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Cyclorama of early Melbourne

Pictures, Australian history
Date: 1892
Author: John Hennings & Samuel Jackson

This rare and historical cyclorama oil painting shows a 360-degree view of Melbourne in the 1840s. Measuring 100 feet, it's one of the earliest known views of Melbourne. It depicts the people, buildings and streets of the fledgling colony, with views of the Yarra River and the You Yangs.

Cycloramas were born in the late 1700s and were a popular late-19th-century entertainment until they were rendered obsolete by cinema. They were exhibited in purpose-built circular brick and iron structures, often accompanied by music or narration.

This cyclorama was painted in 1892 by scenic artist John Hennings. He was commissioned by the Victorian colonial government to paint a cyclorama based on Samuel Jackson's Panoramic sketch of Port Phillip dated 30 July 1841.

At the time, Melbourne boasted three cycloramas. The battle of Waterloo and The Eureka stockade were exhibited on Victoria Parade, and The siege of Paris was exhibited in Little Collins Street.

Hennings was a German artist who arrived in Australia in 1855 as a 20 year old. Over the next 40 years he became well known as a theatrical scenic artist. His long experience painting sets for opera, drama and pantomime made him the obvious choice for enlarging Samuel Jackson's panoramic sketch. It took five months to complete.

Hennings's cyclorama was displayed in the eastern annexe of the Exhibition Building for almost 30 years. This area was designated for popular entertainments – it also housed an aquarium, a fernery and a space for performing seals as well as a gallery and museum.

Around 1918, the cyclorama was rolled up, stored and forgotten until March 1953, when it was damaged in a fire that destroyed a section of the Exhibition building. Three years later, the exhibition trustees donated the painting to the Library.