Life after the Great Fire of London
To fetch out the fire: reviving London 1666’, is a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians and marks the 350th anniversary of the devastation of the nation’s capital, taking a unique perspective on the terrible events of three and a half centuries ago and how The City revived its fortunes in the aftermath.
How were the homeless housed? Who treated the sick and with what cures? How was the damaged assessed? How was The City rebuilt? And who paid for the reconstruction and replacement of lost treasures? Using the remarkable collections of the Royal College of Physicians – an institution whose home was burnt to the ground in September 1666 - visitors follow the story of the capital’s 17th century doctors as they were divided by war, battled with plague and almost ruined by flames, only to emerge with hope for the future in magnificent new headquarters designed by scientist and City Surveyor, Robert Hooke. They form a symbol of London’s resilience and revival. Original artefacts that miraculously evaded the destruction of the 1660s are on public display including fascinating archives, precious silver, beautiful antique books and a stunning assembly of portraits, some touched by the fire itself and bearing the scars to prove it. Highlights include a selection of rare 17th century recipe books and herbal medical texts detailing common remedies for burns and scalds that would have been used on the injured of The Great Fire. These unusual and sometimes odious potions open a window onto the decidedly organic medicine of the time and how it was applied to the tens of thousands left homeless by the inferno. Also on show is a small silver bell, dated 1636, it is thought to be the earliest piece of hallmarked English silver in existence. On loan from The Society of Antiquaries of London is a magnificent oil painting of The Great Fire completed in the immediate aftermath, part of an unusual early flowering of art commemorating the traumatic event and cementing it forever in the collective imagination. The image shows old St Paul’s engulfed by flames and the sky consumed by smoke, turning day to night. Recent conservation has revealed that the dark, brooding image caused a later artist to mistake the work for a night time scene, he added a moon and its reflection in the river. Today, a blood orange sun has been restored, the whole vista supporting the original testaments of eyewitnesses, also on display, that the inferno made midday as dark as midnight.
The exhibition focuses too on the rebuilding of the College and the wider City of London, the designs of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, the men who would construct the two greatest buildings of the new capital: St Paul’s and the Royal Bethlem Hospital. Also on view are the the unrealised plans for a new grand metropolis of piazzas, monuments and broad avenues laid out once more by Hooke and Wren and Sir John Evelyn in competing designs.
Through objects and testimonies, artworks, architectural plans and medical recipes, ‘To fetch out the fire: reviving London 1666’ presents a compelling perspective on The Great Fire of London, and the capital's recovery from this most terrible of disasters.
The Royal College of Physicians
From 01 September to 16 December 2016
Open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Admission Free
For more information see: www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/fetch-out-fire-reviving-london-1666