Born in about 1782, William Sadler contributed to various Dublin exhibitions from 1809 to 1833. In 1838, the auctioneer C Bennett sold 'the entire of last year's paintings' which included the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Burning of the Royal Exchange and the Burning of the Arcade in College Green. As these titles suggest, Sadler had a penchant for painting dramatic scenes of conflagration and in this picture he improvises an architectural capriccio inspired by the news of the fire which destroyed the Custom House on the Thames. It is only the third known signed work by Sadler to be recorded.
A Custom House has served the port of London at, or adjacent to the present site, since medieval times, but was burned down on several occasions, including – inevitably given its proximity to the start of the blaze – the Great Fire of London in 1666. Christopher Wren's replacement building was itself destroyed by fire in 1715 and a new, larger structure was built to the designs of Thomas Ripley, Master Carpenter to the Board of Customs. As trade grew exponentially over the next century, Ripley's building was replaced by one designed by David Laing, work on which commenced in 1813, but the older structure was retained. The following year however, on 2 February 1814 the old Custom House was destroyed by flames and, as gunpowder was being stored in the vicinity, the explosion was dramatic. Paperwork from the Custom House was found as far away as Hackney. Important early documents as well as 'books, bonds, debentures, pearls, coral, valuable property of every description, and securities of all kind were consumed'.