J. A. Atkinson’s ‘Panoramic View of St Petersburg’ and the Evolution of Panoramas in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Art

J. A. Atkinson (1774/1776–1830) was an English artist who arrived in St Petersburg in 1784 with his uncle J. Walker, a famous engraver, and spent seventeen years there. Atkinson is widely regarded as a ‘highly talented but underrated’ artist. The history of his contributions to Russian art, including his ‘Panoramic View of St Petersburg’, and the very genres in which he worked, have so far been largely unexplored. This paper sets out to define Atkinson’s role in the development of panoramas in Russian art.

Atkinson’s ‘Panoramic View of St Petersburg’ is known to us through four aquatints published in London. It is a reproduction of a continuous clockwise circular view, as seen from the tower of the Kunstkamera. On 5 June 1807, an exhibition of the panorama opened at Mr. Wigley’s Great Room in the Spring Gardens in London.

The term ‘panorama’ was coined by R. Barker (1739-1806) to describe his innovative full 360° views of cities. Such panoramas were painted on the walls of a circular pavilion and could be observed by a spectator standing on a platform in the centre. In Russian, the term ‘panorama’ can be used to describe three types of composition: a vista from a high point (generally called ‘views’ when they were created); the façade of buildings along a street or the embankments of a river; or an elevated perspective along the length of a river or road (‘prospects’). Such a use of the term is partly justified by the similarity in the origins, aims and composition between such views and circular panoramas. These panoramas embraced as wide a space as possible and they were designed to provide a considerable amount of information about the area that they depict.

The genre of landscape emerged in Russian art at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the Petrine reforms introduced a degree of secularization in Russian culture. Russia adopted the landscape tradition from Europe in its early form: as views from above and prospects. This artistic style lent itself perfectly to rendering the beauty of Peter I’s new capital city, St Petersburg, with its wide straight roads so distinct from the twisting streets of medieval Russian towns.

In the city views of the Petrine era, by A. Rostovtsev, A. Zubov and others, the sharp division of fore- and background, stiff contours and inscriptions in the accompanying cartouches reinforce the resemblance between these views and contemporary maps or plans, with their extensive coverage of space. The artistic appeal of the views of the mid-eighteenth century still rests on perspectival reduction of the city’s main buildings and landmarks. However, the mathematically-precise patterns of these views are softened by a subtle rendition of atmosphere and gentle lyricism. This is best exemplified by the album of twelve ‘prospects’ of St Petersburg that prefaced a new map of the city presented to the empress Elizabeth in 1753. These townscapes were engraved after M. Makhaev’s drawings by G. Kachalov, A. Grekov and others under the command of I. Sokolov.

There were other immediate precursors to circular panoramas in Russia. Seventy years before Atkinson, O. Elliger made a suite of three admirable drawings from the tower of the Kunstkamera. They represent views that a spectator could see from that vantage point if they turned clockwise. However, importantly, the views were not supposed to make a single complete panorama of the city.

Was Atkinson the first artist to make such a circular panorama of a Russian city? The most accurate dating of his ‘Panorama’ is ‘after 1801’, because he published the work personally in London and he left St Petersburg in early August 1801. As it was demonstrated in the Spring Gardens in 1807, this year seems to be most probable for the creation of these aquatints.

Atkinson’s main competitor for the honour of making the first panorama of a Russian city was J. A. Til'ker. He arrived in St Petersburg in 1804 and made a panoramic view of the Russian capital. Regrettably, there is no information on the composition or content of this panorama. A booklet in the Russian National Library (published in 1813) provides a description of Til'ker’s later panoramas of St Petersburg and Moscow. Til'ker insisted that there was no point in making a continuous view of cityscapes because, in reality, the viewer perceived it as a succession of separate views. As a result, he made a series of separate views as if seen from the windows of a drum.

A preliminary drawing for another panorama by Tielker (held in the Russian National Library) is a scheme of a semi-circular view of the Neva river from the Winter Palace, which extends from the Academy of Fine Arts until the domik of Peter I. Between the Stock Exchange and the Sts Peter & Paul fortress, Til'ker represents the embankment of the Malaia Neva with the Church of St Vladimir although, in reality, it runs perpendicular to the Neva.

J. F. Til'ker, A Preliminary Drawing for "The Panorama of the Neva from the Windows of the Hermitage" © The Russian National Library, St Petersburg [Prints Room, Siniagin's collection. Folder 27. № 21]

Among Til'ker's panoramas, there is an interesting counterpart to the one by Atkinson. An oil painting by Til'ker, now held in the collections of the Museum of the History of St Petersburg, shows the city from the same viewpoint as Atkinson's, but during the 1824 flood of the city. Til'ker contributed to the Romantic genre of landscape art in catastrophe through the panoramic form. The well-known painting ‘The Burning of Moscow’ by J. Knox provides another (albeit non-panoramic) example of such a depiction of a Russian city.

There is one final counterpart to Atkinson’s panorama – A. Toselli’s view, composed between 1817 and 1820, which viewed St Petersburg from the same vantage point and depicted the same places. Toselli apparently wished to show the city’s development over twenty years, when its new buildings added the finishing touches to the natural beauty of a landscape. This approach cannot but recall Wenceslaus Hollar’s parallel view of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666, which also reflected the changes in the image of the city, although in this latter case, by contrast, the changes were distressing.

There are, in total, six circular panoramas of St Petersburg made from the tower of the Kunstkamera. Two other elevated viewpoints were used by panorama artists in depicting the city. In 1853, G. Bernardazzi and C. Bachelier produced a panorama from the belfry of the Sts Peter & Paul Cathedral (its scope is about 220˚). An Austrian artist, Lexa, proposed the construction of a circular view for a show-panorama from the scaffolding around the newly-erected Alexander Column in 1834, but the project was rejected as being too expensive. Instead, G. Chernetsov produced a full 360° view of the city, which is familiar to modern audiences through his engravings.

On the one hand, circular panoramas were eminently suitable for showing the unique centre of St Petersburg – a vast ensemble, which was fully formed by the 1820s. On the other hand, such circular panoramas also lent themselves well to the depiction of Moscow with its radial plan. In the eighteenth century, Moscow was deprived of depictions in all-embracing form because ‘prospect’ views were considered unsuitable for it. By the early ninteenth century, artists corrected this inequity. In total, nine circular panoramas of Moscow were produced in this period. One of the earliest circular panoramas of Moscow was created by Atkinson’s compatriot, Robert Ker Porter, in 1813. He was also responsible for another panorama on a Russian subject – ‘The Defeat of the French at the Devil's Bridge, Mont St Gothard, by General Surwarrow’.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, ‘prospects’, so typical of eighteenth-century Russian cityscapes, increased considerably in length, thus foreshadowing nineteenth-century moving panoramas. These images were fixed to two vertical rollers and passed from one to the other in order to offer a viewer an illusion of going along a route. This development is exemplified by G. Skorodumov’s unfinished project to make a series of twelve engravings representing the quayside of the Neva river. Three of them were completed by 1792. E. Mishina convincingly argues that these three engravings are now held in the Russian National Library (Sin. 6, p. 21, No.794-796). There is also an impression sample in the Russian Museum’s collections (30652, 30653), which Mishina also attributes to Skorodumov and describes as a draft for the same prospect. Two small surviving fragments of the print correspond to the relevant parts of the drawing from the British Museum (1941,1011.172), which represents the Palace Embankment, as seen from the opposite bank of the Neva, so that, in the foreground, the viewer can see the construction of the embankment on Vasil’evskii island and G. Quarenghi’s new Stock Exchange building. As there is compelling evidence that the print was made by Skorodumov from his own drawing, Skorodumov must have made the drawing held by the British Museum as well. It provides the rare depiction of sphinx statues that were initially used to decorate the Stock Exchange, but were later removed.

The genre of a moving panorama was later also adopted by Russian artists. All the main themes of European moving panoramas – processions (‘The Ekateringof Feast’ by K. Gampeln, 1824-1825), rivers (‘Panorama of the Volga’ by the brothers Chernetsovi, 1838-1851), streets (‘Panorama of the Nevskii Prospekt’ by V. Sadovnikov, 1830-1835) – subsequently appeared in Russian art.

Cityscapes that embraced wide depictions of space had a rich tradition in eighteenth-century Russian art. Atkinson produced one of the earliest circular panoramas of a Russian city and thus contributed to the reinvigoration of an established genre with new British influences. His work thus helped to lay the foundation of a trend that blossomed into maturity in the nineteenth century.

- Ekaterina Skvortcova, St Petersburg State University, St Petersburg (Russia)

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