Absolutely Terrible: The 1831 riots, The Bristol Painters and Turner

In the early 1830s, the political situation in Great Britain was tense.
Electoral reforms promised to benefit large landowners rather than the urban population.

In late 1831, the people of Bristol revolted and, on the night of 30 October, the main seats of civic and religious power were looted and burned. These included the prisons, the Mansion House, the Bishop’s Palace and the elegant Queen Square.

On 31 October, the revolt was brutally suppressed by the army. The riots received considerable press coverage, many commentators likening them to the Apocalypse. Bristol’s main landscape painters, Samuel Jackson, Thomas Rowbotham and William Müller, all portrayed the fires as a terrible and sublime event.

Müller, who had witnessed the riots first hand, made a striking series of oil sketches on paper, which bring the violence back to life. Turner was doubtlessly impressed by the engravings of the Bristol riots.

When on the night of 16 October 1834 an accidental fire destroyed the Houses of Parliament, Turner witnessed the event. He was inspired to paint a series of watercolours and canvases, for which he adapted the model of the Bristol riot engravings.

William James Müller, The Burning of the Custom House, Queen Square, about 1831, watercolour, M4141. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of Queen Square: the Custom House, 1831, oil on paper, M4107. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the Bishop’s Palace, about 1831, oil on paper, M4110. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the Bishop’s Palace, about 1831, oil on paper, M4110 View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the New Gaol from near Prince Street, about 1831, oil on paper, M4121. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the Bishop’s Palace, about 1831, oil on paper, M4110. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Gaol Burning, and St Paul’s, Bedminster, about 1831, oil on paper, M4114. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the New Gaol from Canon’s Marsh, about 1831, oil on paper, M4120. View full image.

William James Müller, The Burning of the New Gaol with St Paul’s Church, Bedminster, about 1831, watercolour, M4143. View full image.

William James Müller, Bristol Riots: The Burning of the Toll-Houses on Prince Street Bridge with St Mary Redcliffe, about 1831, oil on paper, M4109. View full image.

William James Müller, The Burning of the New Gaol, 1832, watercolour, M4142. View full image.

Thomas L. Rowbotham & William James Müller, Charge of the 3rd Dragoon Guards in Queen Square, Monday 31 October 1831, 1833, watercolour, M4621
In 1833, Müller worked with the artist Rowbotham to produce a print depicting the tragic conclusion of three days of rioting in Bristol in 1831. On 31st October, the 3rd Regiment of the Dragoon Guards charged on the crowd of rioters. The had gathered in Queen Square, which was partially in ruins as the result of fire. Dozens of people were killed. The watercolour by the two artists depicts the panic and violence of people among the ruins. This composition possibly provided inspiration for Turner’s watercolours depicting the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. View full image.