London On Fire: Paintings Of The Blitz By The Firefighters Who Were There

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 9 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Last Updated 17 October 2023

London On Fire: Paintings Of The Blitz By The Firefighters Who Were There

For more of all things London history, sign up for our new (free) newsletter and community: Londonist: Time Machine.

Painting of firemen resting while the city burns in the background
Resting at a Fire. Oil, painted by Reginald Mills in around 1941. These AFS firefighters are surrounded by rolled up hose, resting in the back of an appliance vehicle which pulls a trailer pump, while their colleagues in the background continue to fight a fire. You can see a church spire in the background.

Anyone brought up in Britain will be familiar with black and white photos of the Blitz — but a new exhibition shows artists' incandescent impressions of the horrific conflagrations that swept London in the early 1940s.

Fire in the City: Artists in the Blitz — which is on from now until December 2023 — brings London's 'Second Great Fire' into burning hot focus and, what's more, the free exhibition features paintings by the very firefighters who witnessed the flames firsthand, including Wilfred Stanley Haines, Reginald Mills, Mary Pitcairn and Paul Dessau.

Sketch of firemen putting their uniforms on
Bells Down. Watercolour by Julia Lowenthal

While some of the paintings capture the horrifying bombast of war (none more so, perhaps, than Dessau, who forms demonic demons from the plumes of smoke in his 'Menace' series), other moments appear more reflective, such as Julia Lowenthal's Bells Down, which pictures firefighters calmly donning their uniforms before they head out to risk life and limb.

A painting of London on fire, with plumes of smoke
Menace No.1: Overture. Oil. By Paul Dessau

Some of the original paintings first went on show while much of London was still burning; 10 artists serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed their own Firemen Artists Organising Committee and, on 10 March 1941, held an exhibition in London, featuring over 100 paintings. It pulled in over 30,000 visitors — and led to another five such shows.

Painting of a building collapsing in fire
Run! Watercolour, painted by Reginald Mills.

The venues for 2023's exhibition couldn't be any more fitting; put together as part of Wren 300, by the London Fire Brigade Museum and Square Mile Churches, a series of Christopher Wren's City churches are displaying reproductions of the paintings — these churches were in the direct line of fire during the second world war, with some — including St Mary Le Bow — badly damaged by bombs. The full list of churches where you can see the exhibition is as follows:

  • St Mary Le Bow: Monday to Friday, 7.30am-6pm. Open weekends on an informal basis.
  • St Mary Aldermary: Tuesday to Friday, 7.30am-4pm
  • St James Garlickhythe: Monday to Wednesday, 10am-4.30pm; Thursday, 11am-3pm; Sunday: 9am-1pm; Friday & Saturday, closed
  • St Magnus the Martyr: Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm; Sunday 10am-1pm (Mass at 11am)
  • St Stephen Walbrook: Monday to Friday 10.30am-3.30pm

A second lot of churches will display the painting from the end of November onwards.

Painting of someone at the wheel
Driving by Moonlight. Oil, painted by Mary Pitcairn, in 1941.This painting shows AFS Firewoman Gillian ‘Bobbie’ Tanner. Her citation for her George Medal said: "On the night of 20 September 1940, Auxiliary G.K.Tanner volunteered to drive a 30 cwt lorry loaded with 150 gallons of petrol. Six serious fires were in progress and for three hours Miss Tanner drove through intense bombing to the point at which the petrol was needed, showing coolness and courage throughout." The artist, fellow AFS firewoman Mary Pitcairn, was secretary of the Firemen Artists Organising Committee.

London Fire Brigade Museum's Curator, Dinah Winch says: "Like so many Londoners in the Blitz, the firefighter artists were very courageous and saw horrors that most of us can't even imagine now. They were also curious, creative and compassionate. Their paintings reflect this and are the reason they remain so compelling to a modern audience.

"The firefighter artists are not well known, and with the Brigade's art collection currently in storage, this exhibition is a great opportunity to tell their story, out in the City, where they were working during the Blitz."

London's skyline including Tower Bridge illuminated in flame
Red Sunday, 29 December 1940. Oil, painted by W.S.Haines in 1941. W.S.Haines was a member of the London River Service, a specially-trained division of the London Fire Service. Unlike other firefighter artists he was not working in the tight confines of the City of London and therefore had the opportunity for more panoramic pictorial compositions. Here you can see St Pauls Cathedral and the spires of City churches, through the iconic silhouette of Tower Bridge.

Fire in the City: Artists in the Blitz, various City of London Churches, until 18 December 2023. Free entry

All images © London Fire Brigade Museum