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Thomas Horner

Artist Biography

Thomas Horner

BORN KINGSTON UPON HULL JUNE 12TH 1785

DIED NEW YORK MARCH 14TH 1844

An Observatory was erected over the Cross of St. Paul’s Cathedral from which this panoramic view of London was executed by Thomas Hornor, in the summer of 1821.

The painter took advantage of the restoration work being carried out on the belfry of St. Paul’s cathedral to install a small wooden observation hut from which he was to make the sketches. Hornor sometimes slept up there so that he could get up at dawn before factory smoke and smog clouded the atmosphere, enabling him to get a better view of the surrounding but distant countryside.

The sketches taken from a distance were subsequently checked out on the spot by the painter, he roamed the streets and squares, examined the buildings, studied the way they had been decorated, inspected every tiny detail invisible to the naked eye but not to the camera obscura, from the vantage-point he had chosen for himself.

Thomas Hornor, surveyor and panoramist, was born on 12 June 1785 at Lowgate, Hull, where his family were Quaker grocers. He was taught surveying and engineering by his brother-in-law William Johnson. In the early 1800s he was in Manchester, surveying the property of the free grammar school, but by 1807 he was in London. That same year he was appointed by the vestry of St. James’s, Clerkenwell, to draw a large-scale plan of the parish. On 19 October 1808, well ahead of his deadline, he presented them with a huge plan measuring 81” by 72”, which shows him to be a skilled and assiduous surveyor and cartographer. Hornor soon set up in business from where he undertook the survey and valuation of landed properties, the division of commons, and the levelling for canals and drains. In 1813 he published a version of his Clerkenwell map, which, though decorative, remained informative and accurate. He advertised himself as a promoter of picturesque landscape gardening, having devised a new method of drawing estate plans which he called ‘panoramic chorometry’. He elaborated on this technique, which he claimed reunited the arts of surveying and landscape painting.

By 1814 Hornor was in Wales, advertising for business as a ‘Pictorial Delineator of Estates’. He produced some 300 to 400 watercolours, hinged cut-out books, panoramas of estates, and at least four huge maps, all of which attest to his skills as surveyor, artist, and entrepreneur. He mixed with his clients as equals and grew very wealthy.

Hornor returned to London in 1820. His artistic ambitions grew with his social status and he began his most spectacular project, that of a 360 degree panorama of London with the summit of St Paul’s as the viewpoint. In a cabin precariously balanced on scaffolding erected in connection with repairs to the cathedral, he sketched and measured. Although he attracted considerable publicity for his enterprise and admiration for his courage, few subscribed to his initial scheme of publishing the work as a series of prints. However, the MP and banker Rowland Stephenson sponsored the construction in Regent’s Park of a dome by Decimus Burton, second in size in England only to that of St Paul’s, in which Hornor’s work was to be displayed. In it, in 1825 E. T. Paris began the daunting task of transferring views from the flat sheets to 42,000 square feet of curved canvas. It was due for completion in 1827 but was far from finished by the end of 1828 when Stephenson absconded to the USA, deeply in debt. In January 1829 Hornor threw open the unfinished Colosseum to the public, who could enjoy the panorama at various levels, riding upwards in the ‘ascending room’, the first passenger lift in England and Hornor’s own design. Income was large, but costs were larger yet, and later that year Hornor also absconded to the USA. There he did some second –rate work before dying in penury (and possibly insane) in New York city on 14 March 1844.

Hornor was recognised as a considerable artist in the later twentieth century, when his Welsh watercolours and prints came to light, but, despite his claims to have reunited the plan and the prospect, he had no followers. He remains more a curiosity than a pioneer, and his works ‘a supreme example of misdirected genius’ (Hyde, Hornor).