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Canvas and wax: images of information in Australian panoramas and waxworks

posted on 08.02.2017, 05:04 by Colligan, Mimi
This study is an investigation of some nineteenth century entertainments in Australia that sought to instruct as well as to amuse. Circular, modelled and moving panoramas brought images of information to people in pictorial form, while waxworks presented images of historical and newsworthy personalities in three-dimensional form. It will be argued that such exhibitions, now largely forgotten, were an important source of information during, the Victorian era. The employment of amusement to convey useful information was an important underlying factor in these entertainments and the gradual filtering down the class system to the poor and ill-educated is noted. At the same time, the popular origins of some of the forms in Old English fairs and street entertainments is acknowledged. The origins and presentation of waxworks in England are briefly outlined. This includes both historical and anatomical wax exhibitions. The background of the three hundred and sixty degree panorama, invented in 1787, is examined along with its nineteenth century developments. The French-designed Diorama is looked at for its later influence on the development of moving panoramas. These latter are placed in their contexts of lecture hall and pantomime theatre. Modelled panoramas associated with fireworks were another use for painted canvas and their display in English pleasure gardens is investigated. Magic lanterns, dissolving views and the use of gaslight and limelight are considered as important but peripheral to this study. The study focuses on Melbourne from the 1850s to the early twentieth century, where moving panoramas, waxworks and modelled panoramas became popular. Throughout the thesis the growth of Melbourne's Bourke Street theatre area is briefly plotted to give a context to the waxworks and panoramas, which, while not strictly theatrical, often used acts from variety theatre. Provincial and intercolonial waxworks and panoramas are looked at to provide additional detail of Melbourne presentations and to give a broader view of the Australian experience of these entertainments. Local and imported images were presented over the period by both Australian local and foreign artists and entrepreneurs and the pre-cinematic influence of Americans in pictorial entertainments in Australia is discussed. Other aspects include discussions on the quite explicit presentation of sexuality at wax museums, and the gradual attempts at respectability by some of the members of what was considered to be even more raffish professions than that of the theatre. Where possible, the business ventures of the 'show' people is examined. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the three hundred and sixty degree panorama was imported from America under the new name, cyclorama. The impact of this very realistic form is evaluated, together with its locally produced off-shoots. The influence of the depression of the 1890s and the arrival of the cinematograph helped to lessen the popularity of the cyclorama, moving panoramas and waxworks so that little memory remains of their history in Australia.


Principal supervisor

Ian Britten

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts