The Great Fire of London in September 1666 was one of the greatest disasters in the city’s history. The City, with its wooden houses crowded together in narrow streets, was a natural fire risk, and predictions that London would burn down became a shocking reality. The fire began in a bakery in Pudding Lane, an area near the Thames teeming with warehouses and shops full of flammable materials, such as timber, oil, coal, pitch and turpentine. Inevitably the fire spread rapidly from this are into the City. Our painting depicts the impact of the fire on those who were caught in it and creates a very dramatic impression of what the fire was like. Closer inspection reveals a scene of chaos and panic with people running out of the gates. It shows Cripplegate in the north of the City, with St Giles without Cripplegate to its left, in flames (on 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 seems to depict 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, some accounts record only sixteen perished, the magnitude of the property loss was shocking – some four hundred and thirty acres, about eighty per cent of the City proper was destroyed, including over thirteen thousand houses, eighty-nine churches, and fifty-two Guild Halls. Thousands were homeless and financially ruined. The Great Fire, and the subsequent fire of 1676, which destroyed over six hundred houses south of the Thames, changed the appearance of London forever. The one constructive outcome of the Great Fire was that the plague, which had devastated the population of London since 1665, diminished greatly, due to the mass death of the plague-carrying rats in the blaze.
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.’ There was an official enquiry into the causes of the fire, petitions to the King and Lord Mayor to rebuild, new legislation and building Acts. Naturally, the fire became a dramatic and extremely popular subject for painters and engravers. A group of works relatively closely related to the present picture have been traditionally ascribed to Jan Griffier the elder, or being derived from Griffier’s work. This identification appears to be largely based on the existence an early nineteenth century lithograph after a painting (now unknown) of a similar subject which was at the time attributed to Griffier. Jan Griffier the elder (c.1652-1718) born in Amsterdam, who is recorded as being in London soon after the Great Fire of 1666. The present work appears to have been painted in the early years of the eighteenth century and it demonstrates the enduring appeal and interest in the subject matter. In its drama, multiple scenes of human interest and scale, this picture is one of the most remarkable depictions of the fire to appear on the market.