Turner Worldwide text

Label Text:
“Shortly before 7 o'clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster, and of the districts on the opposite bank of the river, were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflagrations that has been witnessed for many years past. . . . The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire.”


So wrote the London Times on October 17, 1834. Turner witnessed the event, along with tens of thousands of spectators, and recorded what he saw in quick sketches that became the basis for this painting. Flames consume Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, and eerily illuminate the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared. On the right the exaggerated scale and plunging perspective of Westminster Bridge intensify the drama of the scene, which Turner observed from the south bank of the Thames River.

Handbook (1995) Entry:
The Houses of Parliament in London burned on the night of October 16, 1834. Along with tens of thousands of spectators, Joseph Mallord William Turner viewed the conflagration from directly opposite the Palace of Westminster, on the south bank of the Thames. Here he exaggerates the scale of Westminster Bridge, which rises like a massive iceberg at right and then on the opposite bank seems to plunge down and dissolve in the blaze. At the dazzling heart of the flames is Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, while beyond the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared, are eerily illuminated. Turner was drawn to depictions of nature in cataclysmic eruption, and here in the middle of London he confronted a scene of terrifying force and drama that he recorded in several watercolor sketches and two paintings, now both in American public collections. The second, painted from a site further down the river near Waterloo Bridge, is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Handbook Entry Author: Christopher Riopelle
PMA, Handbook of the Collections, 1995, p. 189

Text kindly provided by owning institution 2003