The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, by J.M.W. Turner, 1834. Watercolor studies from his sketchbook. Tate Britain.
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, by J.M.W. Turner, 1834 - 35. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Shortly before 7 o’clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster, and of the districts on the opposite bank of the river, were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflagrations that has been witnessed for many years past… . The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire.”
So wrote the London Times on October 17, 1834. Turner witnessed the event, along with tens of thousands of spectators, and recorded what he saw in quick sketches that became the basis for this painting. Flames consume Saint Stephen’s Hall, the House of Commons, and eerily illuminate the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared. On the right the exaggerated scale and plunging perspective of Westminster Bridge intensify the drama of the scene, which Turner observed from the south bank of the Thames River.
These incredible sketches are on view at Tate Britain. The epic final painting is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.