Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Oil on paper laid on panel
  • 3 ½ × 5 inches · 89 × 127 mm
  • With early printed label of the Bristol Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition, 1893, giving the title, artist's name and lender's name and address 'Mr. S. C. Hosegood, 92 Pembroke Road, Clifton'
    Painted in 1831

    The Burning of the Toll House on Prince Street Bridge, Bristol
    Oil on paper laid on panel
    5 x 3 ⅝ inches; 127 x 92 mm
    Painted in 1831


  • Samuel Corner Hosegood (1852-1922); 
  • By descent to 1993;
  • Hosegood sale, Sotheby's, New Bond Street, London, British Paintings, 10th November 1993, lot 99; 
  • Martin R. Davies, Bristol (1924-2023);
  • Dominic Winter Auctioneers, 13 March 2024, lot. 99;
  • Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd. 


  • Bristol International and Fine Art Exhibition, 1893, (exhibited as W. J. Müller)

The Bristol Riots, which took place following the defeat of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords in October 1831, were the most sustained and violent protests to occur in Britain during the nineteenth century. Frustration with the pace of electoral reform prompted unprecedented destruction of property across Britain but most spectacularly in the port city of Bristol. The Bristol Riots represented the closest Britain came to open revolution during the period and the individual incidents – particularly the burning of Bristol’s civic buildings – became the subject of a small but important body of contemporary works by Bristol-based artists. These finely handled paintings were made by James Baker Pyne shortly after the riots in 1831 and record the burning of the New Gaol and the Toll House on Prince Street Bridge.

James Baker Pyne was born in Bristol where he was embedded in the thriving community of artists, taking part in the various sketching clubs which flourished in the city in the 1820s. Pyne’s earliest works show the influence of Francis Danby in their treatment of local landmarks in a particularly atmospheric manner. In 1827 William Müller was apprenticed to Pyne, who is recorded briefly sharing a studio with Samuel Jackson, a fellow landscape painter. Pyne moved to London in 1835 where he had a successful career, producing paintings influenced by the work of JMW Turner. Amongst Pyne’s most significant works, are the small body of paintings he produced documenting the Bristol Riots.

The Representation of the People Act, known as the Reform Bill proposed a major change to the electoral system in Britain. It was designed to reapportion constituencies to address the unequal distribution of seats and radically expand the franchise by broadening and standardising the property qualifications to vote. At the general election of 1831 the Whig party campaigned on a platform of electoral reform and decisively won and in September 1831 the Second Reform Bill was finally approved by parliament. It was in the unelected House of Lords that the Bill met opposition, not just from Tory peers, but from the Bishops. News of this defeat coincided with the arrival of the anti-reform judge Charles Whetherell in Bristol for the assizes on 29th October 1831. Whetherell was the Bristol Recorder and MP for the rotten borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire, which had an electorate of just 48; he had spoken passionately against electoral reform and had stated in Parliament that Bristol, as a city, was anti-reform. Bristol had, in fact, sent a petition of 17,000 names to support reform and hosted large pro-reform public meetings in the first week of October.

Whetherell’s carriage was stoned as it entered Bristol and he and the Mayor, Charles Pinney, had to seek refuge in the Mansion House. Violence escalated, particularly after the police and a mixed body of Dragoons carried out a number of charges into the crowd, one of which led to the death of a protestor. Pinney read the Riot Act, but failed to calm or disperse the crowd who stormed the Mansion House, Whetherell and Pinney fleeing over the rooftops. The crowd looted the Mansion House, emptying its wine cellar and setting the building on fire. A series of charges into the crowd by the 14th Dragoons resulted in a number of fatalities and dramatically escalated the situation. Protestors attacked civic buildings across the city, particularly the gaols. During the night of the 30th October houses, warehouses, tollhouses and further civic buildings were destroyed particularly on Queen Square, Prince’s Street and King Street. There was an attempted attack on the Bristol Corporation’s dock company and the dock gates were burnt and the Bishop’s Palace, customs house and excise office were all burnt to the ground.

Pyne witnessed the riot first-hand, producing an important series of paintings documenting the destruction of key buildings. The present paintings depict the burning of the New Gaol and the Toll House on Prince Street Bridge. The New Gaol had been completed in 1820, designed by the architect Henry Hake Seward to accommodate up to 198 prisoners. Designed as a detached radial prison with four wings fanning out from the governor’s house and the chapel followed the semi-panopticon format first advocated by Jeremy Bentham. An imposing, modern structure, the New Gaol, with 20 feet walls topped with  nine inch long cheval de frise should have been impregnable. The size and determination of the force that attacked the New Gaol prevented adequate defence, compounded by muddled instructions given by the magistrates meant that the wooden doors of the gatehouse were breached. The crowd liberated the prisoners, ransacked the governor’s house and set it alight. The unexpected success in capturing and burning the imposing New Gaol prompted the rioters to pause and decide their next action, as one contemporary account reported:

‘it is said the ringleaders seated themselves in the courtyard of the prison, to deliberate as to the places to be attacked; various schemes were brought forward; at length they sallied forth in several parties, and burnt four toll houses… a ringleader directed the operations with impudent coolness.’[1]

The New Gaol was connected to the rest of Bristol by three swing bridges, the principal of which was the Prince Street Bridge which led to Queen Square. The burning of the toll houses on the Prince Street Bridge not only forms a dramatic pendant to the burning of the New Gaol, but a sequential episode in the unfolding drama of the riots.

Pyne shows fire engulfing the Governor’s House and chapel, the flames effectively silhouetting the radial blocks of the prison, the formidable retaining wall with the distinctive profile of the cheval de frise. Pyne fills the foreground banks of the docks with spectators and the masts of a merchantman. Its pair is composed as an upright landscape and shows the burning toll house on Prince Street Bridge. Behind the conflagration Pyne includes the distinctive profile of St Mary Redcliffe. Both paintings are highly evocative nocturnes, exploiting the full drama of Bristol’s landmarks burning at night.

These compositions were evidently popular as several versions survive. The present exceptionally finely painted works are unusual in their refinement and palette; the pair of similar scenes in the collection of the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery are far cruder in execution. Recently the Tate acquired another version The Burning of the Toll-House on Prince Street Bridge (T15996) which maintains the same basic composition, but shows a different moment with a plume of red flames emanating from the stacks of the burning toll house. Our pair have an unusually early provenance being first recorded in the collection of Samuel Hosegood by 1893, a major collector of Bristol School paintings, Hosegood was a significant donor to the Bristol City Art Gallery.

James Baker Pyne
Bristol Riots: Burning of the New Gaol
Oil on paper
3 ½ x 5 inches; 90 x 129 mm
c. 1832
© Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

James Baker Pyne
Burning Toll House on Prince Street Bridge
Oil sketch on paper
c. 1832
5 ⅛ x 3 ½ inches; 130 x 90 mm
© Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

After the excesses of the night of the 30th October, the riots were quelled the following day. The total death toll is unknown, Mark Harrison estimates that there were between 120 and 250 fatalities. A large part of the city centre was destroyed and up to £300,000 of damage caused. In the aftermath 102 people were tried and 31 sentenced to death, 22 people were transported to Australia and 43 imprisoned. Captain Warrington of the 3rd Dragoons was court martialled and cashiered, Colonel Brereton, who was in overall command of troops in Bristol during the riot sensationally committed suicide during his trial. In 1832 Tory peers once again defeated the Reform Bill leading to a period of heightened tension until the Lord’s finally backed down and it received Royal Assent in June 1832. E. P. Thompson wrote that: ‘in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution’ and Eric Hobsbawm noted that: ‘this period is probably the only one in modern history… where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.’ Pyne’s records of the riots are therefore of considerable consequence. Made in a decade when the landscapes of John Constable and JMW Turner can be said to dominate British art, Pyne’s records of dissent form part of an exiguous iconography explicitly chronicling the most politically disturbed period in modern British history.


  1. A Plain Account of the Riots at Bristol on the Last Three Days of October, 1831, by Nehemiah, a Friend of the Labouring Classes, Bristol, 1832, p.21.