The Burning Of The Houses Of Lords And Commons Descriptive Essay

London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner was the most versatile, successful, and controversial landscape painter of nineteenth-century England. Demonstrating mastery of watercolor, oil painting, and etching, his voluminous output ranges from depictions of local topography to atmospheric renderings of fearsome storms and awe-inspiring terrain. Though profoundly influenced by landscapists and history painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Turner was an innovator who has been hailed as a forerunner of modernist abstraction.

Turner profited from extensive training both within and outside of the Royal Academy (RA) Schools. He was admitted to the RA’s Plaster Academy at the age of fourteen, and to the Life Class three years later. He gained additional experience coloring prints, working as an architectural draftsman, and designing theatrical sets. In the 1790s, he participated in an informal “Academy,” where he joined with Thomas Girtin and other young men in copying from prints, watercolors, and topographical drawings at the home of the physician and alienist Dr. Thomas Monro.

These early lessons in topography (59.23.23) stayed with Turner throughout his life. His first exhibited paintings were carefully delineated watercolors of recognizable English monuments and landscapes. Although Turner would later develop an extensive visual vocabulary that ranged far beyond precise renderings, first-hand observations remained crucial to his working method. Over the course of five decades, he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with visual records of scores of tours through England (89.15.9), Scotland, and Wales, and around the Continent to Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland (59.120), and elsewhere. Turner relied on these on-site sketches to inform even his most highly imaginative paintings. For instance, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (99.31), exhibited at the RA in 1835, combines multiple viewpoints to present an impossible view of several Venetian landmarks.

Watercolors inspired by these tours provided fertile ground for Turner’s technical experimentation and, when used as the bases of print series, helped him to disseminate his principles and earn a sizable income. In the 1810s and 1820s, he produced series of small-scale topographical watercolors in which he evoked forms by layering blocks of color according to a classification system of “light” and “dark” colors that challenged many assumptions of contemporary color theory. The watercolors’ light-filled, expressionistic appearance reflects this innovative technique. To create details, Turner scraped, blotted, and wiped the paint while it was still wet, and scratched into or drew on dry surfaces. Watercolors of English rivers, ports, and coastal scenes served as the basis for mezzotint and engraving series, including the Ports of England (1826–28). Turner adapted his watercolor methods to oil paintings, which he built up from foundations of color to create uniquely evocative shapes and glowing forms.

The seventy prints of his Liber Studiorum (1807–19; Windmill and Lock, Tate, London) express Turner’s elevated ambitions most clearly. These atmospheric images, which combine his own etched outlines with mezzotints applied by other artists, present six categories of landscape: Pastoral, Marine, Mountainous, Historical, Architectural, and Epic Pastoral. The title deliberately echoes the Liber Veritatis, a compilation of prints by the esteemed seventeenth-century painter of idealized landscapes Claude Lorrain. Turner may have produced another series of mezzotints singlehandedly; these images, never published, are known as the Little Liber (ca. 1824–26).

Turner believed that landscapes could convey a full range of artistic, historical, and emotional meanings, and presented himself as an heir to the great history painters of the past. As a young man, he learned to imbue his paintings with powerful expression by studying Piranesi’s imposing architectural fantasies (06.1051.3) and copying works by Renaissance and Baroque masters. The legacies of Poussin, Raphael, Titian, and others are evident throughout his oeuvre. Turner specifically claimed Raphael and Rome as his inspirations in Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing His Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia (1820; Tate, London).

Turner’s forays into poetry complemented and enhanced the narratives of his landscape paintings. In 1798, he began including quotes from poets—for instance, Milton and Lord Byron—as accompaniments to his paintings in RA catalogue entries. He first used selections from his unfinished poem “Fallacies of Hope” when he exhibited Snow Storm:Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812; Tate, London). Excerpts from the poem would accompany many of Turner’s subsequent paintings, though the text was never completed or published.

In addition to narrating tales from the distant past, Turner also found subjects in the world around him. Interested in expressing grand emotions, he was particularly attracted to sublime or awesome aspects of contemporary life. When, on October 16, 1834, the Houses of Parliament were ravaged by fire, he observed the conflagration from a boat in the Thames and recorded the scene in watercolors and oil paintings (The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Tate, London). He memorialized yet a greater tragedy in Slave Ship (1840; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), indicting the slave trade’s calculated horrors with agitated brushstrokes congealing into violent waves beneath a blood-red sky. The nearly abstract Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844; National Gallery, London) evokes the Industrial Revolution’s rapid transformations through strong diagonals, bold contrasts of light and dark, and tumultuous handling.

Turner elicited strong responses from friends and foes alike. On the one hand, he was respected by many colleagues. Having become a full member of the RA at age twenty-six, he was elected Professor of Perspective five years later. He remained active in the Academy throughout his life, serving in various governing roles that culminated in a brief tenure as acting president in 1845. Yet Turner continually elicited disdain from some conservative critics. In 1836, a vituperative review lambasting his loose handling inspired John Ruskin to take up Turner’s defense. Ruskin’s argument for Turner’s genius ultimately grew into the five-volume Modern Painters (published 1843–60). Upon his death, Turner joined the notable Britons buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. His bequest of 300 oil paintings and more than 20,000 works on paper soon entered the collection of London’s Tate Gallery.


Elizabeth E. Barker
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

It’s not only an icon of London, recognisable around the world twice over, but it’s also one which I pass every working day. The Houses of Parliament in London is at the beating heart of the city. We set our clocks by the familiar chime of it’s big ben bell, we pass souvenir stalls packed full of paraphernalia containing the image of building, and we can see the soaring bell tower, now named Elizabeth Tower, from far across London. Yet we are all guilty of taking the Palace of Westminster, a.k.a. the Houses of Parliament for granted. When I emerge from the tube every morning, I do so directly opposite the great gothic palace, but never stop to take in its majesty, despite the hundreds of tourists who are always collecting before it with their cameras ready.

The Houses of Parliament from Millbank, David Roberts (1861) © Museum of London

However all this changed when yesterday I headed up Elizabeth Tower to meet the great Big Ben first hand. Suddenly I have found myself looking at Parliament afresh. I even went into the Parliament bookshop and bought myself a souvenir or two (including a chocolate Big Ben – every visitor needs one). And all this had me thinking, the Palace of Westminster is such an impressive, iconic building, a masterpiece of architecture which is all the more perfect for its purposeful lack of symmetry, its miscellany of towers, spires and gothic ornamentation – no wonder then that the building has proved such an inspiration to artists over the years. And we’re not just talking any artists, but two of the greats. British favourite JMW Turner, and someone who, in a way, could be called Turner’s protege or disciple, father of the Impressionists, Claude Monet.

Both artist’s depictions of the Palace of Westminster have become iconic images of Parliament, but are also invaluable depictions of the building’s chequered history. For when Turner painted Parliament, he did so at a crucial point in its history – the day when Parliament was destroyed by fire: 16 October 1834. The fire, which ravaged the palace, gutting almost everything but Westminster Hall, proved inspirational to Turner. Already renowned for capturing the effect of light and smoke, almost impregnable foggy landscapes and turbulent great storms, Turner, who witnessed the great fire raging first hand, was evidently captivated by the gigantic inferno, pouring billowing smoke and red-hot flames high into the sky above the Thames.

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1835)

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1834-5)

The canvases which result (the first held by the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the second by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) are brilliant, dramatic depictions of the fire, demonstrating the devastating extent of the inferno as it climbed high into the sky contrasted with the small shocked witnesses in the lower foreground. I love, in the second, the subtle silhouette of Westminster Cathedral glowing before the flames of its now burning neighbouring palace, and the huge column of fire rising dangerously high in the first.

Turner was evidently more than inspired. A series of watercolour sketches (pictured below), which appear to have been sketched roughly at the scene or shortly afterwards, are a striking record of the almost undefinable power of the fire, as the light and heat of the inferno blurs and tempers the city surroundings. These watercolours, which were bequeathed to London’s National Gallery and are now held at Tate, are so instantaneous in their quick creation that they start to look almost abstract in their composition while retaining a powerful contrast between glowing super-hot heat and the foggy smokey surrounds. It’s an effect which is brilliantly executed for such a loose and uncontrollable painting medium as watercolour.

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)
Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, watercolour study (Copyright Tate)

But perhaps the most famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament are those depictions by impressionist master, Claude Monet. Monet, too, was evidently inspired by the elegant gothic structure which, by the time he visited London twice, once seeking safe haven during the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s and again at the beginning of the 20th century, had been rebuilt into the structure we know and love today.

Claude Monet, The Thames at Westminster (1871)

But for Monet, who was, by his own admission, greatly inspired by Turner’s expression of light and changing weather, the real inspiration appears to be not so much the Parliament building itself, but the varying effects of weather, light and city smog upon the building. While his first depiction of Parliament (above) is a fairly detailed depiction of the Thames at Westminster, showing the intricacy of the Palace of Westminster, albeit somewhat faded into a smoggy urban background, his later series of Parliament paintings concentrate far more on the changing light of London than on the landscape itself.

The results are a stunning series of works. The quick application of paint, no doubt painted in a great rush to capture the changing light as was Monet’s obsession, is so energetic and alive that the Palace appears to quiver before our very eyes, the effect of the smog and river mist undulating and turning over the surface of the canvas, capturing in turn the light as it filters through the layers of cloud and vapour. It’s hard to choose between these depictions, all of which are equally evocative of another stage in Parliament’s history, when London was almost chocked with poisonous noxious gases and a horrible river stench. But oh what a beautiful effect it had once captured by Monet’s hand.

Houses of Parliament, London (1904), Kunsthaus Zurich
Houses of Parliament, stormy sky (1904), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
Houses of Parliament, London (1904), Musée Marmottan Monet

Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog (1904) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog) (1903-4) Metropolitan Museum of Art
Le Parlement, Effet de Brouillard (1903) Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida

Parlement, coucher du soleil (sunset) (1902), private collection
Le Parlement de Londres, soleil couchant (1903) National Gallery of Art Washington DC
Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (1903) Brooklyn Museum

Finally, we turn to the modern day. The Houses of Parliament continues to delight Londoners and tourists alike, stood proudly adjacent to the River Thames, and surrounded not by city smog, but by a thriving bustling capital city and, every 31 December, a firework display to rival all others across the world. Yet still, the character of the building changes, and its mood metamorphoses, as weather and light cast transformative moods upon this spectacular structure.

On one such day, when menacing clouds began to break apart, and blue sky and a winter sun peeked out from behind the cover of cloud directly above the great gothic structure, I, like Monet and Turner before me, was captivated by the stunning view before me, and all the more so for the doubling of the image thanks to the reflective image in the river below it. Some time later, I took out my brushes, oil paints and a canvas and painted that view I had seen – it was in fact one of the first oils I had ever attempted. And here it is. It’s no Turner or Monet admittedly, but it is my own painted homage to the power and glory of London’s Houses of Parliament.

Cityscape I: London (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, oil on canvas)

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