Robert Barker was the inventor of the panorama, a style of art which involved painting a scene which could be seen right around the viewer gaining the effect of total immersion in the depicted scene. Born in Kells in 1739 very little is known of Barker’s Irish background but the Freeman’s Journal of Dublin recorded the marriage of Mr Robert Barker of Kells in the county of Meath to Catherine Aston of Frederick street, Dublin in 1764. Catherine had a considerable fortune being related to Henry Aston, property developer, after whom Aston Quay is named.
Barker moved to Edinburgh as a portrait painter and first exhibited a panorama at Edinburgh in 1788. He coined the word from the Greek words pan meaning all and homara meaning view. Barker developed and patented a device which made it possible to reliably draw accurate circular perspective. Robert Barker saw the panorama as a “kind of pattern for organizing visual experience.” His first London exhibition opened in 1791 showing a View of London from the roof of the Albion Mills. After entering the building, visitors found themselves on a central platform surrounded by a continuous painting depicting views such as the city of London. The only light was from above and this assisted in achieving an effect of reality. In 1793 Barker exhibited his paintings in the first purpose built panorama building in the world at Leicester Square, London. Hugely successful viewers paid 3 shillings to view the panorama of London. The artist, Joshua Reynolds, left his sick bed to go and view the panorama. Visitors felt they were seeing real places rather than paintings. Queen Charlotte is said to have become sea-sick from viewing a naval panorama while a do jumped into a painting of the sea – both stories good publicity for the exhibition.
Barker died in London in 1806 and was buried at Lambeth. His son married the daughter of Admiral Bligh.