"A Fire in London" is the fairly descriptive title of a painting that hangs in the stairwell of Ryde Fire Station which due to its immense proportion and dramatic depiction, immediately catches the eye of those visiting the station.

 

A plaque attached to the frame suggests it was given to the firemen of Ryde by one Geo. H. Harrison. It's such a special piece of artwork, one source suggesting that it's the most valuable piece of art held by any fire station nationwide, that it was due further investigation. 

Station Officer Brian Collis of Ryde Fire Station took responsibility for restoration of the painting at some stage in its history. Whilst I can't be sure when he wrote the following, it gives some description of its origin, content and efforts to preserve it. 

Station Officer B.E. Collis

This painting is by George William Home Rosenberg, a painter of merit who had paintings hung at the Royal Academy between 1871 and 1884. The painting was commissioned by an unknown person, but due to the area in which the artist lived, it may have been his own want to record the scene. The fire was in London and as far as can be found out, it was about 1890. The story behind the painting was that the parents, who were in their finery, were at the Opera at Covent Garden and were called away because of a fire at their home, they arrived just in time to receive their children, who had been rescued by the Fire Brigade. The location of the fire is opposite Fortnum and Mason, or at least that is the name over the shop to the right of the painting.

The painting was presented to the Ryde Fire Brigade by George Henry Harrison in August 1925, and it is well documented in the Ryde Council records of that time that it should hang in the town fire station. George Harrison retired from Kingston-upon-Thames, where he was at one time Chief Fire Officer, to the Island, and resided at Thornton just outside of Ryde. He became a Magistrate on the Island bench, which in itself was unusual, as at that time it was normal for Magistrates to be appointed to the local bench. 

The painting has, apart for a short time while the Station was being modernised, always hung in the Station. However, the ravages of time and fumes from the appliances, together with the aggressive climatic conditions, have played havoc, and the painting had got into such a state that it was almost lost.

The Chief Fire Officer, J.A. Bowker, on his first visit to the Station noticed the painting, and a brief history of it was given to him. It was not too long before the Chief made a further visit to inspect the painting more closely and I, Station Officer B.E. Collis, O.St.J., ended up with the task of getting the painting restored. At the time it seemed a monumental task, but with the co-operation of members of the Brigade, especially Ryde Station, the money came in.

The money was raised by various ways, sponsored swim, sponsored slim, jumble sales, donations etc. Eventually the amount required, £600, was raised, the painting had been saved! Many thanks must be given to Mr Robert Ball for the use of the Westridge Swimming Pool, without his help our task would have been very difficult.

The work of raising the necessary funds for this project has been done entirely by the firemen, organised by Station Officer B.E. Collis helped by the men of Ryde Station.

This painting is of very special interest to all Fire Brigades throughout the World. It was mentioned in several periodicals about 30 years ago, and at that time they did not know where the painting was - we did, but due to reasons prevailing at that time the matter was allowed to disappear, and the painting stayed as a missing item. Now is the time to open our doors. The painting, restored, protected and rehung in a place of safety, will be on view to all residents who would like to see what is a very fine painting which has been saved for posterity.

The Station will be open for viewing on the first Wedneday of each month between 1930-2100 hours.

 

Station Officer B.E. Collis

George Howard (not Henry) Harrison resided at Thornton until his death on 20 July 1930 aged 75. His funeral was conducted at St John's, Ryde, four days later. In the early stages of his retirement to the Island he was highly active in the IWFBF and served as its President for many years. 

Sandown Fire Brigade's Chief Officer James Dore saw the experience in the former mainland officer and appointed him Honorary Chief Officer to SFB. The extent of his active involvement in this position remains unproven. 

 

The Google Earth image above shows Picadilly today with Fortnum and Mason still there on the right. Wheeling the image and zooming shows the same arched window frames on the ground floor that appear in Rosenberg's painting which seems to corroborate the location.

However if the angle of the view of Fortnum and Mason is accurate this suggests that the building on fire is Burlington House seen on the left. The original building was established in the 17th century and was added to on many occasions throughout its history. 

By 1874 the building was home to six societies; the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Geological Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Given the occupation of the six learned organisations it seems unlikely that there was space afforded for residential purposes, with the exception perhaps of those in the upper echelons of those societies. Careful analysis of records available reveals no definitive residential use during the suggested era. Neither has a record been discovered of a fire in the building during the late Victorian period.

 

As with most historical matters the painting leaves us with as many questions as answers. What is for sure is its providence and the right of Ryde's firefighters to display it in perpetuity, as decreed by Chief Officer Harrison in 1925.

Former Ryde firefighter and IW Council architect Nigel Hayton advised me that the dimensions of the stairwell in the current Ryde Fire Station, built in 1994, were calculated to accommodate the painting. In 2016 I was contacted by descendents of G.W.H. Rosenberg who asked to view the painting during a trip to the Island, and they reported being overwhelmed by the impact of its size and drama. 

Whilst we may never know the history of the events depicted it is with great pride that successive generations of Ryde firefighters can claim to have a stake in the UK fire service's most valued and notable artwork.


Detail of the Painting

In the bottom right of the painting, if playing around with a photo editor, it appears that a Policeman is attempting to withhold eager members of the public from importuning on the scene of firefighting operations.

The central feature of the painting shows a London fireman, bearing an epaulette on at least his right shoulder suggesting a rank of officer, leaning in towards the relieved mother who clasps one child to her breast whilst the elder toddler buries her face from the horror in the folds of her mother's gown. The fireman clutches a blanket, perhaps used to protect the children when carrying them through the heated environment until outside. The officers body language suggests concern and perhaps a steadying word being passed. Both parents are staring aloft at the stricken building. 

To the rear near the Fortnum and Mason building, at least four water jets can be seen thrown across the street. The range at which the firemen are working indicates that the thermal output of the flames is substantial. A further officer is pointing, indicating where the branchmen should concentrate their throw and to his side can be seen a steam fire-engine from which a steady flow of vertical steam suggests a windless night; some relief to the firemen at an incident where the windows have clearly blown out already.

The right side of the painting adds further explanation of the extent of the fire. To the left is an escape ladder. Whilst its head cannot be seen there doesn't appear to be a hose running up it, indicating that perhaps this device is now redundant having been used to rescue the children from an upper window. However a fireman can be seen on either wheel, the one to the rear visible only from his helmet, so perhaps the ladder is being wheeled in to a new position to enable firefighting from above.

Behind it in the background a further ladder can be seen pitched against a building on the opposite side of the street. Perhaps the heat was so immense and the flare of embers so threatening that the officers were concerned for the safety of these nearby structures.

Regardless of the heat and the evident shower of embers the crowd of onlookers to the extreme right between the two ladders seem undeterred.