Joseph Mallord William Turner

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 235 × 325 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXXIII 1

Display caption

On 16 October 1834 Turner was among the huge throng of people who watched the burning of the old Houses of Parliament. Subsequently he made two paintings, seen from the Surrey side of the Thames, showing the fire at its height and diminishing somewhat. Both these are in the USA, at the museums of Philadelphia and Cleveland respectively. There are nine watercolours, of which this is one, which are usually thought to be of the fire. However, not all authorities agree on this.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

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).
Here, the tall windows of the Grand Storehouse are lit by the fire within, and are shown from the north-west across beyond the moat and the dark masses of the outer defences. The composition is comparable with that of Destruction of the Small Armoury in the Tower of London, on the Night of 30th Oct., 1841, a lithograph after William Collingwood Smith (1815–1887) published on 8 November 1841, and the similar view in Destructive Fire at the Tower of London. October 30th 1841, a colour lithograph after J.L. Marks, a more graphic, unsophisticated rendering, enlivened by agitated crowds and galloping horses (see the Introduction for other comparisons between Turner’s studies and contemporary prints).
Addressing the subject in the context of the traditional former 1834 identification, Katherine Solender nevertheless noted that this and another of the studies (D27851) ‘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 storehouse’s many windows. 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.4
Solender 1984, pp.51–2.
Ibid., pp.52–[3].
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.

Matthew Imms
April 2014

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