Stanhope Alexander Forbes, RA (British, 1857-1947) Study for 'The Fire of London'

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Lot 87
Stanhope Alexander Forbes, RA
(British, 1857-1947)
Study for 'The Fire of London'

£ 40,000 - 60,000
US$ 50,000 - 76,000
Stanhope Alexander Forbes, RA (British, 1857-1947)
Study for 'The Fire of London'
signed 'Stanhope A. Forbes' (lower right)
oil on canvas
95 x 59.5cm (37 3/8 x 23 7/16in).


  • In 1982 a scheme was announced for the installation of twenty-four murals, each approximately 5.23 metres high by 3.40 metres wide, in the panels around the ambulatory of the Royal Exchange. The present lot represents a study for Stanhope Forbes's contribution to the scheme Great Fire, which, in 1899, became the seventh mural to be unveiled at the iconic City building.

    Until the mid-nineteenth century, native mural painting did not hold a firmly established, unbroken tradition in Britain as it did on the Continent. The Reformation had severely curtailed religious patronage during the sixteenth century and any secular commissions thereafter tended to fall to Continental artists. However, from about 1840 a growing number of well-established British artists began to turn their hand to mural painting, seeing an opportunity to politicise the technique.

    The scheme planned for the Royal Exchange between 1895 and 1927, was part of a larger plan for the decoration of a number of London buildings, including two of the most accomplished series of murals at the Draper's and Skinner's Halls. Politically, the scheme represented a distinct emphasis on the traditions and historic rights of the City of London, its livery companies and ancient businesses. The rise of the London County Council and a new demand for municipal reform placed the old traditions of the City under perceived threat, which the new murals were intended to thwart. Works such as King John sealing the Magna Carta by Ernest Normand and Charles I demanding the Five Members at the Guild Hall by Solomon J. Solomon, were to direct attention toward the historic origins and power of the City of London Corporation and its continuing relevance in local and national government, which in turn justified its ongoing revolt against the LCC.

    Forbes' contribution was no less political. Fire of London provided a dramatic elision of past and present, the raison d'être of the scheme, and alludes to the centrality of art as the very agent of historical continuity. It was in a speech by the new Lord Mayor and leading figure in the scheme's working committee, Stuart Knill, that a direct reference was made to the historical foundations of the City of London -'It is in Alfred's time that we first hear of a municipal government...King Alfred, rebuilding London after its fourth destruction by fire, placed in it the keeping of Alderman Othelred, and a frith gild or peace gild was established'. Put into its historical context therefore, Forbes' work provided the City Corporation with both historical relevance and an important connection with the people of London, whose allegiance was so vital to the continued relevance of the Corporation and livery companies.

    The progress of the ongoing scheme was reported in the New York Times on 18th February 1899:

    'The decoration of the walls of the Royal Exchange, London, is fast making progress, and the huge mural painting by Mr Stanhope Forbes, A.R.A., of "The Great Fire of London." has been put in it's place. Mr. Forbes's picture was painted at Newlyn, but it was brought to London, and was shown recently at a studio. Mr. Forbes had found his subject on the banks of the Thames, which was, according to Evelyn's account of the fire, "covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save." The picture shows an ancient river-wall, with the burning city in the background and middle distance, and in the foreground a motley crowd of houseless Londoners carrying their children and their household treasures down to the boats. Smoke and sparks sweep across the twilight sky, and the glare if the burning houses reddens the river from bank to bank. The new picture for the decoration of the Royal Exchange has been presented by the Sun Insurance Company, an institution which, fortunately for its proprietors, did not come into existence until more than half a century after the great fire.'
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