Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.
Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images; the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.
Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people? Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.
The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).