Barker, Robert (1739-1806) (DNB00)

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BARKER, ROBERT (1739–1806), reputed inventor of panoramas, was born at Kells, in the county of Meath, in 1739, and having taken up his residence in Edinburgh was first known there as a portrait and miniature painter and teacher of drawing. He is generally credited with the first invention of ‘panoramic’ representation, but, according to some authorities (Convers. Lex.), the principle is due to Professor Breisig of Danzig. Barker, however, painted and exhibited the first picture of the kind on a large scale, and there are several stories current as to the means by which the idea was first suggested to him. The most credible of these accounts is to the effect that, while sketching on the summit of Calton Hill at Edinburgh, his eye was struck with certain effects which suggested to him the possibility of painting a picture on a large cylindrical surface to represent the entire scene around him to the very horizon. After surmounting many difficulties, he succeeded in producing a picture on this plan upon paper pasted on linen. This he took up to London and showed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who deliberately pronounced the scheme impracticable, adding that he would cheerfully leave his bed at any time in the night to inspect such a work of art if it could be produced. Subsequently, when Barker had a panorama ready for exhibition at 28 Castle Street, Leicester Square, Sir Joshua did leave his breakfast-table, and walked in his dressing-gown and slippers to Castle Street to inspect the work, and congratulated the artist. Barker, aided by Lord Elcho, was enabled first to patent his invention, and then to carry out his plans. The first picture was painted in water-colour on a complete circle twenty-five feet in diameter, on a surface of paper pasted on canvas, and the work was carried out in the guard-room of the palace of Holyrood. It was first exhibited to the public in the Archer's Hall at Holyrood, and was subsequently exhibited at Glasgow. In November 1788 Barker came to London, where, in the summer of 1789, the view of Edinburgh was shown at No. 28 in the Haymarket. He then constructed a view of London, taken from the Albion Mills near Blackfriars Bridge, and exhibited this in the spring of 1792 in Castle Street, Leicester Square. This view was painted in distemper, and the drawings made for it were afterwards etched by Henry Aston Barker, aquatinted by Birnie, and published.

In 1793 Barker took the lease of a piece of ground in Leicester Place and Cranbourne Street, where he erected a large building for the exhibition of panoramas. Here he had three rooms, in the largest of which the circle of the picture was 90 feet in diameter. This was opened early in the year 1794 with a view of the grand fleet at Spithead. When this building was first projected, a joint-stock company was formed to enable Barker to carry out his scheme, and in this enterprise Lord Elcho took a prominent part; but the exhibition proved so profitable that Barker was soon enabled to purchase all the shares and make the property his own. He painted several other panoramic views which were exhibited in Leicester Square, and the work was carried on by his younger son, Henry Aston [q. v.] Barker married a daughter of Dr. Aston, an eminent physician of Dublin, and died on 8 April 1806 at his own house in West Square, Southwark, and was buried in Lambeth Church.

There are two portraits of Robert Barker: one engraved in 1802 by J. Singleton, after a picture by G. Ralph, and another engraved by Flight from a picture by Allingham.

[Gent. Mag. 1856; Art Journal, 1857; Lysons's Environs of London, Suppl.]

R. H.