J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament c.1834-5

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament c.1834–5
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 373
Watercolour and gouache on white wove paper, 302 x 444 mm
Stamped in black ‘CCCLXIV – 373’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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.
The right-hand third shows another range, clad in medieval style with crenellations and turrets, south of Westminster Hall. Eric Shanes has note how Turner ‘subtly stressed the rectilinearity of the architecture on both left and centre’ so that the ‘spectacularly uncontrolled’ fire to the right is all the more dramatic.9 The arcade, committee rooms and courts along this front (also shown in Shury’s print) were largely burnt to the ground, exposing the high western wall of the House of Lords with its classical lunette windows. These semi-circular openings are clearly seen against flames at the very right of Turner’s composition, with dim indications in the foreground of the silhouette of the castellated King’s Entrance arch in its curving screen at the south-western corner of this part of the complex. This aspect of the ruins is shown in an 1834 watercolour of the House of Lords from Old Palace Yard by Robert William Billings (1813–1874; Parliamentary Art Collection).10 The House of Lords was re-roofed and used as the House of Commons until 1851.11 When the old House of Lords and the buildings fronting Old Palace Yard were later cleared away, a much wider forecourt was left, providing a clear prospect of the gabled south end of Westminster Hall (fronted by St Stephen’s Porch). The western façade of Barry and Pugin’s new range, built around a new House of Lords and terminating in the Victoria Tower, is on a line approximating with the far side of the original House of Lords.
There are pencil sketches of aspects of the site in the small Fishing at the Weir sketchbook, which show the lunette windows, only exposed after the fire, as well as details of the east end of Westminster Abbey (Tate D27737, D27746–D27747, D27748, D27766; Turner Bequest CCLXXXI 7a, 12–13, 13a, 22a).12 These were presumably all sketched at leisure in the aftermath in anticipation of a composition from the viewpoint used in the present work. Turner could also have referred to his own early watercolour of about 1790, View of Westminster with Henry VII’s Chapel, which had remained in his studio (private collection),13 which shows the façades of the abbey and the ‘classical’ wing of the palace in careful detail. Contemporary prints of the fire could also have informed the composition. In particular the left side of the colour lithograph of The Destruction of the Houses of Lords and Commons by Fire by William Heath (1795–1840), published on 3 November 1834, shows the ghostly filigree work of Henry VII’s Chapel and the houses to its south much as Turner does,14 while The Destruction of Both Houses of Parliament, another 1834 colour lithograph, by Thomas Picken (died 1870), shows the south end of the complex from the same angle as Turner, with the exposed lunette windows lit by flame and water from the firemen’s hoses playing high up the façade (impressions of both: London Metropolitan Archives).
Following the doubts often expressed by earlier scholars, in the course of cataloguing this work in relation to the so-called Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1) and (2) sketchbooks (Tate; Turner Bequest CCLXXXIII, CCLXXXIV), the present author concluded that the watercolours extracted from the former (Tate D27846–D27854; Turner Bequest CCLXXXIII 1–9) and the slight pencil drawings scattered through the latter do not relate to the 1834 Westminster fire. The watercolours instead show the major fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London on 30 October 1841, and have been placed in a section of their own at that point in this catalogue, with the sketchbook renamed Fire at the Tower of London. The Parliament (2) pencil sketches are more problematic, in that a definite alternative subject remains elusive, but they appear to show harbour and shipping scenes.
Although well advanced in some respects, the present work is generally considered not quite finished.15 Even allowing for the smoke and darkness, some of the architecture is barely developed, and various pale figures loom half-formed from the crowd. John Gage suggested Turner perhaps intended the scene for a topical engraving, possibly to highlight the problems encountered in fighting the fire effectively without proper organisation; many images of the blaze were published, and Turner would no doubt have considered the immediate commercial demand.16 Eric Shanes has proposed that the subject would have been a potential addition to Turner’s major series engraved between 1827 and 1838 as Picturesque Views in England and Wales: it is of a similar size to the watercolours which were reproduced, and seemingly too finished to have been made ‘for his own amusement’.17 However, James Hamilton has considered that its inclusion would have been ‘deliberately and uncharacteristically provocative’.18 As with the 1830 election depicted in Northampton, Northamptonshire (Tate T12321),19 its subject was perhaps simply too topical for the outwardly contemporary yet generally timeless mood of England and Wales.20
Another 1830 watercolour, The Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Sketch from Memory (Tate D25467; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 344),21 had shown crowds in a grand London setting, this time outside St Paul’s Cathedral, albeit in a quieter mood of ‘shared grief’.22 As Shanes has put it, the present work is, like the Northampton view, animated by the ‘flow of the crowd ... charg[ing] the whole scene with immense energy.’23 The setting serves as a backdrop for the work of the firemen fighting the blaze,24 while huge crowds, ‘whose excitement and fascination we share’,25 look on, restrained by soldiers and police.26 Bathed in a lurid glow, the event is presented as ‘an eye-witness record of actuality’.27 Lawrence Gowing described Turner’s Parliament theme, particularly in the Philadelphia painting, as ‘like Romantic opera, with elaborate scenery and full chorus of horrified spectators’, while in the Cleveland version, ‘the play of fire and its reflection in water [are] the sufficient subjects in themselves. He discovered a kind of equivalence between the experience and the picture for which his contemporaries were at a loss to account.’28 Jack Lindsay described how the ‘Parliament works allowed him to express to the full his liking for dramatic contrasts of warm and cold colours, the reds and oranges of the flapping flags of flame and the quiet blues of the sky’.29 Apart from their signifying the fire and its setting, the combination of reds, yellows and blues here are characteristic of Turner’s later stylistic development; as Lawrence Gowing has observed, the ‘classical sequence of tones was increasingly replaced by interactions of colour’,30 and Andrew Wilton has suggested the expressive style here, while suited to the subject, pre-empts work of the 1840s.31

Turner had a long-standing interest in the pictorial possibilities of fire, beginning with the aftermath of the Pantheon conflagration in London’s Oxford Street in 1792, with firemen still in attendance (see Tate D00121; Turner Bequest IX A).32 Jack Lindsay has compared a number of ‘scenes in which fire appeared destructively or ominously’,33 particularly the large painting currently called A Disaster at Sea of about 1835 (formerly ‘Fire at Sea’; Tate N00558),34 and two watercolours in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester: the so-called Fire at Fennings Wharf35 and A Conflagration, Regensburg (previously ‘Lausanne’), both of around 1836.36 The nine 1841 Tower of London watercolours already mentioned are further examples, and that later event was no doubt a vivid reminder of the events of 1834. The literary scholar Michael O’Neill has observed37 that a detail of the present work is reproduced on the cover of a guide to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822),38 as a starting point in his comparison of Turner’s and Shelley’s apocalyptic light and fire imagery.39
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’, www.parliament.uk, accessed 3 April 2014, http://www.parliament.uk/worksofart/artwork/robert-william-billings/house-of-lords-from-old-palace-yard-1834/1660.
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.
Technical notes:
Peter Bower has examined the white wove watercolour paper Turner used here, noting the lack of a watermark and suggesting that although the maker is unidentified, it was probably William Balston1 of Maidstone, Kent.2
William Hardy notes that Turner ‘has seized on the way the fire reverses the normal tonality of daylight so that solid buildings appear pale and insubstantial.’3 Although to an extent the brightest parts of the fire were reserved as bare paper4 or left little worked, Edward Croft-Murray has described Turner’s ‘novel technique of wiping out the wet colo[u]r to fix his main impression of the scene against the all-pervading scarlet glow’.5 William White described the technique at length, with the paper ‘wet with colour upon colour, then drawn off with a clean rag ... with perfect effect of shimmering light’, as a ‘masterful example of Turner’s powers of sketching at white heat’.6 The arcs of water playing on the fire have been scraped or washed out against the various red washes,7 and details in the crowd have been lifted and scratched out. The watercolourist Mike Chaplin has noted: ‘“Lifting-out” seems to be the ideal technique to introduce the shimmering light areas of the lit-up façade and the water jets.’8 Turner may also have used temporary stopping-out gum or varnish9 to reserve details under or between the complex layers of wash.
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’.
Blank (not examined out of frame).

Matthew Imms
May 2014

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Burning of the Houses of Parliament c.1834–5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2014, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, February 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-the-burning-of-the-houses-of-parliament-r1184334, accessed 14 April 2024.