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Images of Contracting by ProQuest


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".

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Gary Sturgess

Images of

Rediscovering Contracting History

                                                                                                              Burned into memory. Photo: J.M.W. Turner

         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
                                              The author is Executive Director of The Serco Institute.
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