Curator's Choice: Meriel Jeater of the Museum of London picks a fiery furnace of a painting

Meriel Jeater interviewed by Chris Broughton | 22 March 2010
A picture of a dark oil painting of an ancient city in flames

Curator's Choice: In her own words... Meriel Jeater of the Museum of London chooses a painting of the Great Fire of London (1666)

"This is my favourite picture of the Great Fire of London, just because it has so much human drama going on in it. It reveals a great deal about what actually happened to people during the fire, rather than just the dry facts we're used to – the dates and so on.

You can sense the complete chaos and panic on the quayside, everyone trying to get their belongings out of London onto boats and escape. The more you look at the picture, the more you notice. For example, very faintly you can see processions of people going through the ruins down to the quayside. There are sparks flying in the air, beautiful reflections in the water, lots of little details.

Disaster was a popular subject for paintings in the 17th century, particularly among Dutch artists. This picture certainly falls into the Dutch School style, but we don't know who painted it – the artist may have been Dutch, but there are a number of possibilities.

A photo of a young woman with long dark hair in a red jumper standing in front of an oil painting of a city on fire

Curator Meriel Jeater feels the piece falls into the Dutch School style, although the Museum has never pinned down the identity of the artist

However, it's so accurate it has been suggested it may be an eyewitness portrayal of the event. The artist appears to have been really in the thick of things, and to have painted pretty much as the fire was happening.

He would probably have been painting, or at least sketching from a boat on the Thames at Tower Wharf, right by the Tower of London. That would have been the safest place to be, as the wind was pushing the fire in the opposite direction. I mean, he probably didn't actually have his easel on the boat, but the picture certainly has a ring of truth about it.

The buildings are much more topographically accurate than in other paintings of the fire. Having said that, part of the foreground is actually fictional. I think it's artistic license used to give the impression the viewer is right in the scene.

The painting confirms reports of the time, like that in Samuel Pepys' diary where he talks about going down next to the Tower and meeting one of his neighbours, who was unable to pass her belongings to him because of the crush. Looking at this great crowd of people, you get a real sense of what Pepys described.

Many of the buildings in the picture have been reduced to smouldering ruins, so you can see the fire has already moved back from that part of the city. We can tell the painting is set about eight or nine o'clock on Tuesday 4th September – about the time the fire reached St Paul’s Cathedral, but before the roof collapsed.

Another thing that's interesting is that you can see the gap in the middle of London Bridge caused by an earlier fire in 1633, which meant the fire in 1666 didn't spread further. The earlier fire actually saved London Bridge and Southwark from being burned.

For me, this is the key image of the fire, which is why we've blown it up so big to have it as a backdrop for our London's Burning exhibition. One of the things I wanted visitors to be able to do was imagine themselves to be there at the time, and I think this painting has been the most effective way of doing that because you’re right on the level with all these people on the quayside.

We've never blown any of our artworks up like this before, and it brings out lots of detail you might not otherwise notice. It struck me recently that the moon looks kind of ethereal and romantic on one side of the painting and then you’ve got this disaster happening on the other side. It's quite an interesting juxtaposition."

Take a look at the War, Plague and Fire gallery at the Museum of London in our exclusive tour with Meriel Jeater.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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