Birrell & Lamb's Diorama

An untitled Cabinet Photo, photographer unknown, but titled in crayon on the back

An untitled Cabinet Photo, photographer unknown, but titled in crayon on the back "Mr & Mrs Birrell. Birrell's Diorama."

I first stumbled on Thomas Birrell when I purchased this cabinet photograph many years ago. Thomas is dressed in full regalia, as befits the man who with Alexander Lamb created the Royal Diorama of Scotland in 1868, and later his own Scottish Diorama when the partnership with Lamb came to an end.

His wife, Annie, looking like a slightly frightened Britannia figure, clings onto his arm, as well she might, given that he seems later to have fallen for the charms of the Scottish Nightingale, Miss Weiss.

I later found this Descriptive Guide to the Royal Diorama of Scotland, which gave me an incentive to explore further the life of Thomas Birrell, which has been nicely researched online by Pauline on a blog titled "Happy Retirees Kitchen", and an article on the Lion Bicycle Company by Damien Kimberley. Thanks to both of these for providing a full picture of the man and his creation.

Cover of the Descriptive Guide to the Royal Diorama of Scotland, c 1870.

Cover of the Descriptive Guide to the Royal Diorama of Scotland, c 1870.

What was a Diorama? It appears that it presented a series of views, adding an element of movement. Pauline refers to "The use of large transparent paintings and the clever manipulation of coloured screens and various shutters....meant that scenes could be illuminated....enabling various effects and transformations to be achieved."

In the case of the Royal Diorama, the paintings were provided by Thomas Dudgeon, and the show opened in Belfast in 1868. My copy of the Descriptive Guide has a page of adverts inserted into the front, all displaying Cheltenham addresses, and the Opinions of the Press listed on the back suggests it has been seen in a number of venues previously, from Aberdeen to Birmingham.

Back cover of the Descriptive Guide.

Back cover of the Descriptive Guide.

The Guide gives a list of the places portrayed in the Diorama, that includes Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inveraray, and Balmoral. Anyone who has followed my website will not be surprised to discover that only one place north of Aberdeen is described: Cape Wrath.

The Guide has 4 pages of illustrations (two to each page) which I show below. Whether or not they are engravings of the actual scenes which made up the entertainment I do not know.

"Edinburgh from the Calton Hill."
Melrose Abbey.
The Land of Burns
Cora Linn
Loch Awe
Loch Lomond
Trongate, Glasgow
The description of Cape Wrath. There is no image in the Guide for this entry.

For the full story of Birrell, I direct you to the two excellent articles online that I mentio above. The partnership of Birrell and Lamb came to an end in 1872, with Lamb continuing to tour with the Royal Diorama, and Birrell proceeded with a new "Great Diorama of Scotland and Grand Scottish Concert Company." The second half of the title suggests that concert elements were added to the entertainment, which presumably gave employment to Miss Griselda Weiss, otherwise known as the Scottish Nightingale. By 1874, Birrell's marriage to Annie had be disolved, and he was living with his nightingale. Griselda gave birth to a daughter in 1879, Margaret, and eventually the couple married, in 1904.

Birrell was nothing if not an adaptable entrepreneur, for as Damian Kimberley reports, he started the Lion Bicycle Company in Coventry in 1877. By 1882, the Company seems to have failed, according to the Birmingham Post, and he seems to have been back on the road with his Diorama by 1884.

The Diorama clearly capitalised on the image of Romantic Scotland that had been fostered ever since George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. And who better to foster this image than Thomas Birrell, as seen in my photo with his remarkable crooked stick, and all the bangles and paraphernalia which adorns his Highland get-up?