Musée des Beaux-Arts (Bordeaux, France): Absolutely Bizarre!
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).
Conflagration of the Tower of London, on the Night of the 30th of October 1841, a colour lithograph published on 3 November of a view ‘drawn upon the spot by William Oliver’ (1804–1853) shows the Tower complex from the north, with flames and smoke pouring from the windows and rafters of the Grand Storehouse, largely obscuring the White Tower. This can be compared with the present work, the most precisely detailed of Turner’s studies in terms of architectural features. (See the Introduction for other comparisons between Turner’s studies and contemporary prints.) The pale blue form towards the left is presumably intended as the White Tower; otherwise lacking in detail, the inner faces of its corner turrets are shown receding in steep perspective, although in fact the north-west turret is cylindrical. Turner has included details of rafters, a pediment and what seems to be the clock tower of the Grand Storehouse (which fell in at quite an early stage of the fire), but it is not clear whether he intended to show the scene directly from the north, aligned directly on the façade of the storehouse, or obliquely from the north-east, which would explain the relative positions of the clock tower and the White Tower.
In addition to the newspaper stories extensively quoted in the sketchbook’s Introduction, the following details from the Times relate to the raising of the alarm late on the evening of Saturday 30 October:
[Sergeant] Edwards [‘of the 1st Battalion of Fusilier Guards’] states, that while he was in the Nag’s Head public-house, in Postern-row [opposite the north side of the Tower], he perceived, to his great surprise, a light through one of the windows, just above the bomb proof part of the Bowyer Tower. He went out and crossed to the railings at the top of the moat by which the Tower is surrounded, and watched the light for a minute or two. At first it appeared but little larger than the glimmer of a candle, but it suddenly increased to such an extent, that no doubt was left upon his mind that the place was on fire.1
‘The Tower of London. Destructive Conflagration. (Additional Particulars.)’, The Times, Tuesday 2 November 1841, p.5.
Solender 1984, pp.50–1; see also Lyles 1992, p.72.
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.