which stayed open for 70 years. The most popular subjects were imposing landscapes (the Alps, for example), cities of particular cultural or historic note (often associated with the Grand Tour, such as Rome, Pompeii, Athens, and Constantinople), and important contemporary events (particularly wars, where battles and naval scenes fed nationalist interest).10 Both the Diorama and the panorama shared the impulse to create a complete illusion, but there are key differences between them on this point. Topographical accuracy, so much the point of a panorama, was clearly, in the case of the Diorama, secondary to the creation of convincing atmospheric effects. The Diorama aimed to provide an aesthetic rather than an educational experience, hence the shift of emphasis from completeness of representation to fullness of illusion (Hyde 33). One might say that in the Diorama the intensity rather than the immensity of the illusion is stressed; and indeed, with the simulation of time-induced change, that space becomes uncannily temporal as well as—like Gothic ruins—temporary (the subject of, and subjected to, disappearance). But this is a point I shall return to below. 

  10. In the name of greater visible verisimilitude, panoramas often included three-dimensional objects as props in the foreground (though this often had the unintended effect of actually increasing the viewer's awareness of an unnatural lack of movement in the scene). Certain experiments with the Diorama also involved inserting objects in the space before the picture, perhaps most notably Daguerre's 1832 "Sal de miracle"—his "View of Mont Blanc taken from the Valley of Chamonix"—for which he apparently "imported a complete chalet with barn and outhouses and put on the stage a live goat eating hay in a shed" (Gernsheim 28). This "performance" (for it emphasized the status of the Diorama as hybrid of painting and theatre) was accompanied by the sounds of goats' bells, the blowing of an Alp-horn, and local song; meanwhile, girls in peasant dress served the audience a country breakfast. To some extent, by so shamelessly mixing nature and art, Daguerre was mocking his own accomplishments, as well as confounding his audience. Some viewers professed actual uncertainty about whether or not the goat was real; others supposed, tongue-in-cheek, "that only the front half of the goat was real and that the rest formed part of the back-cloth" (30).

  11. More importantly, however, this display of illusion raised the stakes of artistic propriety. While some viewers were delighted by such an extraordinary mixture of nature and art, others were uncertain about whether to praise or cast aspersions on Daguerre's additions "to the means which painting gave him, artificial and mechanical means, strangers to art, properly speaking" (30). Other Dioramas that adopted special effects produced by mechanical devices, came in for similar criticism, and were dismissed as a "pantomime trick to astonish and be pointed at by children, [rather] than to deceive or give pleasure to an artist" (The Morning Chronicle, 31 August 1824; Hyde 33). The Diorama was clearly held to have a certain aesthetic integrity that sensationalism undermined; or, to put it differently, attempts to complete or augment the illusion (this could extend as much to music and other sound effects as well as to the mechanical introduction of motion) tended to emphasize, and thus detract from it. As the Repository of Arts argued, the Diorama "ought to stand upon its own ground—to afford a more irresistible deception to the eye, and through the eye to the understanding, than any other arrangement in the art of painting, but beyond this it should not attempt to go" (Vol. 4 [1824] 41). Baudelaire, in his chapter on landscapes in his Salon of 1859, celebrates explicitly the deception at the basis of the Dioramas that makes them such an exemplary art-form: "their total and far-reaching magic perpetrates an illusion that serves a useful purpose… Because they are false, they are infinitely closer to reality; whereas the majority of our landscape artists are liars, because they have in effect neglected to lie" (Comment 62).

  12. In the often fierce debate about the status of such visual entertainment in relation to the serious visual arts, the Diorama found itself positioned (as did the panorama, though arguably to a greater extent), at an uneasy meeting point of popular culture and the domain of (self-styled) connoisseurs of the arts. In the case of the Diorama, this is clearly a function of its status as a hybrid of painting and theatre, or as a strange combination perhaps of tableau vivant and still-life. In the case of the latter, the more evocative French term, nature morte, cuts closer to the heart of viewer unease: illusion in the Diorama is uncannily disturbing not only because of its particular configuration of art versus nature, but also because this configuration is explicitly underwritten, or doubled, by the more apparent problem of the living versus the dead. Not surprisingly, audience reception was often characterized by either total entrancement or repudiation, where incredulousness of response could be at the next moment supplanted by a sense of disgust, arising from the realization that everything on view is nothing other, in the words of one contemporary viewer, than 'mocking ghosts and untruths' (Gill 33).11

    To put it somewhat differently, the Diorama dramatically triangulated the relationship between nature, art and death. From the very beginning, the reviews identified death as an important "presence" in the Diorama. A Times reviewer, writing on "The Valley of Sarnen" in Daguerre and Bouton's opening exhibition in London, emphasized the more disturbing underside of the scene on view: on the one hand, "the whole thing is nature itself…. You have, as far as the senses can be acted upon, all these things (realities) before you"; but meanwhile, on the other:

    …there is a stillness, which is the stillness of the grave. The idea produced is that of a region—of a world—desolated; of living nature at an end; of the last day past and over. (4 October 1823)

    This was a feature most apparent in the early Dioramas, and one critics were keen to note. Of Daguerre's view of Unterseen, for example, the Athenaeum remarked that "the absence of anything like animal life … gives a stillness to the scene that would almost make one suppose it a deserted village" (5 March 1828). If Daguerre went to the other extreme with his "Sal de miracle" in 1832, with its living supplements, it is noteworthy that he did not linger long over the experiment, and instead developed his "double effect" Dioramas, which enabled not just a modification but a thorough transformation of a scene, and purely by means of painting.


  13. While a conception of one-ness or totality of vision characterized the panorama (the term, derived from the Greek, means to "see all"), doubling and doubleness appear, so to speak, to be at the very heart of the dioramic enterprise. It has been supposed that the inventor of the term also derived it from a Greek compound, of "dia" (through) and "orama" (scene). Alternatively, "di" has been thought to come from dis, twice, referring to the practice of displaying two pictures at once.12 But "di" can in fact be both of these things, so that "two-ness" and "throughness" suggestively correlate.13 Each dioramic scene, moreover, by shifting the image between multiple oppositions, was based increasingly upon a principle of doubling: before/after, day/night, winter/summer, light/dark, vacant/occupied, surface/depth, and so on. What goes around, comes around, in the manner of the revolving saloon itself, so that the "di" of the Diorama might rather evoke the diurnal round (from the Latin dies)—a hastening of being, through the day, the seasons, and toward an end that can be both passed through and undone. In this, it has a circular structure reminiscent of the panorama. But the achievement of the Diorama is to take us through the barrier of the perimeter wall, the barrier of the visible—darkly, perhaps, but also doubly. 

  14. The technology of the Diorama evolved to incorporate doubling more directly, in Daguerre's introduction of the "double effect." This involved painting both sides of the picture, which compounded, if not doubled, the effects that could be achieved through the deployment of colour and light. The first stage of the scene or effect was painted on the front in both opaque and transparent tints, the second on the verso with the aid of transmitted light, so that the transparent spaces could be either preserved or modified by transparent coloured paint; gradations of tone were achieved by variations in the opacity of the paint used, and the picture was coloured finally in an array of transparent tints. Effectively, two paintings of the very same scene were superimposed upon each other (Altick 170). Daguerre achieved, in this way, what he referred to as "the decomposition of form," on the grounds that "if a green and a red part of the painting are illuminated by red light, the red object will vanish while the green one will appear black, and vice versa" (Gernsheim 32). Thus was created the apparently magical appearance of objects or figures that were previously invisible; and this innovation made it possible to present the oppositional transformations noted above, such as a shift from day to night, which were features of many of the scenes shown in London from 1835 on, including the much praised midnight mass scenes. Two of the earliest double-effect Dioramas were in fact those seen by Lady Morgan in 1836: Bouton's "Interior of the Church of Santa Croce" and "The Village of Alagna, Piedmont," which dramatically recreated the avalanche at Monta Rosa that descended upon the Swiss village in 1820.

  15. Having been at the very site the day after the avalanche, Lady Morgan sees at the Diorama a different kind of double view, and compares the scene on display against the "real" scene mediated by memory. Her account of the Diorama in the Athenaeum (13 August 1836, 570-72) claims that the effectiveness of the illusion is heightened by first-hand knowledge of place. While for many in the audience the Diorama was merely a "show box," for her, the representation is more substantial and all the more impressive—the scene is somehow really real. This accounts to some extent for her essay's attention to the undermining of illusion that results from certain features of the viewing experience: that one is not there, and moreover not alone. On the one hand, Lady Morgan celebrates the Diorama as the epitome of perfection and excellence in creating illusion in visual art: "the Dioramas of the present time have at last produced that miracle of optic illusion, to which the senses yield, and before which the imagination lies captive" (570). On the other hand, her "sketch" spends as much time on the shattering of illusion by the interruption of the banal and the ludicrous, as it does arguing for its art-historical significance. Indeed, the essay is often cited for its comical, if perhaps snobbish, reflections on the disruptive behaviour of fellow audience members.

  16. The offences Lady Morgan recounts are primarily verbal, as though the impulse to running commentary presents an unwelcome (textual) supplement to the visual—involving not only a doubling but also a dissipation of focus. Some of this comes naturally enough from disoriented spectators entering the darkness of the saloon (at the climactic moment of the avalanche, one confused spectator allegedly boomed out, "in the words and accent of Irish hero of the Tarpean, 'Jesus, where am I going to'"; another growls "'I'll trouble you Miss, to remove your humbrella off my toe'" (571), and so on). More disturbing perhaps are the sustained commentaries, such as that of a lady narrating to her companion every sundry detail of her own trip to Italy, "beginning with the loss of her dressing-box at Tower Stairs, and ending with her coup de soleil at Naples." Or that of the devoted wife reading the details of the programme aloud to her deaf and blind husband, beginning each time with "'Now, dear, you are going to see…'" (571-2). William Galperin views the emphasis on distraction in Lady Morgan's account as indicative of resistance—not just on the part of the viewer, but on the part of the Diorama itself—to illusionism. The subject is as much displaced here as the image, so that "failure to be absorbed—to stand in imaginary, stable relation to the image—is accompanied by an absorption in that failure" (Galperin 70). These are intriguing difficulties that prefigure the containment of viewers, and the agency of the image, in cinematic spectatorship. But there is another angle which I'd like to pursue here, related to the uncannily overdetermined motivations that could be seen to inform, and transform, the place of the (in)visible in the scenes on view.

  17. Lady Morgan's extended accounts of viewing both scenes, "The Village of Alagna" and "The Church of Santa Croce," convey the experience of space as well as elapsed time, but what is important about that evocation of three dimensionality is that it makes space for the unseen: the buried, the obliterated. In short, the dead. In the case of "Alagna," her description tells us, the show begins after night falls; day has been extinguished and the Alpine scenery, "more sublime and picturesque than terrible, is now seen reposing in the moonlight." At the height of this segment, while the village sleeps peacefully, the moon sets and a storm approaches, building slowly to the unleashing of the avalanche. This is dramatised largely by sound effects, followed by total darkness and a pause—and then slowly by daybreak. As the day "revives" the full extent of devastation is revealed: an incipient sense of resurrection is offset by the indication of things (homes, people) resolutely buried (again). This is, we understand, as frequent (or nearly) an event in the natural world as in its repetition at the Diorama, because of how the "tyranny of habit" operates in the lives of the village's inhabitants, mainly labourers in nearby mines: through "want of forethought" and "density of temperament," "no provision against the future (but certain) catastrophe is made…. and new generations expose themselves to those devastating phenomena, which from time to time overwhelmed the old, as far as the ruin extended" (571). Since "density of temperament" is ascribed in equal measure to the Diorama's audience, we see in Lady Morgan's account of the eternal return of this historical misfortune an element of the human condition—an aspect perhaps of the Freudian death-drive—not only displayed but endlessly replayed. Thus, in this oft-repeated spectacle of repetition, we observe in action a kind of "fort-da" game for adults.14


    Fig. 4 Two coloured lithographs of the Alpine village, 1836, first as a night scene by transmitted light, followed by the daylight scene (reflected light), after the avalanche has buried the group of houses in the background of the picture.15

  18. In the wake of the avalanche, the inhabitants of Alagna are said to have been "awakened to sleep—for ever!" The sole visible remnant of the village, bathed now in a subtle and tranquil morning light, is the lone spire of the chapel in a sea of heaving snow. The illusion is said to be so impressive in every detail that the mind is also restored to its initial cheerfulness: "…a thousand details—all appropriate, and in the truth of nature, restore the mind to its cheerful contemplation of the beautiful and sublime, which first struck it on entering the magic circle of the Diorama" (571, emphasis mine). The circular motif is carried forward into the next stage of the show, as the saloon turns on its axis—like ""La ronde machine" (as Rabelais calls the earth)"—to face the next picture, the church of Santa Croce in Florence, where again the illusion corresponds startlingly to Lady Morgan's extensive memories of the place. "How often," she notes, "has the writer of this sketch, at all hours and seasons, raised the dark heavy cloth curtain which hangs before its vast and ponderous portals"—surely there is an apposite theatrical touch here—"and took a look up its immense nave and side aisles, and beheld their noble Gothic arches and octagon columns, tinged with hues of all light […]—sometimes by the red hues of sunset, sometimes by the silver tinge of moonlight." If her memory of the place makes it sound like a Diorama, the Diorama clearly looks like the place: "The long perspective which breaks upon the spectator of the Santa Croce, in the Diorama, is as the place itself;—the noble and ancient edifice, one of the finest specimens of the ecclesiastical architecture of the thirteenth century, comes forth to the imagination in all the lustre and brightness of a sunshiny Italian noon—nothing escapes the bright and searching light which falls in a thousand coloured hues from the high narrow casements of stained glass, or penetrates with a long yellow glare from the uncurtained portals" (571).

  19. From the lustre of noontime, this scene also turns full circle: what was once bright and distinct becomes less so, though the changes are "so gradually alternated as to be scarcely observed." Twilight descends, and to the shades of evening "succeeds the deepest obscurity of midnight." Suddenly, the scene is illuminated by chandeliers and candelabras, the empty chairs fill, and high mass is in full swing—complete with the whiff of incense and the pealing of the organ. Eventually, this climactic scene fades; the lights are extinguished and after a grey cold dawn, a flood of morning light restores the church to the state in which it was first seen. Resurrection and restitution are perhaps more strongly implied in this account, with its unambiguously religious context. But Lady Morgan's attention is drawn repeatedly to details that convey the presence of the dead. Initially, the "long yellow glare" falls "fully on the sarcophagus of Michael Angelo." Other tombs, statues, and effigies come into view: that of Petrus Michalius, and "the noble statue of Mourning Italy, which weeps over the tomb of Alfieri"; on the left, "that of the unfortunate Galileo." These monuments fade from prominence as the world turns, so to speak, but in the full flood of morning sunshine, it is these monuments, along with the nave and the aisles, that are "discovered" as they had been not only before, but all along: the presence of the dead, the monumental persistence of death, is reasserted by the light of day. Lady Morgan's essay illustrates, though perhaps without fully intending to, the importance of death to the Diorama argued above—its uncanny habit of always turning up.

  20. With these examples of double-effect Dioramas in view, it is possible to revisit the relationship of the Diorama to the panorama, and to make a few further observations. I suggested above that the Diorama was characterised by intensity rather than immensity of illusion. The panorama, by contrast, creates an illusion that is to be prolonged: with the infinite stillness, perhaps, of death, the effect lasts without changing. The panorama is arguably uncanny in relation to space in another sense as well, at least in the cases in which the inside walls of the rotunda revealed a mechanical replication of the invisible vistas of home (as in Horner's London, for Londoners). By contrast, the Diorama suggests an uncanny relation to time, insofar as past, present, and future are not only controlled and replicated, but also repeated. In the Diorama, illusion is created and removed, and creation and removal are explicit features of the exhibition—are dramatized by the exhibition—rather than being merely its invisible precondition, and inevitable fate. It could be said that while the panorama stages the visible, the Diorama, through the repetition of concealment and revelation, dramatises the invisible-within-the-visible, but with a curious effect: no corresponding demystification, but rather, the opposite, as its "magic" holds sway. The charm of the Diorama draws not only from the artistic excellence of its illusion making capabilities (contentious as that was), or from its apparent participation in the repetition compulsion (in association with the death drive), but also from its ability to put the spectre back into the spectacular.


  21. Gothic subjects were already a favourite for the transparencies that were fashionable as window decorations in the period, before the advent of the Diorama. John Imison's instructions for painting such transparencies point out their innate suitability:

    No subject is so admirably adapted to this species of effect as the gloomy Gothic ruin, whose antique towers and pointed turrets finely contrast their dark battlements with the pale yet brilliant moon. The effects of rays passing through the ruined windows, half choked with ivy, or of a fire amongst the clustering pillars and broken monuments of the choir, round which are figures of banditti; or others whose faces catch the reflecting light: these afford a peculiarity of effect not to be equalled in any other species of painting. (Imison II, 330)16

    These same effects can, as we have seen, be created by views of cathedral interiors. In general, religious architecture is a potent subject, capitalizing as it does on both sublime and picturesque effects. Certain Diorama images, such as "The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Moonlight," could serve as illustrations to any number of late eighteenth-century Gothic novels, in their evocation of certain stock settings: monasteries, cloisters, churchyards.

  22. The success of Daguerre's "Holyrood Chapel," exhibited in 1825, illustrates effectively the intrinsic appeal of Gothic spaces in the Diorama (Gernsheim claims that the chapel was "the most popular subject during the first decade of the Diorama"s existence" [25]). As the review in The Mirror of Literature (which came complete with a woodcut of the Diorama) helpfully points out, the church was originally Norman, dating from 1128, and was "Gothicised" in the fifteenth century (26 March 1825). The picture as a whole was hailed as "perhaps, the greatest triumph ever achieved in the pictorial art" (196), and the reviewer captures in detail the subtle atmospheric effects of night-time, from "the stars [that] actually scintillate in their spheres," to the moon that "gently glides with scarcely perceptible motion, now through the hazy, now through the clearer air." The reviewer for The Times also emphasized the effectiveness of the night scene, and particularly the use of moonlight (as "better calculated than any other to display the ingenious application of the scientific principles upon which the Diorama is constructed") (21 March 1825). As The Mirror of Literature claims, however, there is more at stake here than meets the eye: "if this be painting, however exquisite, it still is something more…" (196, emphasis mine). This "something more" is related to the manner in which the scene appears somehow in possession of itself: "for the elements have their motions, though the objects they illuminate are fixed, and the ether hath its transparency, the stars their chrystalline, and the lamp its vital flame, though the ruin and its terrene accompaniments have their opaque solidity."

    Fig. 5 Woodcut of "Ruins of Holyrood Chapel," Edinburgh
    by L. J. M. Daguerre, 182317

  23. In spite of the extraordinary sense of self-sufficiency that the building, as a weighty "oblong Gothic pile" (The Times), conveys to viewers, much of the picture's force comes from the fragmentariness of the structure. Inadequacy affects the Mirror reviewer, who laments that "it is impossible to convey by words any adequate idea of the fascination and perfect illusion of this magical picture. The scene itself is picturesque in the highest conceivable idea of architectural representation; far more so, indeed, from its dilapidated state…, than can possibly consist with any entireness, however accompanied, of the most complicated and magnificent edifice" (195-6). The marvellous self-containment of the scene comes across not only, somewhat paradoxically, in its fragmentariness, but also in the kinds of details the pictures tended to include. Reviews often convey in their own attention to specific parts or objects (in the name of conveying a sense or image of the whole to a reader who may never see it), an element of fixation, as we shall see again below. Notably, in this scene (as in the discussion of "Santa Croce" above), the moonlight happens to fall upon an area of the chapel that contains several tombstones and monuments, notably, the burial place of Lord and Lady Rae.18

  24. Daguerre's "Interior of Roslyn Chapel," shown the following year, contains a number of the same, potent ingredients. First of all, there is the inherent architectural interest of the chapel itself (the ruin, as The Times claims, is remarkable for being one of the most elegant specimens of Gothic architecture, "in its internal decorations, which our kingdom contains" [21 February, 1826]). Secondly, there is the overall excellence of the painting, the subtle effects of light, and the perfection of the illusion, which the Times reviewer suggests will be impossible to surpass. There is detailed attention to apparently minor elements of the scene, which nevertheless stand out, not least because of the "striking accuracy" of the representation: "a basket, some broken stones, the fragments of the floor, a scaffold and some ropes, with the abrupt and scattered lights that fall upon them" (ibid). There are, once again, family traditions of death and burial associated with the chapel, and more particularly, a legend with an intriguing supernatural dimension. The superstition, recounted by Walter Scott in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, held that on the eve of the death of a Lord of Roslin, the chapel would appear full of red flames, as though on fire, but show no signs of damage afterwards. In fact, this illusion was created by the rays of the setting sun, passing through the windows—Diorama-like—when the sun was low in the sky.19

     Fig. 6 Roslin Chapel
    Engraving after a painting by L. J. M. Daguerre,
    The Mirror of Literature, 1826, Vol. 7, 12920

  25. Two further Dioramas from this period, both mentioned briefly in the introduction above, made effective use of similar subjects. The first presented an imaginary design rather than a "real" place or object. This was "Ruins in a Fog" (1827), which showed a decaying Gothic gallery enshrouded by thick fog (Daguerre's oil painting of this scene, which probably differed from the Diorama image, is reproduced above). The second, "The Interior of the Cloisters of St. Wandrille, in Normandy," was painted by Bouton. It offered another ruin scene, this time of a Gothic convent, partially lit up by the sun, and partially conveyed with "the appearance of cavernous chilness [sic]" (The Mirror of Literature, 19 April 1828). This group of Dioramas on display from 1825-28, with their use of ruined Gothic structures, evoke the more literary and thematic aspects of the Gothic revival in the eighteenth century, and in this are somewhat distinct from the dioramic representations of intact Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres and Canterbury (1823-4).21 The Diorama, however, in both its subject matter and its mechanisms, offers a place to consider a literary Gothic sensibility alongside features of Gothic architecture and art. In some of the Dioramas discussed above, there is at least a latent link between architecture and experience, between physical structure and mental states associated with Gothic fiction, such as terror, uncertainty, and (psychological) extremity. Not only does the "phenomenological instability," as Galperin puts it, of dioramic representation, echo the indeterminacy of the gothic church (Galperin 64), the Diorama could be said to allow these two apparently distinct dimensions of Gothic to converge.

  26. A number of features of Gothic are strikingly relevant to the Diorama as a technology. First of all, Gothic texts rely heavily on contrast, on stark oppositions including juxtaposed states of extremity. As Linda Bayer-Berenbaum argues in The Gothic Imagination, this has the effect of magnifying reality. "Between the greatest extremes," she proposes, "lies the greatest breadth" (22). And this is precisely the territory that the Diorama explores, but in visual terms—the terrain of the unperceived, made visible in the wake of those extremes, both at, and in between, their limits. Bayer-Berenbaum is not thinking of visual technology, or even of the visual, in her account, but what she says about the Gothic and technology in general is also apposite here. Gothicism is, she notes, the "art of the incredible" particularly in relation to technology, which has brought about "a general expansion and intensification of consciousness consistent with the gothic sensibility," along with an expansion of the "real" (14). The importance placed on shock or surprise (and, at an extreme, terror), because it allegedly gives rise to refined perception through heightened sensitivity, recalls the experience of viewers not only of the Diorama but also of other visual spectacles in Georgian England, prized for their capacity to elicit or create the "shock of the real."22 Partly, this involves showing the familiar in a new light, where its proportions are different or monstrously unregulated; but it is also a revelation of what is immanent or latent in the world around us (as well as in ourselves, as much recent work on the Gothic shows). 

  27. This experience of (imaginative or sensible) "enlargement," characteristic of Gothic, often fixes on forms that are ruined, decaying or incomplete because they are unrestricted, disordered, and thus more dynamic—chaotic, even, and prone to motion and change. This is as much the reason why structures such as Holyrood Chapel made such compelling subjects for the Diorama, as it is that such structures have thematic value (often of a psychological nature) in literature. The restless energy that characterizes Gothic texts is also a feature of intact Gothic buildings (in their emphasis on limitless and uncontainment, it could be said that the basic premises of Gothic architecture already and in any case include the incomplete), and Bayer-Berenbaum's account of Gothic art in relation to Gothic literature is also instructive. In the case of the twelfth-century Chartres Cathedral, or any example of High Gothic cathedral architecture such as Sainte-Chapelle (1242-47), Cologne, or Amiens, a wide range of design strategies (conveyed in sweeping, rising lines, in "soaring verticality") effect a dematerialization of solid form. The point of this, in these examples, is an explicitly spiritual experience, but it clearly implicates the visual, or the optical, in its experiments with proportion, diminution, and so on. The weightiness of Romanesque forms is effectively disembodied, and this was also facilitated by the effect of stained glass windows, which, as Bayer-Berenbaum notes, "create a sense of illusion through the colours and patterns they cast upon the stone" (55). In this way, the Gothic cathedral may be seen as not just a subject but also a prototype for the Diorama: or, even, its double. 

  28. The turning of the sign's past referent into an empty relic, however nostalgic, which then has to be duplicated to be marketed, means that the grounds of signification must eventually become mechanical "production," where discourse is based on the possibility, albeit one that conceals itself, of "producing an infinite series of potentially identical beings (object-signs) by means of technics," "the serial repetition of the same object" (299; Baudrillard 55).

    Walpole's attraction to the Gothic, as Hogle reminds us, was precisely to "the relics of 'centuries that cannot disappoint one,' because 'the dead' have become so disembodied, so merely imaged…, that there is 'no reason to quarrel with their emptiness'" (298, emphasis mine; Walpole 10:192). Hogle's "ghost of the counterfeit" (a kind of spectral doubling-up) comes about by means of a progression, by which Gothic fictions are seen to have been first governed by ghosts, then by simulacra, and finally by "simulations of what is already counterfeit in the past" (302). All this links the Gothic to the simulations of the Diorama, which could be viewed as an architecture of this very progression—not only in its visual imaging, with its particularly "transparent" form of illusion production, but also because of its repetitive enactment and indeed temporal collapse of this progress (or doubling) of the Gothic sign. Perhaps in this the Diorama doesn't simply respond to, or capitalize on, the popularity of Gothic forms, but creates a space with a view (so to speak) to mastering or capturing the abject remainders of the counterfeit's ghostly productions. 

  29. Bernard Comment argues, in The Panorama, that the invention of the panorama responded to a strong nineteenth-century need for dominance, and that the visual illusion it provided satisfied a double dream: of totality and of possession. Even more pointedly, the shift implicit in the technology of the panorama, a shift from "representation to illusion," introduces "a new logic" with its own consequences. In the case of the panorama, Comment suggests that one of these is the rise of a collective imagination that is readily colonised by propaganda and commerce (Comment 19). Insofar as the Diorama shares in this shift from "representation to illusion," and is driven by the desire to make the real visible, so to speak, one might see how Comment's case could be extended—not only to the attraction of but also to the resistance generated by the Diorama. Visual realism is, as Hegel teaches us, but a symptom of the loss of reality, and moreover realism (in which we can include the strategies of illusionism) and melancholy can be seen to share certain features: the urge to see or show things "as they are" does not reveal an intimate link to the object, but rather, "an alienation that pits the object against consciousness" (Maleuvre, 178, 182). Finally, though, if the panorama is implicated in the panoptic fantasy of an all-seeing vision, then the logic of the Diorama (though similarly preoccupied by the enticements of illusion) must be expressed differently. Its uncanny doubleness, its relationship to death, its element of phantasmagoric spectrality, and the connections between these and the impulses of Gothic: all suggest an engagement with illusion that involves seeing (through) the deceptions of the visible in general, and the fantasy of possession in particular. The audience at the Diorama is not merely, as Crary would argue, a mechanical component of the scene (Crary 112-13)—a cog in the wheel of Rabelais's ronde machine—but able, disconcertingly, to see itself turning, in the seeing of turning that is on display.


Works Cited

A Picturesque Guide to the Regent's Park with accurate descriptions of The Colosseum, the Diorama, and the Zoological Gardens with engravings (London, 1829).

Altick, Richard. The Shows of London (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993).

Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1982).

Botting, Fred, ed. Essays and Studies 2001: The Gothic (The English Association, 2001).

Comment, Bernard. The Panorama (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1990).

Galperin, William. The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison. L.J.M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerrotype (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956).

Gill, Arthur. "The London Diorama,"History of Photography 1:1 (January, 1977), 31-36.

Hogle, Jerrold E. "The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection" in David Punter, ed., A Companion to the Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 2001).

Hyde, Ralph. Panoramania!: The Art and Entertainment of the "All-Embracing" View (London: Barbican Art Gallery with Trefoil Publications, 1988).

Imison, John. Elements of Science and Art 2 vols. (London, 1803).

Lewis, Michael J. The Gothic Revival (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002).

Maggi, Angelo. "Poetic Stones: Roslin Chapel in Gandy's Sketchbook and Daguerre's Diorama,"Architectural History 42 (1999), 263-83.

Maleuvre, Didier. Museum Memories: History, Technology, Art (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Punter, David, ed. A Companion to the Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 2001).

Walpole, Horace. The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, ed. W.S. Lewis et al. 48 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-83).

Wood, R. D. "The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s," History of Photography, (Autumn 1993) 17:3, 284-295.

---. 'The Midley History of Photography'


1 Oil on canvas, L. J. M. Daguerre, in Collection of Gerard Levy and Françoise Lepage, Paris. Reproduced in Panoramania! by Ralph Hyde (London: Trefoil Publications / Barbican Art Gallery 1988), catalogue item No.99 on p.119 with colour illustration on p. 168.

2 This suggestion has been made by Arthur Gill, and also by Richard Altick who includes, in The Shows of London, a brief description of this pictorial entertainment (Gill 31; Altick 163).

3 Details of this partnership, and indeed of everything related to Daguerre's career and to the Diorama in both Great Britain and Paris, can be found on R. D. Wood's extensive website, "The Midley History of Photography" (, which brings together much of Wood's research and published articles on the Diorama, the daguerreotype, and the early history of photography. Wood's researches show, for example, that contrary to what has often been assumed, the London Diorama was not simply an extension of Daguerre's Paris enterprise but a result of the efforts of a group of British entrepreneurs, who obtained a contract to exhibit Daguerre and Bouton's dioramas in London, and subsequently in other cities in the UK, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. The identity of these "English gentlemen" is unknown, but one was apparently "author of one of the most popular works of the day." Some of the general information and images used here have been drawn from Wood's site, and I would like to thank him for his permission to make reference to them, as well as for helpful advice on this portion of the paper. 

4 The full text of the patent, both in facsimile and transcription, can be viewed on Wood's website at

5 From H. & A. Gernsheim, L. J. M. Daguerre. Reproduced on R. D. Wood's website at

6 From R. D. Wood, "The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s." For further diagrams of the building showing key features of its design, see Wood's on-line version of this essay at Wood's source for this diagram is John Britton and A. Pugin, Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London. With historical and descriptive accounts of each edifice, vol. 1, plate opposite p. 70, published by J. Taylor: London, 1825.

7 See a description in London, ed. Charles Knight, Vol. VI, 1844, and reprinted in Gernsheim, 38-9. The speaker, clearly moved by the accumulated effects on display, proclaims that when "the solemn service of the Catholic Church begins—beautiful, inexpressibly beautiful—one forgets creeds at such a time, and thinks only of prayer: we long to join them."

8 The cosmorama consisted of rather small landscape scenes displayed conventionally in a gallery, but viewed in relief, through an arrangement of magnifying mirrors. The pleorama was a form of moving panorama shown in Breslau in 1831, in which viewers sat in a boat that rocked as though tossed by waves, while moving canvases on each side recreated the changing views of the Bay of Naples, which was thus traversed in the space of an hour (see Comment, 63). The myriorama, or "many thousand views" was, by contrast, a more personal visual device, consisting of numerous cards depicting fragments or segments of landscapes that could be arranged in infinitely different combinations.

9 Innovations to the panorama itself, such as the moving panorama, also went some way to compensate for the inherent stillness of the panoramic image.

10 A good example of this latter was Barker's inaugural Leicester Square panorama of View of the Fleet at Spithead, which simulated the sense of being at sea by disguising the viewing platform as the afterdeck of a frigate (see Comment, 24).

11 In this vein, a brief note in the Athenaeum about "The Village of Alagna" treats its apparently supernatural qualities more positively, recommending the scene as "a work of witchcraft, if it be a picture" (2 April 1836).

12 See for example, John Timbs's remarks on the name in his detailed account of "Diorama and Cosmorama," in his Curiosities of London of 1855. The relevant extract is accessible on Derek Wood's Diorama website, at

13 As the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary states, "di" can be "the form of dia used before a vowel," where the preposition dia is "used in wds of Gk origin, and in Eng. formations modelled on them, w. the senses 'through', as diaphanous, 'across', as diameter, 'transversely' as diaheliotropic, 'apart' as diaeresis. "The preposition di is used 'in wds of Gk origin or in Eng. formations modelled on them, w. the sense 'twice, doubly', as dilemma, diphthong, dicotyledon."

14 Another way to think about repetition here would be to consider what Didier Maleuvre says of duplication, of reproducibility in general, in his chapter on "The Interior and its Doubles" in Museum Memories: "That which I cannot seize in its particularity, I will reproduce so many times that I can do without the particularity itself, the singular In-Itself. …What it cannot seize in itself, bourgeois consciousness multiplies so as to diffuse its singularity" (Maleuvre 158). 

15 From H. & A. Gernsheim, L. J. M. Daguerre. Reproduced on R. D. Wood's website (

16 H. and A. Gernsheim, who helpfully cite this passage (20), also suggest E. Orme's An Essay on Transparent Prints and on Transparencies in General (London, 1807). 

17 From H. & A. Gernsheim, L. J. M. Daguerre. Reproduced on R. D. Wood's website (

18 More details of this kind can be found in a pamphlet description of this Diorama in the British Library (shelfmark 1359 d 6), including a dozen or more names of royal and aristocratic lineage, whose remains are to be found in the chapel.

19 Angelo Maggi's "Poetic Stones: Roslin Chapel in Gandy's Sketchbook and Daguerre's Diorama" contains an account of this legend (as does the Times review), but also a detailed account of the extraordinary architectural features of the chapel itself. Maggi argues that Daguerre, who never saw the chapel himself, drew extensively from Gandy's detailed sketches as well as from his "Tomb of Merlin" for his Diorama picture.

20 Reproduced on R. D. Wood's website (

21 There is an interesting link here, in the involvement of the French émigré architect Augustus Charles Pugin in the design and construction of the London Diorama. Pugin's son, Augustus Welby, was of course a key figure in the Gothic revival of the later nineteenth century. 

22 I refer here to the title of Gillen D'Arcy Wood's study, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860 (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

23 Michael Lewis, in The Gothic Revival, argues that the gothic revival of the 18th century began as a primarily literary movement, which drew its impulses from poetry and drama, and translated them into architecture—often of a flimsy kind, such as the picturesque garden folly.

24 See also his essay in Fred Botting, ed. Essays and Studies 2001: The Gothic.