Scholars Reveal the True Fire Behind J.M.W. Turner Watercolors

J.M.W. Turner, formerly identified as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, now known to depict the burning of the Tower of London, 1841.
J.M.W. Turner, formerly identified as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, now known to depict the burning of the Tower of London, 1841. Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

For over 100 years, the subject of J.M.W. Turner‘s “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament,” a series of nine watercolors, has been identified as the October 1834 fire that burned down London’s old Palace of Westminster, home of the British parliament. Now, research by the Tate‘s Matthew Imms reveals that the works actually show a different fire: the burning of the Tower of London on October 30, 1841.

Imms compared the Turner watercolors to other known works depicting the 1841 blaze, and was able to confirm a match based on architectural features. In addition, an analysis of Turner’s known movements at the time indicates that he would have been in London at that time, having returned to the city after spending the summer of 1841 in Switzerland. Turner’s archives also include a letter from early November of that year, denying the artist permission to enter the Tower Grounds, firmly demonstrating the painter’s interest in the fire.


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