Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Watercolour with bodycolour on card
  • 6 ⅝ × 9 ⅝ inches · 170 × 245 mm
  • Inscription to verso in brown ink: 'The burning of the Mansion House, Bristol, in the Riots of this City, in 1831 by W. Müller. A.J.A. Proprietor’

    The Burning of the New Prison, Bristol
    Watercolour with bodycolour on card
    6 3/16 x 9 ⅞ inches; 159 x 250 mm
    Inscription to verso in brown ink:'The burning of the New Prison, Bristol, in the Riots of that City in 1831, by W. Müller. A.J.A. Proprietor'


  • Alfred John Acraman (1809-1880); 
  • Clevedon Salerooms, near Bristol, 23rd September 1999 (sold as a pair with The Burning of the New Gaol, hammer price £14,500); 
  • Estate of Martyn R. Davies (1924-2023); 
  • Dominic Winter Auctioneers, 13th March 2024, lot. 100;
  • Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd.


  • Francis Greenacre and Sarah Stoddard, W. J. Müller 1812-1845, 1991, p. 70.

The Bristol Riots, which took place following the defeat of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords in October 1831, were the most sustained and violent protests to occur in Britain during the nineteenth century. Frustration with the pace of electoral reform prompted unprecedented destruction of property across Britain but most spectacularly in the port city of Bristol. The Bristol Riots represented the closest Britain came to open revolution during the period and the individual incidents – particularly the burning of Bristol’s civic buildings – became the subject of a small but important body of contemporary works by Bristol-based artists. It is likely that this dramatic pair of landscapes were made by Müller in 1831 and are almost certainly based on ad vivum studies Müller made during the riots. The first owner of this pair of paintings was Alfred Acraman, a substantial Bristol merchant who had considerable mercantile interests in the city. As such, these works give important context for understanding Müller’s small but powerful images of the riots.

William James Müller was born in Bristol of Prussian extraction. He first studied under the Bristol landscape painter James Baker Pyne and his earliest pictures are principally views of the city and surrounding counties. In 1831 Müller witnessed the Bristol riots producing a sequence of remarkably raw depictions of the destruction of Bristol’s civic buildings, unlike works by other Bristol School artists, notably Pyne, Müller’s works emphasised the human element of the riot: showing the protestors actively attacking buildings and monuments as well as the official reaction, in one powerful watercolour Müller depicts the 3rd Dragoon Guards attacking the crowd in Queen Square.[1]

The Representation of the People Act, known as the Reform Bill proposed a major change to the electoral system in Britain. It was designed to reapportion constituencies to address the unequal distribution of seats and radically expand the franchise by broadening and standardising the property qualifications to vote. At the general election of 1831 the Whig party campaigned on a platform of electoral reform and decisively won and in September 1831 the Second Reform Bill was finally approved by parliament. It was in the unelected House of Lords that the Bill met opposition, not just from Tory peers, but from the Bishops. News of this defeat coincided with the arrival of the anti-reform judge Charles Whetherell in Bristol for the assizes on 29th October 1831. Whetherell was the Bristol Recorder and MP for the rotten borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire, which had an electorate of just 48; he had spoken passionately against electoral reform and had stated in Parliament that Bristol, as a city, was anti-reform. Bristol had, in fact, sent a petition of 17,000 names to support reform and hosted large pro-reform public meetings in the first week of October.

Whetherell’s carriage was stoned as it entered Bristol and he and the Mayor, Charles Pinney, had to seek refuge in the Mansion House. Pinney twice spoke to the crowd to attempt to regain control, but felt he had no option but to read the Riot Act at dusk. The Mansion House was subsequently stormed, the 14th Light Dragoons attempted to halt the riot and shot one man dead in the process. Whetherell and Pinney where forced to flee as the Mansion House was looted, its wine cellar – containing three hundred dozen bottles of wine – was emptied and the building set on fire. Müller shows the conflagration on the evening of the 30th October, with a group of spectators watching flames and smoke billowing from the building. In a pencil and wash sketch, identified by Francis Greenacre as having been possibly made on the spot, Müller includes two mounted Dragoons amongst the spectators. As he points out, this accorded with contemporary accounts, the Rev. John Eagles noted:

‘During the burning of the building the troops walked their horses quietly along the Square, wrapped up in their cloaks, to protect them from the drizzling rain that now fell, and used no exertion.’

It was probably the lack of ‘exertion’ that prompted Müller to omit them from this – and other – more finished versions.

Müller paired the destruction of the Mansion House with the burning of the New Gaol. Completed in 1820 to designs by the architect Henry Hake Seward, the New Gaol accommodated up to 198 prisoners. Designed as a detached radial prison with four wings fanning out from the governor’s house and chapel followed the semi-panopticon format first advocated by Jeremy Bentham. An imposing, modern structure, the New Gaol, with 20 feet walls topped by nine inch long cheval de frise should have been impregnable. The size and determination of the force that attacked the New Gaol prevented adequate defence, compounded by muddled instructions given by the magistrates meant that the wooden doors of the gatehouse were breached. The crowd liberated the prisoners, ransacked the governor’s house and set it alight. Müller shows fire engulfing the Governor’s House and Chapel, the flames effectively silhouetting one of the radial blocks of the prison and its formidable retaining wall. In the foreground Müller includes a three-masted merchant vessel.

Müller’s depictions of the burning of the Mansion House and New Gaol are important contemporary records of the violence and destruction of the Bristol riots. A contemporary inscription on the verso of one of the drawings records the first owner as ‘A.J.A. proprietor’ who Francis Greenacre identified as Alfred John Acraman. Acraman was from a distinguished family of Bristol merchants with diverse interests, including iron and plate manufactory, brass foundry and other maritime engineering. It is perhaps noteworthy that Acraman’s uncle, Daniel Wade Acraman, would go on to commission an oil painting celebrating the activities of one of Acraman’s iron foundries Forging the Anchor in 1833 now in the collection of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It is a rare instance of an oil painting of contemporary industry. Alfred John Acraman was also a founding shareholder in The Great Western Cotton Factory along with Charles Pinney, the ill-fated mayor of Bristol during the riots. In 1832 he was listed as living at 4 Great George Street, close to the area that was worse effected by the rioting. Müller’s paintings therefore belonged to members of Bristol’s mercantile elite. How precisely we are to read this is unclear, but it seems likely that the works remained a powerful reminder of an episode in Britain’s recent past when a wider political calamity was narrowly averted.

William James Müller
Forging the Anchor
Oil on canvas
34 x 50 inches; 869 x 1282 mm
© Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives / Given by Lady Weston, 1908
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery