Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 302 x 444 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 373

Catalogue entry

The catastrophic fire which destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster in central London, including the Houses of Lords and Commons, broke out on the evening of 16 October 1834. Apart from the medieval Westminster Hall, which was saved from the fire, most of the rest of the site on the west bank of the River Thames was eventually cleared for the construction of the iconic Victorian Houses of Parliament complex by Barry and Pugin which still functions as the seat of British government.1
Turner is recorded as having been an eye-witness among thousands,2 though the extent of his recording the event directly has long been open to question. Certainly, of the two scenarios offered by Victorian curator William White – that the present work was ‘evidently executed either on the spot entirely during the fire, or else worked out immediately after’3 – the first can safely be dismissed. Whether the composition ‘proves’4 that the artist had been at this viewpoint on the night is debatable; see the discussion of related pencil sketches and prints by other artists below. In 1835, Turner exhibited two major oil paintings of the event as seen from the Thames: The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, at the British Institution (Philadelphia Museum of Art),5 and The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, at the Royal Academy (Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio).6 A watercolour vignette of a view through an arch of Westminster Bridge (Museum of Outdoor Arts, Englewood, Colorado),7 was engraved for The Keepsake in 1836.
The view in the present work is north over Old Palace Yard from the Abingdon Street end, with St Margaret Street beyond. On the left is the Perpendicular Gothic Henry VII Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey; the buildings on the near side do not survive. To the east across the street, the central third of the composition depicts the south elevation of the range housing committee rooms adjoining the south and west sides of Westminster Hall, the prominent gable and pinnacles of which are shown above.8 The façade was in an Italian palazzo style with a rusticated ground floor, regular windows, a cornice and balustrade, as shown in an 1834 coloured print by John Shury of the House of Commons [and] House of Lords before the fire (Parliamentary Art Collection, London). Turner shows the fire burning within, although the shell at least survived. The whole cluster around the great medieval hall was subsequently demolished, the area to its west now being occupied by a lawn with a statue of Oliver Cromwell.
For an illustrated account of the fire, see Solender 1984, pp.27–41; for Barry and Pugin see ibid., pp.67, 69.
See Solender 1984, p.42; see also Shanes 1990, pp.244, 286 note 189.
White 1896, p.29.
Dorment 1986, p.401; see also Butlin and Joll 1984, p.209, informed by Dorment’s draft text, Lyles 1992, p.72, and Joll 1996, p.95, and Solender 2001, p.217.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.207–10 no.359, pl.364 (colour).
Ibid., pp.214–15 no.364, pl.365 (colour).
Wilton 1979, p.457 no.1306, reproduced.
See ground plan by Robert William Billings, reproduced in Solender 1984, p.28.
Shanes 200, p.244.
See also the related print, reproduced Solender 1984, fig.30.
See caption for the Billings work at ‘Art in Parliament’,, accessed 3 April 2014,
Most of these are listed in Taft 2007, p.181, acknowledging Ian Warrell, albeit suggesting that the buildings are shown ‘as they were prior to the fire’.
See Anne Lyles, Young Turner: Early Work to 1800: Watercolours and Drawings from the Turner Bequest 1787–1800, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, reproduced in colour p.13, pp.21–2 no.2.
See also Solender 1984, fig.45.
See Butlin 1962, p.50; Wilton 1977, p.66; Wilton 1979, p.359; Weelan 1982, p.96; Solender 1984, pp.42, 43; Wilton 1985, p.53; Lyles 1992, pp.16, 72, 73; Warrell 1993, p.302; Warrell 1994, p.186; Joll 1996, p.95; and Wilton 2006, p.161.
See Gage 1983, p.125, as noted by Solender 1984, p.74 note 14; see also Wilton 1983, p.280, Gage 1987, pp.233, 255 notes 92, 94, 95, Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.37, Lyles 1992, p.73, Solender 2001, p.217, and Taft 2007, p.181.
See Shanes 1997, pp.26, 32 notes 25 and 27, p.97; see also Shanes 2000, p.244, and Shanes 2004, p.154.
Hamilton 2003, p.200 note 26; but see Shanes’s response (Shanes 2004, p.9), suggesting an inconsistency in Hamilton’s reading (Hamilton 2003, p.174) of Turner’s 1835 British Institution oil as a ‘stark message to the heart of the Establishment’.
Wilton 1979, p.403 no.881, reproduced.
See Shanes 1997, p.32 note 27; and Shanes 2000, p.244.
Wilton 1979, p.359 no.521, reproduced.
Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.36.
Shanes 2000, p.244.
See Gage 1983, p.125, and Hamilton 2003, p.172.
Lyles 1992, p.72; see also Wilton 2006, p.161.
See Butlin and Joll 1984, p.209, Solender 1984, pp.[53], 54, Bailey 1997, p.334, Brown 2002, p.145, and Taft 2007, p.181.
Egerton in Egerton, Wyld and Roy 1995, p.78.
Gowing 1966, p.33.
Lindsay 1966, p.179.
Gowing 1966, p.33.
See Wilton 1983, p.280.
As noted in White 1896, p.29.
Lindsay 1966, p.179; see also examples in the ‘J.M.W. Turner: Life and Art’ chapter of Solender 1984, pp.12–25, and also p.[53], Hardy 1988, p.42, Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.36, Lyles 1992, p.72, Warrell 1993, p.303, Warrell 1994, p.190, and Brown 2002, p.145.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.286 no.460, pl.461 (colour).
Wilton 1979, p.359 no.523, reproduced; see also Hartley 1984, p.55, and Nugent 1997, p.102; but for a revised identification see Ian Warrell, ‘J.M.W. Turner and the Pursuit of Fame’ in Warrell 2007, p.19 fig.12 (colour), as ‘A Steamer at Adelaide Wharf, with London Bridge’.
Wilton 1979, p.474 no.1455, reproduced; see also Hartley 1984, p.55.
O’Neill 2008, p.7.
Timothy Morton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shelley, Cambridge 2006.
See also Jan Piggott, ‘Shelley, Percy Bysshe’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p.292.
See Bower 1999, p.57.
For Balston see Peter Bower, Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1787–1820, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, particularly p.30.
Hardy 1988, p.43.
See ibid., p.44.
Croft-Murray 1963, p.11.
White 1896, p.30.
See Hardy 1988, p.44.
Chaplin 2010, p.74; see also pp.75–7 figs.1–8 (colour), showing aspects of Chaplin’s copy exercise.
Egerton, Wyld and Roy 1995, p.134, notes ‘scraping out and stopping out’, Brown 2002, p.145, only ‘scraping-out’.

Matthew Imms
May 2014

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