State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 50 Spring 1992


Full Circle: The Cyclorama of Early Melbourne

Mr Hennings has admirably attained the primary object - that of affording a good general idea of what Melbourne was fifty years ago.
(Argus 10 September 1892.)
September 1992 marked the centenary of the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne. Although now largely forgotten this 360° illusionistic painting was on show at the Exhibition Building between 1892 and about 1918. It. is a view of Melbourne in 1841, based on a panoramic pen and wash picture sketched by the Melbourne pioneer architect and builder, Samuel Jackson, from the partly built Scots Church on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets.1 The cyclorama was painted by the Melbourne scenic and panoramic artist, John Hennings.2 A cyclorama, also known as a panorama, was an illusionistic pictorial entertainment, popular in Europe and America from the late eighteenth century until the arrival of the cinema at the end of the nineteenth century.3 Most were displayed in huge circular purpose-built brick and iron structures. The subject of the picture was usually a historical battle or great city.
Cycloramas arrived in Australia in 1889, when American entrepreneurs formed jointstock companies in Sydney and Melbourne with local landboomers and businessmen. Up to the opening of the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne there had been three cycloramas on exhibition in the city: The Battle of Waterloo and the Eureka Stockade on Victoria Parade, Fitzroy; and the The Siege of Paris at 269 Little Collins Street.4 (See p.2)
The Cyclorama of Early Melbourne was not a private enterprise like the three pictures being exhibited by the Melbourne Cyclorama Company at the time, but a work commissioned in 1891 by the colonial government of Victoria through the Exhibition Trustees.
The Exhibition Trustees had been set up by the colonial government after the 1880 exhibition to run the building and to ensure a continuation of popular exhibits. Significantly, the controversial Dr L.L. Smith, medico, entertainment entrepreneur and vigneron, was the Chairman of the Trustees. Other members of the Board included Thomas Bent, Councillor James Dynon, and Sir Malcolm McEacharn, Lord Mayor of Melbourne.5
We can assume the entrepreneurial influence of L.L. Smith in this venture by a government body into the show business world of cyclorama exhibition. Smith was something of a showman, and although by now more ‘respectable’ as a former parliamentarian and current Chairman of the Exhibition Trustees, he retained many bohemian and show-business connections. The theatre managers, Coppin, Harwood, Stewart and the scenic artist Hennings, were his friends, as had been the actors, G.V. Brooke, George Fawcett and Joseph Jefferson.6 In 1893 Smith was a co-warden and trustee of the Australasian Dramatic and Musical Association with, among

Programme depicting the Battle of Waterloo Cyclorama building which also housed the Eureka Stockade Cyclorama (La Trobe Collection)

others, Coppin, Harwood and Kreitmayer, so he had retained many of his old associations.7
The government was concerned that the huge Exhibition Building, erected for an International Exhibition in 1880 and used to even greater effect during the 1888 Centennial, should be used regularly to justify its upkeep. In December 1890 and March 1891 the Trustees arranged exhibitions of paintings in the South Eastern Gallery of the main building.
Many were on loan from L.L. Smith and other Melbourne identities and there were some by local artists.8 The title of the second exhibition, the ‘People's Palace Exhibition’ indicates that the aim was to promote art on a popular level.9 It was run in conjunction with the Victorian Society of Artists.10 The success of this exhibition contributed to the construction of the Eastern Annex intended to ‘form a permanent Picture Gallery, Museum and School of Arts and Industries’.11
Meanwhile, the Government of Victoria had purchased an 1841 sketch (eighteen feet by eighteen inches) from Samuel Jackson's nephew in 1888 for the not inconsiderable sum of four hundred guineas (about $800).12 The original intention was to have the sketch photographically enlarged and put on display at the Exhibition Building.13 Nothing definite

Ground Plan from James Sherrard, compiler Official Handbook Exhibition Building, Melbourne 1892

came of this, and by 1892, letters and memoranda in the Chief Secretary's Department began to discuss the alternative of having the sketch copied and enlarged by a painter.
The Under Secretary, T.R. Wilson was no doubt influenced by the two large cycloramas in Melbourne at the time. He noticed that Samuel Jackson had used a ‘cycloramic’ or 360° technique, both ends of the sketch joining to form a continuous view.14 However, it should be noted that Jackson had written ‘Panorama of Melbourne, July 30.1841’, not ‘Cyclorama of Melbourne’, in the top right-hand corner of his sketch. Use of the alternate word ‘cyclorama’ in post-1889 government correspondence indicates the ‘cyclorama’ fever caused by the vigorous advertising and popular success of the American import.
The Trustees' meeting of 8 January 1892 received a letter from John Hennings, offering to paint the cyclorama of Melbourne 1841,15 and on 19 February 1892, Hennings agreed ‘to paint a cycloramic picture of Old Melbourne for five hundred guineas'16 (about $1,000) Hennings was born in Bremen, Germany in 1835. He arrived in Australia in July 1855. During the next 40 years he came to dominate scenic art in Melbourne theatre. With his long experience of painting of sets for opera, drama and pantomime for the Melbourne Theatre Royal, Hennings was a logical choice to enlarge Jackson's sketch. His early studies in perspective and architectural drawing in Germany17 and his celebrated moving panoramas for pantomime, would have prepared him for the illusionistic painting of a 360° degree cyclorama.
The Trustees decided to accept Hennings offer on 9 March 1892.18 Thus, the government of the Colony of Victoria, through the Exhibition Trustees, paid Hennings five hundred guineas for his work, which took from March to August 1892 to complete.19
It was to be on a much smaller scale than the commercial cycloramas - only one hundred and twenty feet (36.6 metres) by thirteen feet, (3.96 metres) compared to their four hundred (122 metres) by fifty feet (15.25 metres).20
When engravings of the Jackson panorama were published in the Australasian and the Australasian Sketcher in December 1888 and April 1889, much historical interest and curiosity had been created. Old colonists had been invited to give their opinions about the architectural and street lay-out accuracy of the sketch. There were many letters to the two journals from others old colonists discussing where certain public houses were situated.21 Similarly, in 1892, men who had arrived in Melbourne before Separation Day, July 1851, were invited to a special preview of the Cyclorama of Melbourne 1841.22
The Area in which the cyclorama was displayed was the machinery room of the Eastern Annex of the Exhibition Building.23 The area of display was to be forty feet (12.12 metres) in diameter with walls twenty-eight feet (8.56 metres) high with a centre platform fourteen feet (4.27 metres) high from the main floor and fourteen feet in diameter with a hand rail around the top. There was to be a flight of stairs from the entrance to the centre of the platform, a canopy on top of the platform to conceal the light source, and a sloping floor all around, nine feet high against the walls to seven feet (7.13 metres) from the main floor, to form a foreground to the picture.24
The Eastern Annex of the Exhibition was by 1892 becoming the site of a people's entertainment centre. The area housed an Aquarium, a Fernery, and space for performing seals, as well as the gallery and museum already mentioned.25 These amusements were advertised as ‘The Victorian “South Kensington”’. It seems that the government was trying to copy the ‘instructive amusement’ to be had in the South Kensington area of London, where developments since the 1850s such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Science Museum were much admired. It needs to be emphasised that the London museums were planned and built on a very large scale and had a serious scientific basis.
The Melbourne ‘South Kensington’ was, in comparison with its London counterpart, very small indeed, and quite frivolous. The varied show to be seen was set out in an advertisement:
The Victorian ‘South Kensington’. What You Can See For One Shilling. The Aquarium with Living Seals, who feed and perform at 3 o'clock, Man-Eating Crocodiles, Tortoises, and Aquatic Birds. Fernery, Living Fountains, and Waterfalls. Cyclorama, Melbourne, in 1841, painted from

Aquarium Entrance to the Exhibition Building, (Aquarium Album LTAF 291 P.11A, La Trobe Collection)

authentic drawings by Mr J. Hennings. The Goldseeker scene with full sized Aboriginals, Gin, and Children. The Fine Art Gallery, Pictures, Antiques, &c. Museums-Ethnological,
Anthropological, Mineralogical, Conchological, Entomological. Costumes and Weapons of War of Ancient and Modern Nations. St Peter's at Rome, Magnificent Model, with Clerical Processions &c. Manufacturers and Products, obtained by the Trustees from all Countries. Admission to the Whole Collection, is; Children, 6d.26
The Goldseeker Bush Scene was what today we would term a ‘diorama’, a boxed-in scene with three-dimensional figures. The scenery was by Hennings and the wax figures were by the Melbourne Waxworks proprietor, Maximillian Ludwig Kreitmayer. The Trustees' Report for 1892-3 tabled just before the opening of the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne, emphasises the improving nature of the exhibits, the specimens from the Mines Department and ‘studies from the South Kensington School of Art are open for the instruction of visitors’.27
The Report mentions that the Art Gallery has ‘been elaborately fitted up and evokes general approval’.28 These developments reflect the misplaced optimism of the times - already there was a severe financial depression. This optimism led to what in retrospect seems to be excessive provision for popular public instruction. Such opportunity of instruction was already available at the Industrial and Technological Museum in the Public Library and National Gallery building.29 Yet the public of Melbourne flocked to such places. The Library, Museum and National Gallery recorded 754,943 visits in 1889.30 ‘South Kensington’ in Melbourne, however, was not free; there was an admission charge of one shilling. When the Depression began to bite in 1893, the Trustees noted with regret that they had been ‘unable to let the building for entertainments so frequently as previously’.31
The Advertising for the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne was, when compared to the sensational puffery accompanying the American cycloramas, the Battle of Waterloo and Siege of Paris, quite low key. One reason may have been that this entertainment was not a commercial enterprise. The government felt no need to spend much money on advertising beyond stating that the picture was there among other ‘improving entertainments’. Further, there was no ‘stupendous battle’ to promote, but merely a view of Melbourne when it was a six-year-old town. Yet therein lay the attraction. Visitors were urged to climb to the top of the Dome of the Exhibition for a staggering comparison with Melbourne in 1892. The Age noticed that ‘considerable interest was manifested in the painting and in comparing it with the village delineated on the canvas’.32 The explanatory booklet for the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne was written by ‘Garryowen’, (Edmund Finn), an ‘old colonial’ himself who had arrived in Melbourne in 1842. The Trustees paid him a fee of twenty-five pounds ($50).33 Finn stresses the great progress of Melbourne between the years 1841 and 1892:
Churches and banks, temples for the worship of God and Mammon, rose, and there seems every prospect that Melbourne had an assured and permanent future before it, although the most sanguine of the pioneers could not, in his wildest dreams, have foreseen the gigantic growth in wealth and population that was to follow upon the discovery of gold.34
The special viewing by old colonists on 9 September 1892 provoked similar discussion to that which occurred after the publication of the engravings of the Jackson picture. Visitors included the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and old settlers such as
T.L. Umphelby, J.J. Shillinglaw, J.S. Butters and Robert Russell. The Argus reported:
Dr Louis Lawrence Smith acted as showman, and added much to the amusement if not the instruction of his audience … Memories of the old days crowded upon many of the pioneers who were present yesterday. To some of them the picture was disappointing. Even Mr Hennings could not crowd into it every house and tree which one or another could recollect, and when perspective fails imagination must supply the rest. The general verdict was one of distinct approval.35
The attraction to Melbournians of viewing this representation of their own city, seemed to be in viewing a recognisable part of one's own environment in an artificial, but illusionistic, form.36
The Argus, in its detailed review, uses the Eastern Hill and Little Collins Street cycloramas as a basis for comparison and goes on to emphasise the historical value of such a picture:
The cyclorama, which occupies a part of what was formerly the machinery annex, is much smaller, but arranged in precisely the same way as those of Waterloo and the Siege of Paris, which have proved so popular. Entering upon a raised circular platform, the spectator is supposed to find himself, in the month of July 1841, standing upon the unfinished walls of the old Scot's Church, then in the course of erection at the corner of Collins and Russel streets, and commanding from that elevation a panoramic view of the infant city, then scarcely four years old. The picture is that of a straggling township, numbering a few hundreds of houses, half of them still ‘in the bush’, and of the most primitive description; streets still unformed, … open paddocks and cabbage gardens in plenty, skirting all the principal thoroughfares. Liberties have been taken by the artist with the laws of space, and a surveyor might find fault with some of the distances, but Mr Hennings has admirably attained a good general idea of what Melbourne was fifty years ago.37
The picture was opened to the general public on 23 September 1892, and on the next evening was lit by gas for the first time. It was hoped that people attending the Promenade Concert in the Exhibition would also visit the cyclorama.38 The short review in the Argus summed up the likely worth of the picture:
As an accurate representation of what will always be an interesting historical landmark, the cyclorama promises to have a large measure of public patronage.39
Unlike other nineteenth-century panoramas and cycloramas displayed in Australia, the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne still exists. Further, the panoramic sketch by Samuel Jackson on which it is based also survives. Both are owned by the La Trobe Picture Collection of the State Library of Victoria. The Hennings cyclorama was water damaged when it survived a fire in the Exhibition Building in March 1953, but most of the images and the quality of the painting can still be discerned. A more detailed assessment of the art and likely appeal of this cyclorama can therefore be made. Hennings has, for the most part, remained faithful to the architectural detail seen in the Jackson sketch. It is in the area of the animal and human figures that he has altered the concept of the sketch. The panoramic sketch is teaming with activity, men and women promenading in Collins Street, and many horsedrawn carts and drays. 30 July 1841 was a Friday, so we can conjecture that Jackson depicted them busily shopping on a winter's afternoon. The somewhat heroically posed Aboriginal family nevertheless gives the impression that they are part of the general scene. Hennings, on the other hand, shows a town almost deserted in comparison.
There is a horsemen, a bullock driver, an Aboriginal group, now posed less heroically under a gunyah, and the recognisable figure of John Pascoe Fawkner standing near the Congregational Church.
In his alterations to Jackson's sketch, Hennings displays a certain theatricality and humour; there is an element of bravura in the galloping horse, while the portrait of Fawkner
seems to be a joke on Samuel Jackson who, as an early Melbourne builder, had been a supporter of Fawkner's rival, John Batman. The change in the positioning and pose of the Aboriginal family might reflect the change in white attitudes and in the status of Aborigines in the fifty year interim. Jackson seems to sketch them as noble savages; Hennings shows rather pathetic fringe dwellers. The visitor to the 1892 version of Melbourne in 1841 then, would have had a detailed view of the buildings and topography of the town, uncluttered by the bustle of the Jackson version, and with a few interesting figures to give a human perspective to the three hundred and sixty degree view.40
Hennings was employed by the Trustees in the following year to construct an ‘Egyptian Tomb facsimile’.41 This was a setting for mummies presented to the Trustees by Melbourne businessman, J.S. Gotch, ‘with the desire that they would be of interest and afford instruction to the public generally’.42 After a few years the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne ceased to be advertised but remained on show for nearly thirty years, as part of the Exhibition Aquarium and Picture Gallery display.
The Cyclorama of Early Melbourne opened at the Exhibition Building just over a year after the picture of the Eureka Stockade had opened (just around the corner) in Fitzroy. Both cycloramas must have stemmed from the same combination of historical interest and fear that living memory of the events were about to be lost - hence the invitations to old colonists to recall the early days and pass on their memories to younger people.
The centenary celebrations played an important part in the timing of cycloramas in Australia. They brought commercial entrepreneurs like Gross and Reed to Sydney and Melbourne in 1888. In the case of Melbourne's somewhat richer experience of cycloramas, the Victorian Centennial Exhibition, with its commercial optimism and historical awareness, had a special part to play. This both promoted the American-Australian cyclorama ventures and enabled better reception of the historical cycloramic images of Eureka and Early Melbourne. In the case of Early Melbourne, it also provided a venue.
The Cyclorama of Early Melbourne 1841 remained on show for nearly thirty years, from 1892 until about 1918.43 By this time there was increasing importation of American films. Thus the motion picture industry repeated, on a different scale, the importation of American moving panoramas and cycloramas.44 In 1919 the space was being used as nurses' quarters during the Spanish ‘flu epidemic, when the Exhibition was turned into a hospital. The space was later used as the National War Museum between 1920 and 1925.45
The cyclorama was rolled up to become ‘a ruin in the store room of the Exhibition Building’46 until March 1953 when it was damaged by a fire that destroyed the Aquarium section of the Building. In October 1956 the Exhibition Trustees donated the painting to the State Library of Victoria for the picture collection, where it remains.47
Mimi Colligan


See my article La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.12, No.45, Autumn 1990, p.12.


Weekly Times, 10 September 1892, p.10.


See my PhD thesis ‘Canvas and wax: Images of information in Australian panoramas and waxworks’, Monash University, 1987.


Mimi Colligan, ‘The Fitzroy Cyclorama’, in Fitzroy, Melbourne's First Suburb, Melbourne, 1989, pp.179-182.


J. Sherrard, compiler, Illustrated Handbook: Aquarium, Picture Salon, Cyclorama, Museum, and Technological Collections under the control of the Exhibition Trustees, Melbourne. n.d. (c.1894-5), p.1.


Table Talk, 7 November 1901, p.15. His friendship with Hennings was perhaps a factor in the latter being given the task of painting the panorama of Early Melbourne.


Lorgnette, December 1893.


Exhibition of Works of Victorian Artists and a loan collection of Pictures, Melbourne, 20 December 1890.


The People's Palace Exhibition, Melbourne, 30 March 1891.


Exhibition Trustees, Report of Proceedings and Statement of Income and Expenditure, 30 September 1891, VPP, Vol.6, No.193, 1891, p.4.


Ibid., p.3.


VPRS 3992: Chief Secretary's Inwards Correspondence: Unit (Box): 710, Item: 10799: Receipt dated 16 November 1888.


VPRS 3992: 710: 10799: Undated letter, F. Stanley Dobson to Alfred Deakin.


Argus, 10 September 1892.


VPRS 837/2, Exhibition Trustees Minute Book, p.11.


VPRS 838/1, Secretary's Minute Book, p.10.


Lorgnette, 23 February 1889, p.6.


VPRS 837/2, p.36.


Exhibition Trustees Statements of Income and Expenditure for Years 1892 and 1893, VPP, Vol.5, No.2, 1892-93, pp.4-5.


Based on measurements of the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne taken by the writer at the La Trobe Library, Melbourne, in March 1983. The cyclorama has survived, and although in bad condition, can perhaps be restored.


Australasian, 15 December 1888, p.1315 and Supplement; Australian Sketcher, 18 April 1889, pp. 51-52 and Supplement


Argus, 10 September 1892.


Plan in J. Sherrard, compiler, Official Handbook Exhibition Building, Melbourne, 1892, fold-out map.


VPRS 3181:778: Melbourne City Council, Public Buildings, No.3476, ‘Copy of an Agreement entered into by Mr. Hennings for the erection of Platform, &c.’ this document mentions an attached plan, but there are no plans now in the file.




Argus, 26 September 1892.


VPP, Vol.5, No.142, 1892-93, p.3.


Ibid., p.4.


Warren Perry, The Science Museum of Victoria, 1972, p.31.




VPP, Vol.2, No.6, 1894, p.4.


Age, 24 September 1892.


VPRS 837/2, Exhibition Trustees Minute Book, 10 August 1893, p.93.


J. Sherrard, op.cit., 1892, pp.108.


Argus, 10 September 1892. Argus, 10 September 1892.


Panorama Mesdag, in The Hague, one of the best existing panoramas, shows the nearby seaside suburb of Scheveningen as it was in 1881.


Argus, 10 September 1892.


Argus, 24 September 1892.




There would have been some three-dimensional figures in the foreground.


VPP, Vol.1, No.2, 1893, p.3.


Sherrard, op.cit., 1892, p.94.


Interviews with: (a) Miss J. McCallum, sister of the former State Librarian, who recalled that from about 1911, the entertainments at the Exhibition Building included, performing seals, an orchestra and the Cyclorama of Early Melbourne; (b) Mrs. Frances Derham who visited the cyclorama in 1915 as a student of the National Gallery School.


Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: the First Eighty Years, Sydney, 1983, pp.22-43.


Information from John Elden, former Director of the Royal Exhibition Buildings.


Isaac Selby, The Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1924, p.23.


Acquisitions Register, No. H17709, Picture Collection, SLV. Its value in 1956 was given as £50 (£300). Some efforts at conservation were attempted in 1983-84. Sums in the order of $400,000 were quoted for full restoration. Lack of funds, however, prevented further action.