John Knox and His Panoramas

John Knox

In the early part of his career John Knox (1776-1845) became a successful painter of panoramas especially in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin. He seems not have painted for the stage but he may have apprenticed under Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who was famed for scenic painting in Scotland and England. Knox certainly associated with a significant number of Scots who were to become some of the most influential scene painters in Britian including Naysmyth, David Roberts and Clarkson Stanfield. William Leitch who became a scene painter at the Theatre Royal, Queen Street in 1824, describes meetings with his friends Mcnee, McCulloch and Nasymth. Leitch recalls “Mcnee and I were not at school together, but I often saw him. I spent much of my spare time with him in his mother’s house, and we were always drawing. Macnee was at that time an articled pupil to an artist then very popular in Glasgow- Mr. John Knox. On one occasion he showed me two little paintings in oil, copies from Mr Knox-Views of Dumbarton Castle-and as I expressed a desire to try something in oil, he offered to let me have one of them to copy at home” (MacGeorge, 1884).

Few examples of their scenic work survive, but we hope that a study of some the smaller oil paintings (now in public and private collections) by these artists may lead to a better understanding of the influence they had on each other as scene painters. This study will begin in January 2021 and its progress will be posted on our webpages.


Panoramas were large scale paintings on canvas (2500fts to 10000fts) typically depicting real cityscapes, landscapes or battles. Usually they were hung to form a part or a complete (360°) cylinder housed in a circular building (rotunda), illuminated from above by natural light. The space had some form of interior enclosure to prevent the viewer from getting too close to the painting which would spoil the illusion of being actually at the scene. The use of illusionary painting and perspective is central to their success. The skills of the panorama painter could be developed and honed by the experience of scene painting on theatrical cloths (which, like panoramas, were executed in glue tempera on a linen canvas), or else as apprentice work in decorative house painting. Ever pragmatic, many painters in the 18th and 19th centuries moved between these genres with ease. The attached essay is specifically about The Panoramic World of John Knox.

Orientation Plan of a Panoramic View from Ben Lomond by John Knox, reproduced in George Fairfull-Smith, The Wealth of a City: A 'glance at the fine arts in Glasgow, The Glasgow Art Index, 2010
Orientation Plan of the Panorama, reproduced in George Fairfull-Smith, The Wealth of a City: A ‘glance at the fine arts in Glasgow, The Glasgow Art Index, 2010

Old Ways New Roads

The impact of Scotland’s new transport infrastructure not only enabled direct engagement with the landscape but also provided a greater opportunity for artists to present those vistas and panoramic views to the public. Transport made travelling shows feasible on a scale that allowed the movement of largescale painted scenery, in the form of panoramas and theatrical sets, across Scotland and the rest of Britain. Depicting both the romantic landscape but also the rising industry and trade of the cities, they travelled to entertain the public in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Dublin and London. Artists went on sketching trips across Scotland gaining inspiration and material, from which they would turn reality into myth and myth into a new reality through the medium of landscape paintings, theatrical painted cloths or the visually more immersive experience of largescale panoramas. These ideas are explored in a chapter in a new book, Old Ways New Roads, available to pre-order from the publishers, Birlinn Limited. The book accompanies the Old Ways New Roads virtual exhibition about the impact of Scotland’s new transport infrastructure on the development of travel, tourism and topographical desrcriptions of the nation between 1720-1832. Paintings by John Knox and Alexander Nasmyth will be part of the virtual exhibition and a focused exhibition at The Hunterian Art Gallery in January 2021.