To fetch out the fire: reviving London 1666 exhibition

Date:  From 01 September 2016 to 16 December 2016

Venue: Royal College of Physicians

Knowledge Quarter’s partner, Royal College of Physicians, presents To fetch out the fire: reviving London 1666, a new exhibition which marks the 350th anniversary of the devastation of the nation’s capital, taking a doctor’s eye view of the terrible events of three and a half centuries ago.

Using the remarkable collections of the Royal College of Physicians – an institution whose home was burnt to the ground in September 1666 – visitors follow the story of the capital’s 17th century doctors as they were divided by war, battled with plague and almost ruined by flames, only to emerge with hope for the future in magnificent new headquarters designed by scientist and City Surveyor, Robert Hooke. A symbol of London’s resilience and revival.

Original artefacts that miraculously evaded the destruction of the 1660s will go on public display including fascinating archives, precious silver, beautiful antique books and a stunning assembly of portraits, some touched by the fire itself and bearing the scars to prove it.

Highlights include a selection of rare 17th century recipe books and herbal medical texts detailing common remedies for burns and scalds that may well have been used on the injured of The Great Fire. These unusual and sometimes odious potions open a window onto the decidedly organic medicine of the time.

Herbal book antimony cup cauterising iron apothecary jar - small format 2 (c) RCP photography John Chase

Herbal book antimony cup cauterising iron apothecary jar – small format 2 (c) RCP photography John Chase

From the College’s present day treasures room comes a surviving filigree silver box that once contained a bezoar stone. Taken from the kidneys of antelopes bitten by serpents, these hard lumps were said by ‘quacks’ to ward off the plague that had bedevilled London since the 14th century, a disease that finally disappeared along with the flames of the fire. Nearby are some gold ‘touch pieces’, small coins marked with the image of the archangel Michael and presented by then King Charles I to over 100,000 of his sick subjects at healing ceremonies throughout his reign.

Also on show is a small silver bell, dated 1636, it is thought to be the earliest piece of hallmarked English silver in existence. Rescued from the College’s home at Amen Corner in the shadow of old St Paul’s Cathedral as it was being overtaken by flames, the item is still used today to call for silence during the election of the new President of the Royal College of Physicians.

On loan from The Society of Antiquaries of London is a magnificent oil painting completed in the aftermath of the fire in the style of the Anglo-Dutch school. The image shows old St Paul’s engulfed by flames and the sky consumed by smoke, turning day to night. Recent conservation has revealed that the dark, brooding image caused a later artist to mistake the work for a night time scene, he added a moon and its reflection in the river. Today, a blood orange sun has been restored, the whole vista supporting the testaments of eyewitnesses, also on display, that the conflagration made midday as dark as midnight.

(c) Society of Antiquaries of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Society of Antiquaries of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In the final section, the exhibition focuses on the rebuilding of the College and the wider City of London, the designs of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, the men who would construct the two greatest buildings of the new capital: St Paul’s and the Royal Bethlem Hospital. Less well known is Hooke’s Royal College of Physicians, a now lost architectural treasure revealed by plans, drawings, a haunting early photograph and contemporary accounts to have been one of the finest flowerings of the resurgent City.

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