Setting the Thames on Fire

‘The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire’ (1779) by William Marlow, Guildhall Art Gallery

In 1779 William Marlow painted The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire. The conflagration of the title is captured by the artist in a spectacularly powerful painting, his palette an array of hot colours that range from pearly pinks to searing red hot ochre. It’s an incandescent disaster scene and it’s as compelling as a car crash. But did it actually happen? The answer is yes, during the Great Fire of 1666 – but that was over a century before Marlow produced his painting in 1779 and it would be years before London’s riverside would go up in smoke again in such spectacular fashion.

First, a quick history of the London Bridge Waterworks. In 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz designed a complicated system to supply ‘fresh’ water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London. The resulting apparatus worked so well that in a demonstration to City officials it forced a jet of river water over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr. The original works were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but they were replaced by a new system designed by Maritz’s grandson which remained in use until the early nineteenth century when it was removed as part of the demolition of old London Bridge and the building of its replacement.

So why did William Marlow make a painting of it on fire in 1779? I have a theory that the artist, who had been travelling extensively in France and Italy in the 1760s, was using the familiar view of London and its river as a stage on which to recreate some of the more picturesque and dramatic scenes he witnessed and recorded.

‘Vesuvius Erupting at Night’ (1768) by William Marlow, Denver Art Museum

Whether or not there was an actual fire at the London Bridge Waterworks in the second half of the eighteenth century I have yet to discover, but Marlow’s depiction of a Thames-side fire represents an intriguing impulse of artists to paint the combination of fire and water in the recognisable location of London. An obvious later example is by JMW Turner who gave London his impression of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (c. 1834-5).

‘The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Some decades earlier, in 1791, a fire at Albion Mills on the south bank of the Thames was depicted in a colour print by Thomas Rowlandson, an artist better known for his satirical works.

‘Fire in London [Albion Mills, Blackfriars Bridge]’ by Thomas Rowlandson, from Microcosm of London by Rudolph Ackermann & W H Pyne, British Library

Three Thames fires, three artists and three very different representations of riverside conflagrations. Of course, the ultimate opportunity to feel the burn in paint occurred more than a century earlier in 1666 when Marlow’s event is possibly set [I am currently researching this to see if my theory has weight]. This mother of all London blazes was captured by 17th-century artists, probably from abroad, who were creating bird’s-eye views of the capital. Their names have been swallowed up by history and the enormity of the event they described with their brushes and imported landscape techniques. For example, there’s the famous view of the Great Fire taken from a position in the west on the south bank. This fiery view has been dated from around 1675 and it’s to be found, appropriately enough, in the collection of the Museum of London.

‘The Great Fire of London’ (1675), Unknown Artist, Museum of London

This view is very much in the Dutch landscape style, and this can also be found in a work by Lieve Verschuier who painted a similar scene, but this time from the north bank to the east of the devastation. This painting has finally come to rest in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. There are others.

‘The Great Fire of London in 1666’ (1666) by Lieve Verschuier, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

So much water and so many flames. But it’s Marlow I want to return to. His painting of The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire (1779), I propose, presents a watershed (no pun intended) in British art in terms of the way the capital city was projected to new audiences. It’s a piece of theatre and the raging fire takes centre stage, spluttering flames into the sky like distress flares from a stricken vessel. Smoke billows skyward and drifts to the east, partially obscuring the domed square tower of St Magnus-the-Martyr, a church that had stood since the 12th century and had itself been destroyed by the Great Fire, standing less than 300 yards from the infamous bakery in Pudding Lane. It was rebuilt between 1671 and 1687 under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren. To the lower right of the image is London Bridge itself, not in its 17th-century guise complete with teetering buildings, but a sturdy and solid stone construction. It is in fact that original bridge, but with the improvements made to it by George Dance the Elder and completed in 1762. Under the supervision of Dance the Elder, the roadway was widened and a Gothic-style balustrade was added together with fourteen stone alcoves providing pedestrian shelter. The old bridge would finally be demolished in 1831 when John Rennie’s New London Bridge was built alongside it.

‘The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire’ (1779) [Detail] by William Marlow,
Guildhall Art Gallery

The intensity of the blaze is emphasised through Marlow’s masterful use of chiaroscuro, the dark – almost blackened – shadows to the right of the painting contrasting with the reflected light from the flames. But within this darkness, and also in the left foreground are small boats supporting onlookers who direct our own gaze towards the burning waterworks. The river is studded with such spectator boats. Closer still to the conflagration are the hoards of thrillseekers who spill out onto the riverside forecourt of Fishmongers’ Hall, itself not long for this world at the time. It was designed by architect Edward Jerman and opened in 1671. It’s fate was sealed alongside that of London Bridge when it was demolished to facilitate the construction the new bridge in 1827. To emphasise this architectural impermanence – St Magnus, London Bridge and Fishmongers’ Hall were in this present incarnation all less than a century old after all,  Marlow’s fire not only dominates the scene, it and its smoke obliterates the view of the Monument – a memorial to the Great Fire – which would have otherwise attracted the eye to what was potentially a problematic anachronism.

Or was there really a fire in the 1770s? I’ll get back to you on that.

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