Colosseum – a Regent’s Park building that was killed by technological change.


This is the Regent’s Park Colosseum. Designed by Decimus Burton for a site on the Eastern edge of the park, and completed in 1827, it stood for 48 years. It was not a small building: the diameter of the rotunda is equivalent to the length of St Marylebone Parish Church, and its dome rose as high as the feet of the golden angels on the steeple. The 126ft internal diameter of the dome was compared to that of the Pantheon in Rome, which it resembles, and, commissioned to display “The panoramic View of London”, a cylindrical painting depicting London as seen from the dome of St Pauls Cathedral.

The view was drawn by Thomas Hornor, surveyor, artist, and inventor, who erected a wooden shack above the orb and cross on St Paul’s dome while they were being replaced in 1820-21. Hornor had become wealthy and well connected through his topographical work, and found backing for his project from Rowland Stephenson, banker, and MP. The building was disastrously expensive, and in 1828, with debts of £60,000, Stephenson fled to America taking a fortune in cash and securities from the family bank (and a brace of loaded pistols from a pawnbroker). He was soon followed by Horner, who died in penury in New York in 1844. Nevertheless, the building was completed, and the panoramic painting was ready by November 1829.

 The Colosseum covered nearly 40,000 square feet of canvas and was advertised as the largest painting ever created. The central tower gave access to high level viewing galleries via spiral staircases, or, for an extra charge, the use of a steam-powered “ascending room”. An additional stair at the very top gave access to an external viewing gallery where the real local view could be seen. The original ball and cross from St Paul’s dome were displayed within the central tower as part of the attraction. There were several such competing attractions at the time: the closest rival – also a commercial failure, closing in 1848 – was the Diorama in Park Square East which displayed vistas by Daguerre. By the 1840s, receipts at the Colosseum had declined and the building was sold for £23,000 guineas. It was remodelled with an additional entrance in Albany Street, and several new attractions, including a “Glyptoteca” (museum of sculpture), numerous paintings, a “Stalactite cavern”, a Swiss Chalet, refreshment rooms and fountains. The panorama was repainted by Parris and a night view of the same panorama painted by Danson & Telbin was erected every evening, with light effects projected onto it, over the daytime version. By 1848, a nocturnal panorama of Paris had replaced this, and in 1850, a panorama of Lake Thun in Switzerland. A “cyclorama” of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake was added in the Albany Street hall, complete with lighting, and sound effects played on the “Apollonicon”. As interest in panoramas waned with familiarity, and other Victorian inventions superseded them, ticket sales dropped again. The enterprise had cost about £200,000 by then. An attempt was made to sell it in 1855, and one offer of £20,000 was received. It was eventually bought by a consortium for a hotel, then passed to a Mr Bird and was levelled for private houses in 1875. Today Cambridge Gate stands on the site and no trace of this extraordinary building remains.

The panorama, as understood in the 19th Century, was invented by artist Robert Barker, who patented his apparatus in 1787, specifying a cylindrical canvas in a purpose-built structure with a central tower and viewing platforms which controlled the distance of the spectator from the platform. It was to be lit entirely from above, and the top and bottom edges were to be concealed to add to the realistic illusion. Barker brought his panorama of Edinburgh to London in 1792; and erected a permanent building The Rotunda in Leicester Square. Barker was very successful, and many imitations followed, along with improved methods of constructing these huge scenes. But where did the idea of controlling the view in this way come from? The first manned flight of a hot air balloon was made in France in 1783, 4 years before Barker’s patent, and these flights provided similar 360° views; balloonists often drew a comparison between the two. At the time, the visual effect of panoramas was entirely new and disorienting, and visitors to the panoramas often became dizzy or nauseous. Many more people could afford to experience panoramas than could ride in a balloon, but by 1839 ascents in the Royal Vauxhall Balloon were available to the public at the Pleasure Gardens, as well as a moving panorama of the ascent at the same site!

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