Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
Oil on Canvass
The Houses of Parliament are ablaze on the far side of the River Thames at Westminster Bridge, with spectators jamming the embankment in the riverside foreground.
You are hypnotised by the dazzling spectacle, awe-struck and transfixed despite the danger you know is proximate.
Turner uses amber, marmalade and bronze hues to draw you to the great fire. This unmistakable focal point is emphasised by the shadowy palette of the crowd and neutral white of the bridge connecting the two. The hazy obscurity of the blaze and Houses of Parliament engulfed by it, as well as the billowing smoke, add poetic atmospherics to the view. You feel you are witnessing the momentous yet the visual ambiguity places you beyond it. It’s a study in the diffusion of blazing light in the top left and glow at the margins.
Though eyewitness to the event, the artist transports us beyond the literal. The people are gathered. The institutions which represent them are in peril. A metaphorical bridge connecting the two tapers to nothing in the glare of the fiery light. The artist suggests a social destruction and collapse. There’s a sense of witnessing loss and passing of an era.
In 1834 London as today throughout the Anglosphere, we are in danger of losing our cherished institutions. We seem to bear witness helplessly and merely watch the blaze. Yet we know these Houses of Parliament, rebuilt and revivified with determination, became the centre of the world.
Today’s challenge and opportunity lies similarly before us.