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 5

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 Turner appears to represent the roof and clock tower of the storehouse relatively intact, with crowds picked out at the edge of the moat at the lower left. The roof and clock tower fell at an early stage, and this study is possibly a fanciful view of the fire at the point when it was spreading from the Bowyer Tower, where it broke out, to the roof. On the left in the distance appear to be buildings on the near side of St Katharine Docks to the south-east.
Addressing the sequence of studies in the context of the traditional former 1834 identification, Katherine Solender felt that only this work, D27847, D27853 and D27854 included ‘shapes that can be remotely identified with the Parliamentary complex’, in this case possibly the ‘roof line and lantern of Westminster Hall towards the right’.1 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),2 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, and like Solender, he suggested the ‘architectural shape’ towards the right might be a feature on the roof of Westminster Hall.3
The artist Tony Smibert (born 1949) has used this work as the basis of a free copy exercise to explore and demonstrate Turner’s watercolour techniques.4
Solender 1984, pp.50–1.
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 Warrell 1993, p.302, and Warrell 1994, p.188.
Smibert 2010, pp.80–1, figs.1–5 (colour, showing Smibert’s interpretation).

Matthew Imms
April 2014

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