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History

Frontispiece of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Bunyan Tableaux, printed by J. Munsell, Albany, 1856. Collections of the Dyer Library and Saco Museum, Gift of Debra and William Barry

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was conceived in 1848 by the American artists Edward Harrison May and Joseph Kyle, both of whom were members of the National Academy of Design in New York, an art school and membership organization for professional artists. Their subject was “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” a Christian allegory first published in 1678 by the Reformation-area preacher John Bunyan. Kyle and May persuaded their friends at the National Academy to design scenes for their panorama, and in the end, some of America’s most famous painters and illustrators were involved: Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Daniel Huntington, and others.

The panorama made its debut in 1850 in New York’s Washington Hall, where it was a sensation. Because it was so successful, Kyle and May decided to create a second version that could travel the country at the same time as the first, doubling their income. After May dropped out of the second version, the artist Jacob Dallas partnered with Kyle to complete it.  This second version is the panorama that exists in the Saco Museum today.

But how did the panorama end up in Saco, Maine? As the 19th century wore on, panoramas became less popular. The first version of the panorama was either lost or destroyed. The second version toured York County, Maine, in 1864, and after that it seems to have not found another booking, so it remained on view in a barn in Biddeford, Maine, over the river from Saco. It eventually came into the hands of local real estate agent Luther Bryant, and in 1894 was given by his descendants to the York Institute in Saco, today’s Saco Museum.

The York Institute exhibited the panorama in 1897, one year after the gift, and then, as hard as it is to imagine losing track of 800 feet of fabric, that’s exactly what happened. The panorama was rediscovered in the museum’s storage vault in 1996, and since then there has been a steady campaign to restore it to its former glory and find a way to present it to modern audiences.

Timeline

 1848: Artists and members of the National Academy Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May begin to develop the idea of a moving panorama based upon John Bunyan’s 1678 religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.

 August 1850: The Bulletin of the American Art-Union reports that Kyle and May have arranged with Jacob Dallas, Felix Octavius Carr Darley, Paul Duggan, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, and Daniel Huntington to provide designs for the panorama’s major scenes. (British artist Henry Courtney Selous also contributed designs.)

November 1850: The panorama, also known as “Bunyan’s Tableau,” debuts at New York’s Washington Hall and plays to full houses and rave reviews for the next six months.  Nearly 200,000 people come to see it. Following its run in New York, the panorama travels to bookings at other venues throughout the northeast.

June 1851: The Bulletin of the American Art-Union reports that “A new panorama of the Pilgrim’s Progress has been painted by Messrs. Dallas & Kyle, which is a revised edition of the other, and intended for exhibition in towns of the interior.” This second version is the panorama that is in the collections of the Saco Museum today.

1851-1864: Both versions of the panorama continue to travel the country for performances; the first version seems to have ventured as far as New Orleans, and the second version as far as Detroit. The last known official appearance of the second version seems to have been a tour of York County, Maine in 1864. The first version of the panorama is lost at some point during this period.

1877: The second version of the panorama is believed to have been purchased by Biddeford, Maine real estate agent Luther Bryant from Charles A. Shaw, an entrepreneur, inventor, theater owner, and former Mayor of Biddeford.  Bryant hung the panorama, or part of it, in his Biddeford barn. At some point during Bryant’s ownership, large sections of the panorama are overpainted by Biddeford carriage painter Erastus H. Thompson, who signed his named to the back.

 1896: The heirs of Luther Bryant, who died in 1894, donate the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress to the York Institute (now the Saco Museum).

1897: The York Institute exhibits the panorama in its galleries, then located on the Sweetser block on Saco’s Main Street.

1925: By this time, the panorama has not been seen for 28 years, and any who remembered it presumed it lost.  A November 17 article in the Biddeford Daily Journal laments its loss.

1926: The York Institute moves into a new building at 371 Main Street in Saco (the current home of the Saco Museum).  Though the panorama must have been among the collections items relocated, no one seems to have been aware of what it was or to have made any record of its existence or location.

1969: A new wing is built onto the York Institute’s building, with a large collections storage basement. Again, the panorama must have been one of the collections items relocated there, but there is no record of it.

1994: Scholar Kevin J. Avery, who would go on to become curator of American Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, devotes a chapter of his dissertation to the lost panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress.

1996: Museum curator Thomas J. Hardiman decides to examine several bolts of rolled-up dropcloth in the museum basement. After some research, he discovers that it is, in fact, the lost panorama.

1999: After conservation, approximately one-fourth of the panorama goes on a national exhibition tour organized by the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. Venues are the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, and the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Kansas.

2004: The restored section of the panorama is briefly exhibited at the Saco Museum (formerly the York Institute)

December 2009: The Saco Museum learns that it is the recipient of a $51,940 Save America’s Treasures grant to preserve and interpret the entirety of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, thus completing the project begun some 13 years earlier.

2010-2011: The panorama is conserved and photographed at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts

2011-2012: The new photography is used to create interpretive tools, including a full-size replica of the panorama that can be performed in motion (as the original was meant to be seen), and a web-based animation of the panorama in motion.

June 2012: The entirety of the historic, 1851 panorama is displayed simultaneously at the Saco Museum and the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford with the cooperation of the Biddeford Mills Museum.  The performance replica, digital animation, and other public programs debut throughout the remainder of 2012.

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