These scenes of carnage on the streets of London might look like something from the recent Apocalypse exhibition at Tate Britain, but they were painted during WWII by a serving fireman.
Paul Dessau, a member of the auxiliary fire service, painted this quartet during the height of the Blitz in 1940. The four scenes show different stages of the battle to conquer the flames, much in the style (if not the subject matter) of a Hogarth series. Look closely and you’ll see a monstrous form in each panel. In the first stage, termed Overture by the music-loving Dessau, the bombs begin to fall and a smokey menace looms large over the City. In Crescendo, the flames take hold; a fiery giant smashes down buildings. Rallentando, as the name suggest, shows the beast tempered, its infernal form withered but still intimidating. In the final scene, Diminuendo, the foe lies vanquished amid the smoking rubble, the firemen victorious. Yet the creature has untold siblings who will return night after night to challenge the city’s protectors anew.
This incredible quartet can be seen at London Fire Brigade Museum on Southwark Bridge Road. The museum tells the story of the service from the precursor organisations formed after the Great Fire through to the modern brigade. Other exhibits include a chunk of melted glass from the Crystal Palace, the damaged epaulettes of James Braidwood, first director of London’s fire service, who died in the great Tooley Street fire, and a selection of vintage vehicles. The museum is threatened with closure, and a final decision is expected in the next few weeks. In the meantime, we’d encourage you to book your visit now, so you can see Dessau’s paintings up close.