June 24, 2012

Panoramic view: 'Motion pictures' in Saco

Saved from an ignominious end, this rare 19th-century painted scroll -- one of America's early 'motion pictures' -- has been painstakingly restored and will be displayed by the Saco Museum in a new exhibition.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SACO — Back in the day -- before TV, before radio, before talking movies and silent movies and even before vaudeville -- Americans flocked to theaters, public halls and churches to watch giant painted scrolls slowly unwind spool-to-spool behind a huge viewing window or proscenium.

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A section of the 800-foot muslin scroll “Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress” goes up in the cavernous former loom room at the Pepperell Mill complex in Biddeford.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Anna Kelley, left, Saco Museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier and Marie O’Brien hang the scroll, which was created in 1851 and based on the 1678 book by John Bunyan, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

PREVIEW

"Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress"

When: Opens Saturday and on view through Nov. 10

Where: Saco Museum, 371 Main St., Saco; and Pepperell Mill, 100 Main St., Biddeford

Admission: $5 for each exhibition, or $7.50 same-day ticket for both exhibitions

Information: 283-3861 or dylerlibrarysacomuseum.org

Reception: An opening reception, with $10 admission, is from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Pepperell Mill, Biddeford

With scenes painted on heavy cloth, these moving panoramas told epic stories, often with the accompaniment of a narrator and pianist.

For a brief period in America and overseas, painted panoramas were a hugely popular form of entertainment, akin perhaps to a concert today by a major pop star. They brought people together, created a stir and gave folks something to look forward to and talk about afterward.

And then they disappeared.

One technological advance after another rendered these painted panoramas obsolete, and they vanished from our culture and consciousness.

This summer, the Saco Museum resurrects one of these national treasures. Beginning Saturday, the museum will display an 800-foot scroll at its Main Street building and in the former loom room within the Pepperell Mill campus in downtown Biddeford. It will remain on view through Nov. 10.

It is the first time since the 1860s that the entire "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" will be on view. The museum spent 16 years working on this project, earnestly for the past three since it secured a Save America's Treasures grant for more than $50,000. In all, the restoration project cost about $170,000.

It all began in 1996 when former museum director Tom Hardiman pulled the scroll out of storage in the museum basement. He intended to dispose of what was presumed to be a huge drop cloth, which people had been stepping over and around for decades.

But before he tossed it, he took a closer look and discovered the drop cloth was much more than he imagined.

"He unrolled it, and immediately could tell it was something very important," said Jessica Skwire Routhier, the museum's current director and project leader.

A little research revealed the treasure.

The Saco panorama was created in 1851, and presented to national audiences on a touring basis throughout the late 1800s. It illustrated John Bunyan's 1678 religious allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress," an iconic piece of literature that became an important book on both sides of the Atlantic.

At a time when moving panoramas drew huge crowds, the "Pilgrim's Progress" panorama was among the most popular.

The story begins in New York.

In 1848, artists Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May developed the idea for the panorama based on Bunyan's story. They collaborated with a number of other artists, including Frederic Edwin Church, to provide designs for major scenes.

They created their tableau that year, and it debuted in New York to full houses and rave reviews. Nearly 200,000 people viewed it.

Eager to capitalize on their success, Kyle developed a second, revised panorama to tour in tandem with the first. In today's world, we might think of these touring panoramas as the equivalent of a National Broadway Tour.

The panoramas created a cultural splash. Their arrivals were advertised in advance, and became big events. The promoters either traveled with a musician and technical support team to crank the device that moved the panorama on its spools, or hired local help.

The first panorama went as far as New Orleans. The second, as far as Detroit.

The fate of the first is unknown. But the second panorama made it to York County in Maine in 1864.

It was in York County that "The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" had its final showing, at the height of the Civil War.

"They had this brief period of popularity, and flamed into glory for 15 years. Then people got bored with them, and they were replaced by other things," Routhier said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Artists Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May developed the idea for the panorama in 1848, working with a number of other artists, including Frederic Edwin Church, to provide designs for major scenes. Among the images on the scroll are “They Lose Their Way in the Valley of the Shadow of Death” by Daniel Huntington.

Photos by Matthew Hamilton/Courtesy of Williamstown Art Conservation Center

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“Land of Beulah” by Jasper Cropsey.

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The scroll was sprayed with a consolidant at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts, where much of the restoration work was done.



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