Dilettante: Old-school art — 'Pilgrim's Progress' and Frederic Church

Posted Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Culture

Dilettante: Old-school art — 'Pilgrim's Progress' and Frederic Church

"Dawn of Day over the Valley of the Shadow of Death," designed by Frederic Edwin Church for "The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress," 1851.

by Jan Brennan

The dog days of summer are upon us; your kids are getting bored with the beach, and your houseguests are still expecting to be entertained. If you’re looking for something unique to do that’s appropriate for all ages, the Saco Museum’s got just the ticket: “The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress.”

I’d read about this thing — an 800-foot-long muslin scroll painted with scenes from the morality tale written by the preacher John Bunyan — and thought it sounded interesting. However, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by it … but when I stepped into the dim, cavernous space of the old Pepperell Mill in Biddeford last week and saw this brilliantly colored fabric stretching down the center of the building, seemingly into infinity, and then back up again on the opposite wall … well, I was blown away. Wow! It is simply stunning, and the unusual, historic venue adds to the fun.

"The Enchanted Ground," design attributed to Joseph Kyle

From the 1850s to the 1880s, moving panoramas were a hugely popular form of entertainment; hundreds were on tour in the United States, Britain and Europe. The gigantic paintings, stretched between two spools, would scroll across a stage while a narrator explained their story and musical accompaniment played. They were “a new and easy mode by which a sweet book may get to the brain — and get there with music and pleasure, and without leaf-turning and study,” one reviewer wrote, lauding panoramas as “one of the new inventions of this labor-saving time.”

In addition to being “labor-saving,” panoramas were just a lot more fun than the usual lyceum-style lectures people were used to. “In color!,” advertising posters blared, “Sixty magnificent scenes!” Another reviewer approvingly noted that the panorama was “as well worth listening to in its steady flow of pictorial eloquence as Henry Clay in the Senate chamber …”

When was the last time Hollywood touted a blockbuster movie as being as good as a congressional debate? Well, those were different times — and certainly more religious ones. “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a religious allegory written in 1678 in England, was at the height of its popularity in America in the mid-1800s. Members of the National Academy of Design in New York chose it as their subject for one of the earliest panoramas, in 1848. Artists of the Hudson River School of landscape painting — Jasper Cropsey, Jacob Dallas, Frederic Edwin Church and others — contributed designs.

"Fight with Apollyon," design attributed to Edward Harrison May

By 1850 the panorama was playing to full houses and rave reviews in New York’s Washington Hall. After six months it went out on tour. In 1851 a second, revised version was created to tour the country’s interior; it is this version that ended up being donated in 1896 to what is now the Saco Museum.

Over the ensuing 100 years the museum changed locations and periodically closed during war years, and the scroll somehow got lost. In 1996 museum curator Thomas Hardiman found it in the museum’s basement; a variety of grants and donations allowed it to be restored and conserved. It is one of only about a dozen panoramas still in existence, and is now in better condition than most — a major treasure for this small museum.

Six hundred feet of the scroll, telling the full story of the man called Christian and his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, are in the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. The remaining 200 feet, showing the related journey of Christian’s wife, Christiana, are displayed in the Saco Museum along with advertising posters, books, children’s toys and other items relating to panoramas and “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  Either site can be visited for $5, or both can be toured on the same day for $7.50.