The Rhinebeck Panorama provides an extraordinary bird's-eye view of London at the beginning of the 19th century. It takes its name from the town of Rhinebeck, in the United States, where it was found in 1940, lining a barrel of pistols.
The view is from a point above the middle of the Thames, roughly where Tower Bridge now stands. From this vantage point, daily life in the city is laid before us. Amongst the details to be seen are a building on fire, a funeral procession, carriages crossing London Bridge, shipping in Pool of London, even a man flying a kite. The impression is of a prosperous, peaceful city. However, the Rhinebeck Panorama was made in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Trafalgar took place in 1805, for instance, the year before the panorama was made. Amongst the ships in panel three is a warship with its main and mizzen masts removed. This is a receiving ship for men press-ganged into the Navy.
The panorama is the work of three artists. One painted the shipping, a second painted the cityscape itself, and yet a third painted the distant church spires. Although the overall impression is convincing, the scene is not entirely accurate. But this was not the aim - the aim was to amaze. It is likely that the image is a study for a much larger panoramic canvas, never completed, which would have been displayed on a curved wall to give the illusion that the viewer really was hovering over the city. Such panoramas were much in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.