On September 2nd 1666, a baker named Thomas Farriner went to bed on what seemed like any ordinary evening. In fact, the city as he and others knew it would never again see the light of day. Shortly after midnight, Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane caught fire — three days later, almost all of the City of London, the historic centre enclosed within the Roman city wall, was reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble. But from the ashes, with a little help from Sir Christopher Wren, grew the London we know today. In commemoration 350 years later, London’s Burning aims to honour both the cataclysmic power of the inferno itself, and the enduring legacy of regeneration and evolution that it necessitated.
Taking place from August 30th until September 4th, London’s Burning is part of the wider Great Fire 350 programme of events, which has been taking place throughout August and continues into September. London’s Burning is the central event of the commemorations, a spectacular six-day run of artistic events designed to reimagine ‘the Great Fire of 1666 through the vision of contemporary artists, writers and thinkers’, exploring the resonant themes of displacement and human resilience, and the relationship between the world’s great cities with catastrophe — as poignant in today’s London and the world at large as they have ever been.
Organisers Artichoke have been firing on all cylinders, as it were, in the lead up to the event, which will see events held at fantastic landmark locations and artistic venues across the Square Mile and the South Bank, including the Tate Modern, National Theatre, St Paul’s Cathedral (one of the most famous buildings to be destroyed by the fire and subsequently rebuilt by Wren) and, of course, the Monument to the Great Fire of London.
Of all Great Fire 350’s impressive visual installations, all will be dwarfed by the London’s Burning finale, London 1666, which will see a 120-meter-long sculpture of the pre-fire skyline set ablaze as it floats down the River Thames, dramatically restaging the events of that fateful September night. The sculpture is the result of a collaboration between American artist David Best — the king of Burning Man, who has made a name for himself around the world with his astonishing, immense effigies made from recycled materials, which are burnt to the ground in a cathartic spectacle — and Artichoke, constructed with the help of local schools and young Londoners.
Elsewhere, artist Martin Firrell will be lighting up the exteriors of the National Theatre and St Paul’s, two very different landmarks either side of the Thames, with his Fires of London installation. The south and east sides of the St Paul’s dome will be lit up with a fiery projection for the ‘Fires Ancient’ half, visible from across the river, where ‘Fires Modern’ — a projection of flames and texts recounting stories of change that have affected the capital over the years and led to the creation of a diverse and resilient metropolis — will cover the iconic theatre’s monolithic flytower. Just down the river, fire alchemists and street art collective Compagnie Carabosse will be transforming the lawn space outside of the Tate Modern into the Fire Garden, filled with blazing metal structures, candles and flowerpots, with live music and other performances intermingled between the flames. Turning down the heat but not the spectacle, the kinetic Dominoes exhibition in the City will be filling seven kilometres of streets with 26,000 breeze blocks, tracing the Great Fire’s path as they fall in turn towards a fiery finale. Meanwhile, Holoscenes, a six-hour underwater performance by Early Morning Opera, will be reminding us of the most sinister earthly element threatening the safety of today’s cities.
These striking visual installations will be accompanied by a riveting series of talks from a range of figures. Climb to the top of the Monument, the world’s tallest isolated column, on Thursday September 1st for an intimate history lesson from Matt Brown followed by a poetry reading by actor Simon Callow (the Monument is also offering free entry from Friday September 2nd until Sunday 4th, with free talks in the piazza from Monday August 29th until Friday September 2nd). Alternatively, head to ‘Art and Crisis’ on September 2nd for a discussion on art’s ability to respond to the issues that impact the world today, or ‘When Things Go Wrong’ on September 3rd, which analyses the ways in which our common rhetoric responds to crises and catastrophes.
For more gastronomically-minded individuals, The Great Fire in Three and a Half Pints is a series of guided walking tours across the City, combined with stops at historic Fuller’s pubs, while Real Food Festivals will be bringing a Fire Food Market to Guildhall Yard on the evenings of Saturday September 3rd and Sunday 4th, complete with fire-themed entertainment.