The present picture is a replica of one of two panels designed by Stanhope Forbes for the Royal Exchange building. These were commissioned as part of the regeneration programme that followed its demise in the fire of January 1838.
The Royal Exchange has suffered two fires in its history as a trading centre. The first building perished in the Great Fire of London of September 1666. It was erected in 1568 under the auspices of Sir Thomas Gresham, son of the Lord Mayor John Gresham, between Threadneedle Street and Cornhill - then as now a thriving business area. Gresham, a one-time resident of the Low Countries, based it on the Antwerp bourse with its open plan quadrangle and interlinking 'walks' wherein merchants wandered and negotiated business. Shops ('pawns') such as haberdashers and tobacconists were ranged around the courtyard perimeter for the use of traders; these were interspersed with alcoves housing statues.
The second Royal Exchange was built on much the same lines by Edward Jerman. It reopened in September 1669. In 1720 Royal Exchange Assurance (REA) was set up in one of the first floor shops, selling marine and life insurance amongst other kinds. In January 1838 a blaze broke out in the Lloyds coffee shop in the north-east corner of the building, which swept through its entirety.
The third Royal Exchange building was designed by Sir William Tite and opened to the public on 1st January 1845. Instead of the rather vulnerable free-standing statues, it was decided that murals, measuring 17 by 11 feet, should decorate the courtyard walls. Initially the German artist Frederick Sang painted the frescoes that he had submitted in sketch form with Tite's original proposal. However these disintegrated and Sir Frederick Leighton, then President of the Royal Academy, was enlisted to supervise a new project in which 'well known' artists of 'proven ability' were employed. Leighton himself submitted the first panel, Phoenicians trading with the Early Britons on the Coast of Cornwall. In May 1895 the first of these series of murals were unveiled by the Lord Mayor. The installation of each panel was marked by a special ceremony performed by a prominent City personality.
Stanhope Forbes contributed two panels. The first, of which the present picture is a small replica, depicts the Great Fire of 1666. It was presented by the Sun Fire Office in 1899 on the anniversary of the Royal Exchange's third opening some 50 years earlier. The Daily Graphic reported in February 1899 that the company had 'been housed almost on the spot where the picture [is] now'.
Forbes turned to Pepys's account of the Great Fire for inspiration and required a special pit and pulley to be built within his Cornish studio to help him negotiate the huge canvas span; the canvas had been acquired in the Low Countries as its dimensions exceeded the British prototypes.
Forbes second panel, The Destruction of the Second Royal Exchange in 1838, was unveiled in February 1921. The Royal Exchange Assurance Company (later the Guardian Royal Exchange) had commissioned this to celebrate its own bi-centenary - it had been established within the building since 1720. The image was based on a period print by William Heath and proved particularly popular; it was reproduced on postcards, posters, and in children's books, and a smaller replica (and counterpart to our image) was exhibited in the Royal Academy that summer (no. 223).