Burning down the wrong house
Research reveals that Turner's watercolours at Tate are of a fire at the Tower of London, not Parliament
By Ben Luke. Web only
Published online: 18 March 2014
Detective work by a cataloguer at the Tate, London, has revealed that J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour series The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1830s, in fact depict a fire at another London landmark, the Tower of London.
The nine vivid and expressive watercolours, from in the J.M.W. Turner Bequest, were first catalogued by A.J. Finberg in 1909, who believed they captured the fire that destroyed Britain’s old parliament building in October 1834. But new research, part of the comprehensive cataloguing of the more than 30,000 works in the bequest, show that the watercolours depict another fire, on 30 October 1841, in the Tower of London.
Matthew Imms, the Tate cataloguer who made the discovery, says that there had long been nagging doubts about Finberg’s identification. “Andrew Wilton, the original keeper of the Turner Bequest when it was moved to the Tate in the 1980s, had written several times that he didn’t necessarily think that it was the Parliament fire, but he couldn’t come up with any viable alternative,” Imms says.
This prompted Imms’s detective work. “We could tell that the works were fairly late in Turner’s career so I cast around for other events at that time, and came across various images, popular prints and so on of the Tower of London fire in 1841,” Imms says. “It immediately clicked, because the various uncertain features of the architecture and so on matched quite well.”
“The building that burned was called The Grand Storehouse, in the late 17th-century English Baroque style—red brick with stone dressings—and it held the historic armoury collections of cannons, and all the guns and rifles and so on that had been used in previous campaigns. Whether there was anything flammable among those, I’m not sure,” Imms says, “but they kept tents in the roof, so that would be good kindling.”
“The cupola and long, tall windows of the ill-fated building are the dominant architectural details in the watercolours, but more familiar buildings also stand out. There’s a classical pediment in one of the watercolours, with what seems to be the White Tower in the background,” he says. “It’s one of the ones that people thought was Westminster Abbey, but the turrets are too small and far apart, so we think it’s the White Tower.”
Imms says that the date of the fire corresponds with Turner’s known movements at the time, too. “He was just back in London, having been away in Switzerland for the summer. And a letter confirms that he wanted to return to the scene. He received a letter from the Duke of Wellington on 3 November of 1841 [Wellington was the commandant of the Tower] refusing to let him come in, and it said no one may be admitted except on business. That showed that he had applied quite rapidly after the fire to be admitted to the grounds.”
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