This watercolour study was originally one of nine consecutive leaves (D27846–D27854; Turner Bequest CCLXXXIII 1–9) in a sketchbook. They have previously been documented with varying degrees of certainty as showing the 1834 fire at the Houses of Parliament beside the River Thames in central London, but are here identified as representing the similarly large and dramatic fire which broke out at the moated Tower of London on 30 October 1841, destroying the late seventeenth-century Grand Storehouse (see the Introduction to the sketchbook for detailed discussion). The dark forms in the middle distance on the left may be crowd watching from the edge of the water.
Addressing the subject in the context of the traditional former 1834 identification, Katherine Solender nevertheless noted that this and another of the studies (D27846) ‘contain shapes alluding to classical architecture’, with ‘suggestions of columns and entablatures more closely resembling Greco-Roman structures than the British Houses of Parliament’,1 comparing them to the Turner watercolour, probably of the middle 1830s, known as The Burning of Rome (Tate D36232; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 370), inferring the possibility of an ‘allegory’ of political decay.2 The close-set vertical features seem rather to be the narrow brick walls between the Grand Storehouse’s tall windows, with the pattern of alternating fire and brickwork repeated as reflections below. In his extended catalogue entry for Turner’s painting The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, exhibited at the British Institution in 1835 (Philadelphia Museum of Art),3 Richard Dorment presented a sustained interpretation of the this and the other eight watercolour studies in terms of a sequence reflecting the topography and chronology of the 1834 Westminster fire; he noted crowds watching along the bank.4
In 2008 the German-based Japanese painter and photographer Hiroyuki Masuyama (born 1968) produced an LED lightbox image based on the present work as one of a series reinterpreting Turner’s landscapes, combining the original composition with digitally layered photographic landscape and architectural elements.5
Solender 1984, pp.51–2.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.207–10 no.359, pl.364 (colour).
Dorment 1986, pp.400–1; see also Lyles 1992, p.72.
Madesani 2008, reproduced in colour p.43, as ‘The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834’, 2008.