Completed British 19th C, except portraits, British 20th C, except portraits, London: Artists and Subjects 15 Where is this conflagration, and what is on fire?

Topic: Subject or sitter

From the style of the buildings on the right, this gouache painting looks as though it is of either a very late 19th or early 20th century American incident and waterfront location (and presumably therefore by a US hand). Can anyone suggest where?

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The location could not be identified and the title remains as it is.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


William Schupbach (Wellcome Collection) has commented, 'The painting is laid down on what looks to me like 19C or early 20C card. There is gum arabic (or similar) on the watercolour/gouache painting. On the verso of the mount, at the bottom, there is a faint inscription in pencil, in two lines, the lower of which appears to say something like Destruction of Westminster [...] and a price, possibly 3/-. Looks as if someone assumed it was the burning of the Houses of Parliament (being a well-known large building on a river that was to a large extent destroyed by fire). Any other ideas will be gratefully received. Images attached.'

It certainly looks like a waterfront warehouse fire (and not like other images of the 1834 destruction of old Westminster Palace) but the buildings look very 'un-London-like' including in comparison to Scott's image immediately above. I can barely see the backing-sheet inscription on-screen I'm afraid so we may not get further with that here.

Martin Hopkinson,

Washington Post 22 June 2014 article by Jonathan H Adler refers to many large USA river fires in American cities among them Cleveland, Detroit. Buffalo
and refers to an article by David and Richard Stradling in Environmental history July 2008, which might help in the case of Cleveland

Martin Hopkinson,

The Rouge River, Detroit seems a possibllity see The Metro Times article by Michael Jackman 'no city has fire flaming up in its history quite like Detroit' 29 October 2014
That in 1915 resulted in the burning of the Belle Isle Bridge

Martin Hopkinson,

in 1892 there was a large fire in Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River too

Mark Gray,

Suggest that the artist is intending to convey more than fire - and the Washington Arsenal explosion of 1864 comes to mind. The Arsenal explosion was newsworthy and significant enough to mark, the Arsenal was located on a waterfront with a long range of buildings of varying heights, and did seem to feature a sort of beach area (which may be the dark area on the right hand side.

Apologies if this is a wild goose chase, but it seemed worth pitching in the absence of data, provenance, location information or much else from the collection.

Bill Ellson,

Are we not falling into the trap of simply assuming that the painting is of an actual incident at a specific waterfront location?
Nobody has made any suggestions as to who the artist might be. Is there any unusual or idiosyncratic feature of the painting that if enlarged might help identify him, or her, which might help point to what the painting is meant to portray

Having originally asked the question, my view (no more) is that it is too literal in the plain structure of the burning building and quite specific in the design of the city towers (right) to be just an imaginative exercise. The spectacle clearly appealed but take away the fire and the waterfront building shown burning would not be of pictorial interest. Either the towers -which suggest USA - will eventually be identified (though not yet) or we will have to give up.

Without images of the American fires it is hard to make comparisons with ours. The Washington Arsenal was a very different building. This is is clearly riverside warehouses and I have some sympathy with Scott's suggestion that it is supposed to represent the Tooley Street 1861 fire. The buildings are comparable, and the building on the right may be supposed to be St Olave's church. At present this is my favoured recommendation.

If there is any title change, I think it would be safer to call it 'A waterfront warehouse on fire at night', with additional comment that it appears to be late 19th/ early 20th century and that the buildings suggest an American city. I see no resemblance to the Tooley Street area, or St Olave's and fear that would further misdirect.