Go back to article: The Panstereomachia, Madame Tussaud’s and the Heraldic Exhibition: the art and science of displaying the medieval past in nineteenth-century London

Mr Bullock’s Panstereomachia: novelty, victory and ‘True History’

In the early nineteenth century, the vibrant market for history products and events catered both to the aristocracy and to an aspirational middle class as part of a culture of improvement and a burgeoning nationalism. The act of learning about history and a renewed interest in the English national past was an integral part of this culture, and the narratives espoused in history exhibitions, shows and lectures (on a variety of pasts from Celtic to Tudor or medieval to Stuart) were anchored in discussions about character and patriotism. On the one hand, historians such as David Hume and Henry Hallam offered their scholarly visions of the past, while on the other hand, more commercial exhibits played with these histories as ‘respectable’ entertainment, at once complementing and challenging more traditional versions. History exhibitions were a central part of the larger market for edification and entertainment, and London had a wealth of potential sites where exhibitors competed to capture the public’s attention from the Strand and Leicester Square to Oxford and Regent Streets (Altick, 1978; Roberts 2017). A city of London’s size proved an ideal site for technological experimentation and exhibition innovation. One such exhibit was Robert Ker Porter’s Agincourt panorama first displayed to the public in 1805 at the Lyceum on the Strand (Curry, 2015, pp 171–2).[2] Visitors were invited to stand on a platform and look out at a large-scale image of the medieval battle where Henry V and his army defeated the French. Its presence speaks to a larger revival of interest in medieval battles and heroes underpinned by Anglo-French tensions, yet it used technology, in this case, light and large-scale imagery to make viewers feel as if they were immersed in the battle.

Figure 1

Colour illustrated advertisement for a viewing of a panoramic painting of the Battle of Agincourt

Robert Ker Porter, advertisement, ‘The Great Historical and Panoramic Picture of the Battle of Agincourt’, 1805

The Panstereomachia chimed with these new types of historical experiences.[3] In 1826, Mr Bullock opened his exhibit at 209 Regent Street – a famous venue for larger scale model works and pictures with a known upper and middle-class clientele. For the price of a shilling, visitors could view a model on a platform, approximately ‘30 foot by 16 or 18’, of the fourteenth-century battle of Poitiers, when the English chivalric hero Edward the Black Prince fought and won a key battle, capturing King John II of France in the first part of the Hundred Years’ War.[4] A key selling point of the exhibition was its mysterious name, which alluded to a new type of experience. Indeed, the name itself was invented by the proprietor and speaks to the ways in which early nineteenth-century exhibitors used ‘pseudo-scientific’ and ‘learned’ names to attract customers. The name was translated into Greek in the exhibition guide (Glasse, 1830, pp 155–6), [5] although The Times poked fun at it, calling it a picto-mechanical representation and boasting that, like Mr Bullock, it too could also coin a name (1826a; Altick, 1978, p 215).

Figure 2

Black and white hand bill advertising Mr C Bullocks Panstereomachia exhibition

Handbill for Mr C. Bullock’s Exhibition, c.1827

The exhibition reveals the increasing commercialisation of the past and a burgeoning collecting culture. The material used to create the 1,500 ‘plastic-marble figures’ – including the Black Prince and King John of France – was a mystery to viewers, and the model has since been lost. However, it is likely that the use of the term ‘plastic marble’ (implying a new material) to describe the figures was part of the selling tactic. Colburn’s Magazine was keen to remind visitors that the figures were similar to those sold in the curiosity shops (1827). These exhibitions were commercial enterprises where visitors could buy a special guide available for an additional shilling. Bullock advertised the fact that the models were for sale both individually and in groups for viewers to take home and display.[6]

The Panstereomachia offers insight into changing attitudes towards the medieval past. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, exhibitors capitalised on a burgeoning interest in the Middle Ages and promoted the Black Prince’s earlier victories against the French as a source of national pride and celebration. Bullock’s exhibition tapped into an antiquarian interest in medieval arms and armour, a popular enthusiasm for chivalry and romance spurred on by the novels of Walter Scott, and a renewed fascination with ‘authentic’ medieval ‘authorities’ such as Jean Froissart (whose Chronicles brought to life the sights and sounds of the fourteenth century, particularly its battles and the exploits of knights). Bullock was keen to promote his figures as both accurate and edifying to attract crowds interested in improvement and novelty. To craft the costumes, weapons and heraldic insignia, he used Samuel Meyrick’s authoritative Critical Inquiry into Antient Armour as well as information from those whose ‘ancestors had fought in the battle’ (Bullock, 1826, p 5; Meyrick, 1824; Froissart, this edition, 1803–1805). Historian Billie Melman showcases a hallmark of these nineteenth century popular exhibitions was their claim to verisimilitude: ‘to be veritable, history had to be seen as “lifelike”, authentic, and first-hand’ (Melman, 2012, p 80). The Panstereomachia, with its use of historical documents and first-hand accounts, exemplifies this premise.

Figure 3

Composite of two paintings showing Thomas Beauchamp Earl of Warwick in a suit of armour and Edward third granting the principality of Aquitaine to his son Edward

Left: Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (1370), who fought at the battle of Poitiers
Right: Edward III granting the principality of Aquitaine to his son Edward (the Black Prince) in 1362
Both images are from Meyrick’s A Critical Inquiry into Antient Armour, 1824

To capture the romance and excitement of the day, the exhibitor relied heavily on Froissart’s depiction of events. His model portrayed a key moment near the end of the battle when ‘friends and foes were…intermixed’ and the French were in retreat towards the city of Poitiers, represented by a painted background (Bullock, 1826, p 44). The exhibition room itself was designed to evoke the age of Edward III; the entrance bore the banners of the English heroes James Audley and John Chandos, and the interior room was painted in a gothic-style architecture with the ‘armorial bearings of the noblemen and gentlemen who distinguished themselves in the battle’ (Bullock, 1826, p 44). Advertisements and the guide highlighted the Poitiers Panstereomachia as a brilliant ‘display of British military achievements’.[7] Visitors were encouraged to compare the heroic medieval battle with the ‘victories…in succeeding ages’ – recalling their ancestors’ feats during the Napoleonic Wars (Bullock, 1826, p 4).

Newspapers highlighted the broad appeal of the exhibition from antiquaries to the general public, including the array of ‘holiday-searchers after strange sights’ (1827). They focused on the model’s effectiveness as an object of edification and entertainment, noting its blend of ‘“true history” and romance’ (1827). [8] In particular, newspapers emphasised how the detailed costumes, the arms and armour of the knights, the models of the soldiers, the weapons that peppered the field, and the topography made the model a useful pedagogical tool (1827).  According to the Literary Gazette, Bullock’s arrangement of the figures fostered the feeling of being in the midst of a ‘mortal combat’ between the French and English,[9] although the critic in The Times found it difficult to imagine why the heroic Black Prince was placed under a tree and not in the centre of the fight (1826a). The Black Prince’s placement illustrates how these popular exhibitions could circumvent expectations. Assessing the value of the model, Colburn’s Magazine suggested that the exhibition would not provide any new details to those knowledgeable of the events, but ‘to all others (and Mr. Bullock will probably consider these “others” a most satisfying majority, if he can but secure their visits) it will probably convey a better notion of the event in question than they ever had before; and one that will stay by them longer’ (1827). The exhibition illustrates how Bullock capitalised on the popular taste for medieval victories and novelty to attract visitors to the Panstereomachia, establishing his place in the competitive market of London shows. The Panstereomachia blended technology and history as technology was an integral part in creating the historical experience – present in its advertising through its invented name, in its mysterious ‘plastic-marble’ material, and in its final creation of the birds-eye model of the battle.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181011/002