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Depicting the Great Fire of London

30 August 2016

English School
The Great Fire of London
Oil on canvas
34 ¼ x 49 inches; 870 x 1245 mm

This week marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London; there are lots of events taking place to commemorate the disaster including a major exhibition at the Museum of London. Numerous images of the fire exist, but none are strictly contemporary or first-hand and many of the most famous are much later evocations. We have a fascinating painting, made in the late seventeenth century which is a particularly unusual view of the conflagration and seems to show a very precise moment in the progress of the fire. The impressive painting shows a view of Cripplegate in the north of the City, with St Giles without Cripplegate in flames to the left; a view of roughly the site of the present day Barbican. The painting probably represents the fire on the night of Tuesday 4 September, when four-fifths of the City was burning at once, including St Paul's Cathedral. Old St Paul’s can be seen to the right of the canvas, the medieval church with its thick stone walls, was considered a place of safety, but the building was covered in wooden scaffolding as it was in the midst of being restored by the then little known architect, Christopher Wren and caught fire. Our painting depicts a specific moment on the Tuesday night when the lead on St Paul’s caught fire and, as the diarist John Evelyn described: 

the stones of Paul’s flew like grenades, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream and the very pavements glowing with the firey redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them.

Although the loss of life was minimal, the magnitude of the property loss was shocking – some four hundred and thirty acres, about eighty per cent of the City was destroyed, including over thirteen thousand houses and eighty-nine churches. The fire was widely reported in eyewitness accounts, newspapers, letters and diaries. Samuel Pepys recorded climbing the steeple of Barking Church from which he viewed the destroyed City: ‘the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw.’ The fire became a dramatic and extremely popular subject for painters and engravers. This painting made some-time after 1666 to commemorate the fire, belongs to a group of works traditionally associated with Jan Griffier the elder (c.1652-1718). In its drama, multiple scenes of human interest and scale, this picture is one of the most remarkable depictions of the Great Fire to appear on the market.