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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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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