The Burning of the Houses of Parliament. c.1834-35. Watercolour and gouache on paper. Size: support: 302 x 444 mm. Collection: © Tate, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, in 1856. Reference: D36235; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 373. Image kindly released under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) license. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

The old Houses of Parliament burned down on 16 October 1834. This turned out to be a wonderful architectural opportunity for creating a new, iconic, world-class building; but, at the time, when flames engulfed the seat of government, it would have seemed more like a national disaster.

According to the Tate website, Turner's watercolur gives the view

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.

The artist is known to have witnessed the scene himself, but how far he directly recorded it then is open to question.

Whether or not he did is really immaterial: it is such a powerful rendering of what must have struck him and other spectators as a most catastrophic event. The scene obviously imprinted itself on his inner eye, whether or not he started (let alone completed) any version of the subject on the spot, and it has great immediacy. Turner would go on to paint and show two major oil-paintings of the scene, and a watercolour vignette as well. — Jacqueline Banerjee

Related material


"Joseph Mallord William Turner: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament." Tate. Web. 16 October 2018.

Created 16 October 2018