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The finished oil painting was not completed until days before it was exhibited in 1835. [...] a contemporary noted, it was "a mere dab of general colors, and 'without form and void', like chaos before the creation".
columnists | images of contracting Gary Sturgess Images of Contracting Rediscovering Contracting History 39 Burned into memory. Photo: J.M.W. Turner O N the night of October 16, 1834, deserve our attention in large part because Turner’s paintings are 175 years old, and the landscape artist and proto- they were masterpieces of Impressionism yet they deal with one of the most impressionist, J.M.W. Turner, fifty years before the Impressionist era controversial ideas in modern politics – journal of international peace operations | volume 5 | number 6 | may-june 2010 stood on the banks of the River Thames, began. the private provision of public services along with thousands of other Londoners, and our understanding of the ‘inherently watching the Houses of Parliament burn. But Turner captured something else in governmental.’ Though, the artist would that fire, something that modern viewers have been surprised if we had raised this The fire broke out in the early evening, usually overlook. In the midst of the question with him: he had been painting after workmen overloaded a furnace used inferno, right through that October night, private firefighters since he was a young to provide heating for the House of the men of the London Fire Engine man, and as a resident of mid-19th Lords. It resulted in the loss of virtually Establishment risked their lives to save century London, he was surrounded by the entire complex. Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the privately-provided public services. The Houses of Parliament. fire brigade was private. The ambulance Over the course of the evening, Turner corps was private. Some police forces sketched the ever-changing spectacle in a We know that Turner recognized their were private. Hospitals and schools were small notebook, from different vantage efforts, since there is another painting, provided by non-governmental institu- points along the river. Later, in the quiet also in the Tate Britain, which shows tions. Public service companies supplied of his studio, he turned these sketches these men spraying ineffectual streams of his water. They owned and operated the into watercolor drafts as he struggled to water onto the awful blaze. telegraphs. The nation’s railway network portray the brilliance of the fire. had been conceived and constructed (and The London Fire Engine Establishment for a century more, it would continue to The finished oil painting was not was the city’s only professional fire be owned and operated) by private completed until days before it was brigade. And it was a private fire brigade – enterprise. exhibited in 1835. Until then, a contem- staffed, equipped and financed by the porary noted, it was “a mere dab of insurance companies. To illustrate how commonplace public general colors, and ‘without form and service companies were, even at the heart void’, like chaos before the creation”. What is even more challenging from a of government, walk around 21st century modern point of view is that these men Whitehall and look at it through 19th These paintings are some of the best- were risking their lives as an act of public century eyes. known images from the history of service. They had no financial incentive to European art. They hang today in the be there, since government refused to Starting from the Turner’s vantage point Tate Britain and the Philadelphia and the insure its properties. across the river from the Houses of Cleveland Museums of Art, and they 40 The author is Executive Director of The Serco Institute. 39 columnists |
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