I was at the private view of the “Diorama”; it is in part a transparency; the spectator is in a dark chamber, and it is very pleasing, and has great illusion. It is without the pale of art, because its object is deception. The art pleases by reminding, not deceiving. The place was filled with foreigners, and I seemed to be in a cage of magpies. – John Constable.
Imagine a world without films or television, computers or cell phones. Where transportation was slow and costly, and only the rich could afford to travel out of the country. Then imagine a new cutting edge technology in which lifesized illusions of ancient or distant lands were recreated on large transluscent screens and scenes of beauty or disaster were enhanced with lights that simulated scenes containing fire, the changing seasons, and sunrises and sunsets. Dioramas were a 19th century version of virtual reality – spectacles that both entertained and filled the viewer with wonder. Illusionary, seemingly 3D, and augmented by concealed lights in back of the stage, these entertainments were shown in buildings designed to display them.
In 1822, a mere 5 years after Jane Austen’s death, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, introduced the first Diorama theater in Paris.
“Daguerre made large paintings of scenes and displayed they in elaborate layered stage settings along with real objects. The theater was equipped with windows and louvers that could be opened and closed to front light and back light the images. This caused transparent areas of the scene to change and new images to appear. Most often these were day to night transformations.” – Jack and Beverley’s Optical Toys
One year after Daguerre’s introduction of this wondrous new entertainment, the first diorama opened up in London in Regent’s Park. (The building still stands, but the interior has been vastly transformed.) The subject matter included landscape scenes of the grand tour, religious stories, recreations of paintings and grand architecture, and historical themes well-known to the public. The images could be made more or less bright according to the mood or atmosphere required by the theme. Props were also added for realism:
The visitors, after passing through a gloomy anteroom, were ushered into a circular chamber, apparently quite dark. One or two small shrouded lamps placed on the floor served dimly to light the way to a few descending steps and the voice of an invisible guide gave directions to walk forward. The eye soon became sufficiently accustomed to the darkness to distinguish the objects around and to perceive that there were several persons seated on benches opposite an open space resembling a large window. Through the window was seen the interior of Canterbury Cathedral undergoing partial repair with the figures of two or three workmen resting from their labours. The pillars, the arches, the stone floor and steps, stained with damp, and the planks of wood strewn on the ground, all seemed to stand out in bold relief, so solidly as not to admit a doubt of their substantiality, whilst the floor extended to the distant pillars, temptingly inviting the tread of exploring footsteps. Few could be persuaded that what they saw was a mere painting on a flat surface. The impression was strengthened by perceiving the light and shadows change, as if clouds were passing over the sun, the rays of which occasionally shone through the painted windows, casting coloured shadows on the floor. Then shortly the lightness would disappear and the former gloom again obscure the objects that had been momentarily illumined. The illusion was rendered more perfect by the sensitive condition of the eye in the darkness of the surrounding chamber.” “- The History of the Discovery of Cinematography http://www.precinemahistory.net/1800.htm
Dioramas were created for spectacle and entertainment, and one can readily imagine Georgette Heyer’s characters attending these events during the London Season.
The popularity of the dioramas generated a debate over whether their pictures were art. The press discussed them as ‘exhibitions of art.’ But if the dioramas were art, it was a mundane art, and it rarely elevated the viewer’s taste. Indeed, if contemporary reactions are to be believed, the highest artistic achievement the diorama could attain was providing an entertaining substitute for reality. These pleasant but uncomplicated images required little or no preparation for serious thought… – Robert W. Brown.
This first-hand account gives the modern reader a sense of how these 30 – 50 minute light shows seemed to the viewer:
A bell now rings, we find ourselves in motion; the whole theatre in which we sit, moves round till its wall closes the aperture or stage, and we are in perfect darkness; the bell rings again, a curtain rises, and we are looking on the time-worn towers, transepts, and buttresses of Notre Dame, its rose window on the left, and the water around its base reflecting back the last beams of the setting sun. Gradually these reflections disappear, the warm tints fade from the sky, and arc succeeded by the cool grey hue of twilight, and that again by night—deepening by insensible m degrees till the quay and the surrounding buildings and the water are no longer distinguishable, and Notre Dame itself scarcely reveals to us its outlines against the sky. Before we have long gazed on this scene the moon brgins to emerge slowly—very slowly, from the opposite quarter of the heavens, its first faint rays tempering apparently rather than dispersing the gloom; presently a slight radiance touches the top of one of the pinnacles of the cathedral—and glances as it were athwart the dark breast of the stream; now growing more powerful, the projections of Notre Dame throw their light and fantastic shadows over the left side of the building, until at last, bursting forth in serene unclouded majesty, the whole scene is lit up, except where the vast Cathedral interrupts its beams, on the quay here to the left, and where through the darkness the lamps are now seen, each illumining its allotted space.” - London Volumes 5-6, Edited by Charles Knight, 1843, pp. 284 – 288
By the early half of the 19th century there were five diaromas open in London. They were also popular in other British cities, as well as Breslau, Berlin, Cologne, Stockholm, and the United states. It is interesting to note that the end of the diorama’s popularity coincided with the rise of photography.
Dioramas have shrunk in size, and today’s viewers know them only as scenes in boxes or bottles, as museum displays, or for competitions, such as the science fair or annual peeps contest.