Fanny Parks Case Study: The ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’

The ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’

In 1851, the year of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, Fanny instigated and funded the construction of a ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’ which was staged at the Asiatic Gallery in the Baker Street Bazaar.[1] India, Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’, featured centre-stage at the Great Exhibition, the East India Company itself having been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the enterprise from its inception. They saw the exhibition as an opportunity to astonish visitors with the exquisitely crafted riches from Britain’s Eastern Empire.[2] They also saw it as a way of promoting a new self-image through the collecting and display of objects from the sub-continent.[3]

The Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan offered not objects but vistas, visual evocations of the landscapes of India, specifically those seen from India’s most sacred river, the Ganges. As such, it gave a context to the Great Exhibition’s display of astonishing objects made in India. The description that survives makes it clear that Fanny’s diorama was no run-of-the-mill affair and was modelled on the moving dioramas invented by Daguerre, the first of which was brought to England in 1823. Panoramas and dioramas were a popular attraction in the first half of the nineteenth century. While panoramas were essentially very large, realistic, paintings of a scene, dioramas, which also used painted backdrops, introduced a three-dimensional element to the viewing experience. Daguerre’s diorama (see figure 5), first shown in Paris in 1822, was brought to London in 1823 and erected in a special building constructed in Regent’s Park at a cost of £10,000.[4]


Figure 5. Patent image of the London Diorama, 1823.’s_Diorama

The Daguerre diorama depended on clever lighting effects and a revolving auditorium that moved the sizeable audience (the Regent’s Park diorama accommodated two hundred people; the original diorama in Paris could hold an audience of 350) from one scene to another. The enormous painted scenes (twenty-two metres wide by fourteen metres high), ingeniously lit with a system of screens and shutters and worked with pulleys and counterweights, were so convincing that few in the audience thought they were looking at a painting. Some dioramas had sound effects and songs, some a piano accompaniment, but the strongest impression was that of brilliant illusion caused by the subtly changing lighting.[5] Much was made of the fact that this was a form of armchair travel, the Journal de Paris of 22 July 1822 urging Parisians ‘who like pleasure without fatigue to make the journey to Switzerland and to England without leaving the capital’.[6]

The success of Daguerre’s diorama led to a mass of imitators and variations on the original idea (amongst them inventions with names such as Hydrorama and Uranorama[7]), but even as late as 1851 a London guide book was still of the opinion that the original diorama was ‘decidedly superior, both to the Panorama and the Cosmorana, in the fidelity with which the objects are depicted, and in the completeness of the illusion… and it is difficult for the spectator to persuade himself that he is only contemplating a work of art’.[8]

Fanny’s ‘Grand Moving Diorama’ came in on the tail end of the craze but was nevertheless a success, in part due to astute marketing and publicity by Fanny and her collaborators. In a move that would endear her to philanthropic societies and educational reformers, Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine reported that ‘In the spirit of true liberality, Mrs. Park admits daily fifty or sixty children (gratis) from the National and Parochial schools of London; for the enlightenment of these young students in religion and useful learning’.[9] This largesse by Fanny may account for the florid prose of the same magazine’s appreciation of Fanny’s diorama: 

The DIORAMA OF HINDOSTAN (where its immortalised originator is herself a frequent visitor), constructed in the splendid galleries recently annexed, at her own proper cost, to the Baker Street Bazaar, is confessedly the most extraordinary exhibition that has appeared in the present century… The painting is in the highest finish of body colour, realising the most exquisite atmospherical effects, and frequently affecting the senses by its sublime and almost incomprehensible truthfulness… In the course of less than two delightful hours, the spectator traces the river Ganges from Fort William, Calcutta, through Barrackpore, Benares, Mirzapur, Allahabad, and Hurdwar, to its source in the Himalaya mountains… There, at length… the mystical fount is seen to flow; the spirit of solitude fills the dread eminence, and a mysterious, unaccountable dread steals over the mind of the audience, in the presence of night descending on a scene, whose awful features may best be conceived from their effect on the nerves, as the curtain terminates the exhibition, and the breathless silence of intense and gazing admiration…. The spectacle, now within reach of even the humbler classes, is, in fact, a boon to our population… we may now set foot on the banks of the Hooghly… through the instrumentality of one single, high-born, highly-gifted, persevering, and amiable woman, whose labours, ‘non sibi sed aliis,’ have provided one of the more purely intellectual and heart-touching gratifications ever yet offered for the enlightenment, the entertainment, and, we might add, the honour of her nation.[10]

The ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’ was sufficiently popular for it to be exhibited in Hull in 1853, although the transport of the equipment from London to Hull would have been a challenging exercise. An additional attraction to London visitors to the diorama was the promise that they would be ‘allowed to inspect THE MUSEUM ’– in other words, Fanny’s Cabinet of Curiosities.[11]

Previous / Next

[1] Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan, displaying the scenery of the Hoogly, the Bhagirathi, and the Ganges, from Fort William, Bengal, to Gangoutri, in the Himalaya (London: 1851). This handsome illustrated 64-page booklet was available to purchase, price one shilling, and contained short essays on each scene of the diorama.

[2] Lara Kriegel, ‘Narrating the sub-continent in 1851: India at the Crystal Palace’ in Louise Purbrick (ed), The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 149-50.

[3] Jasanoff, ‘Collections of Empire’, 122.

[4] Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, L.J.M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956), 21.

[5] The booklet accompanying the “Diorama of the Ganges” mounted at the Portland Gallery in 1850 credits a pianist, Herr Adolph. An Illustrated description of the Diorama of the Ganges (London: Portland Gallery, 1850).

[6] Quoted in Gernsheim, 17.

[7] Gernsheim, 41.

[8] London as it is to-day: Where to go and what to see (London: H.G. Clarke & Co, 1851), 267.

[9] Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine, January 1852, 198-9.

[10] Blackwood’s, 198-9.

[11] Grand Moving Diorama, title page.