Written by Eloise Halliwell.
JMW Turner is well known for being one of Britain’s favourite artists, and his pieces, including The Fighting Temeraire (1838), often reflected the changing attitudes of the era he lived in. He used the elements and natural phenomena to display dramatic events both in nature and in human history. This piece is a particular example of how Turner used the fire to depict the political changes of the era, as well as the literal events.
By J. M. W. Turner - UwEixmBDiZjk7A at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21886524
In the autumn of 1834, a fire underneath the House of Lords, caused by the burning of tally sticks (originally used as a form of receipt for government income) led to the biggest fire in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz in the Second World War. Those tending the furnaces were unaware that the heat from the fires had melted the copper lining of the flues and started a chimney fire. The doors of the furnaces were left open, and so more oxygen was drawn into the furnaces, which ensured the fire burned more fiercely, and the flames driven farther up than they should have been.
The Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed, as well as the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the Law Courts.
The explosion could be seen from over 20 miles away, where the Royal Family saw the fire from Windsor Castle. Crowds emerged on the bank on the other side of the River Thames, including Turner who made multiple sketches from different vantage points. These sketches resulted in two large oil on canvas pieces.
The first painting, in which this article is focused on, was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1835, and was well reviewed. The Spectator wrote that it was “a picture which transcends its neighbours”, demonstrating the renown and respect Turner demanded in the art world, as well as the impact the fire had on Britain. Turner had not displayed a piece at the Academy in over twenty years and so to choose to display one that was so weighted with political and cultural controversy. This was arguably Turner’s way of sending a message to the British Establishment that the old order was over and change was coming. The British Institution was organised by the same body of people who were strongly opposed to the Reform Act of 1832 and had grown used to the power and status they held in British society. When Turner died in 1852, this work was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1928 as part of the John Howard McFadden Collection.
In the foreground, the public stare across the river at the flames consuming the House of Commons in St Stephens Hall, Westminster Bridge.
Not all of the crowd who were observing the fire would have looked on in horror, as the recent changes to the Poor Law were particularly unpopular and many in Britain thought that the fire was a divine comment upon such legislation.
Politics of the era
This decade was full of political change. Just two years before this event, the Great Reform Act of 1832 allowed for 67 new constituencies to be created and thus broadened the margins for those who could vote to landowners, farmers and shopkeepers, allowing for more of the lower classes to have a say in the way that the country was run.
While this act was a key development in changing the structure of British politics, for many, the act did not go far enough. Additionally, thousands were still excluded from politics and this led to the Chartist Movement, which also opposed the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The atmosphere was tense in 1834 as people from lower classes were beginning to demand actual change. Additionally, the Swing Riots of 1830 protested harsh conditions in agriculture and the mechanisation of farming and the earlier Luddite riots protesting the use of machinery in textile factories, which was leading to unemployment in rural areas.
1834 was a pinnacle year for politics. Four Prime Ministers served in 1834, including Robert Peel, who is well known for supporting legal legislation such as the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Reform Acts. Furthermore, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested and sentenced to exile for forming a trade union in March and slavery was abolished in August.
The political environment of 1834 created the perfect atmosphere for Turner to create not only an artistic documentation of the fire, but also a representation of the explosive nature of politics in 1834.
Turner’s relationship with politics is also significant when discussing this painting. Turner was drawn to the world of politics, particularly through his long friendship with the Whig MP Walter Fawkes, who played a role in the anti-slavery movement and was a committee member of the Union for Parliamentary reform in 1812. Additionally, while many Romantic artists rejected change and focused on the nostalgia of days gone by, Turner embraced new changes and this painting recognises the progression of British society through the cataclysmic event of the fire. Notably, John Constable rejected the modern Industrial world and focused on the natural countryside of Britain. Turner embraced the change that so many artists rejected in 1834.
While this is not one of Turner’s most famous paintings and is more abstract than his earlier works, the paintings reveals significant cultural and political truths about the 1830s and so is a useful artefact for both historians and art historians.
Written by Eloise Halliwell.
Eloise Halliwell is a history graduate from the University of Kent, focusing on art history. In her spare time, Eloise enjoys Trampolining and arts and crafts and is currently desperately trying to find a job in museums while the world crumbles around her
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.