A Series of Eight Views Forming a Panorama of the Celebrated City of Constantinople and its Environs, Taken from the Town of Galata, by Henry Aston Barker. 1813.
For 18th-century Britons, Constantinople, now Istanbul, was perceived as a city of charm, exoticism and historical pedigree. In 1798, British interest in the city increased dramatically when the nation joined forces with the Ottoman Empire against Napoleon. Being the capital of that Empire, Constantinople featured heavily in British news reports of the time.
These brilliantly coloured and highly detailed aquatints depict Constantinople in 8 consecutive plates to form one wide-angled view. It is an adapted reproduction of an enormous 360 degree painting called a panorama which was installed in London’s Leicester Square between 1801 and 1802.
Its creator, Henry Aston Barker (1774-1856), spent months in Constantinople collecting sketches and studies before his drawings were translated into two paintings produced in collaboration with his father Robert Barker. When the painting reproduced in Palser’s aquatints was finished it measured 10,000 square feet, and was displayed in the lower circle of Robert Barker’s celebrated ‘Panorama’. This was a purpose-built cylindrical building in the heart of Soho where spectators could enjoy the experience of being enveloped in a massive all-embracing view. Visitors were given a circular orientation key diagram to the panorama painting to identify key signs and locations. These printed diagrams, rendered in anamorphic perspective, also served as souvenirs of the experience.
Henry Barker arrived in Constantinople in August 1799 and chose the top of the Galata Tower, on the European side of the Bosphorous, as his viewpoint for the panorama. From there most of the city’s cultural, historic and military sites could be seen. Beyond a swathe of terracotta tiled roofs and the turquoise Strait, famous buildings like Hagia Sophia, the Sublime Porte, and the Sultan’s palaces come into view. Tiny details like a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer from a minaret can be seen in plate six, as well figures walking the streets in Turkish and European dress (plates five and six). Barker also made sure to include places of public curiosity, like the Seraglio, where it was reported that hundreds of the Sultan’s harem lived in seclusion guarded by a troop of black and white eunuchs.
While in Constantinople, Henry Aston also produced drawings for a second view of the city, this time from the Tower of Leander, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, to be displayed in the upper circle of the Panorama. The exhibitions of the two paintings overlapped for several months from 1801 to 1802.
As Denise Blake Oleksijczuk has studied, British audiences were thrilled to have such a vivid encounter between two recently allied nations staged before them. Standing before the panorama, they were able to compare London to the Ottoman capital and to compare the Asian and European aspects of it.