Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is one of the most popular English Romantic artists in history. He was known as ‘the painter of light’, because of his ability to capture wild landscapes and weather systems in vivid colours.
Turner’s most enduring work is an elegiac, mournful painting, an ode to the perceived heroism of the Napoleonic wars. It’s one of Britain’s favourite paintings, titled in full, ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1839’.
But what exactly is depicted in ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, and where is the painting kept today?
HMS Temeraire was one of the most famous ships of her day. She was a 98-gun, three-decker, second-rate ship of the line built of the wood from over 5000 oaks. She became famous for the role she played at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, defending Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.
But as the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, many of Britain’s great warships were no longer needed. From 1820 the Temeraire was mainly serving as a supply ship, and by June 1838 – when the ship was 40 years old – the Admiralty ordered that the decaying Temeraire be sold. Anything of value was stripped from the ship, including masts and yards, leaving an empty hull.
This was sold for £5530 to John Beatson, a Rotherhithe shipbreaker and timber merchant. For many Britons – including Turner – Temeraire was symbolic of the British triumph during the Napoleonic Wars, and its disassembly signalled the nail in the coffin for a great era of British history.
Beatson hired two steam tugs to tow the 2110-ton ship from Sheerness to his breaker’s wharf at Rotherhithe, which took two days. It was a remarkable sight: this was the largest ship ever to have been sold by the Admiralty for breaking up, and the largest to have been brought so high up the Thames. It was this historic moment, Temeraire’s final voyage, which Turner chose to paint.
Turner’s famous painting, however, is a stretch of the truth. It’s unlikely Turner saw the event as he was probably not even in England at the time. He had seen the ship in real life, though, and read many contemporary reports to recreate the scene. Turner had also painted the Temeraire 30 years before, in an 1806 painting, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’.
Turner certainly took liberties with his rendition of the Temeraire’s final voyage, perhaps to allow the ship to retain its dignity. For example, although the masts had been removed, in Turner’s painting, the ship’s three lower masts are intact with sails furled and still partly rigged. The original black and yellow paintwork is also reimagined as white and gold, giving the ship a ghostly aura as it glides across the water.
Turner also made a point of the fact that the ship no longer flies the Union flag (as it was no longer part of the Navy). Instead, the tug’s white commercial flag is flying prominently from a tall mast. When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Turner adapted a line of poetry to accompany the painting:
The flag which braved the battle and the breeze,
No longer own her.
The age of steam
The black tugboat which pulls the mighty warship is perhaps the most pertinent symbol in this elegiac painting. The steam engine of this tiny boat easily overpowers its larger counterpart, and the scene becomes an allegory about the new steam power of the Industrial Revolution.
Although Temeraire was towed by two tugs, Turner has only depicted one. The position of its black funnel has changed too, to allow a long plume of sooty smoke to blow backwards through the Temeraire’s masts. This intensifies the contrast between the dwindling power of sail and the formidable power of steam.
The final sunset
The right-hand third of the canvas is filled with a dramatic sunset of blazing copper hues, centred around the central white disk of the setting sun. This sunset is an essential part of the narrative: as John Ruskin noted, Turner’s “most deeply crimsoned sunset skies” often symbolised death, or in this case, the final moments of Temeraire before she was pulled apart for timber. The pale crescent moon which rises in the top left corner echoes the ghostly colouring of the ship and emphasises that time has run out.
This sunset is, however, another product of Turner’s imagination. The Temeraire reached Rotherhithe in the mid-afternoon, long before the sun was setting. Furthermore, a ship coming up the Thames would head west – towards the setting sun – so Turner’s location of the sun is impossible.
The painting was widely celebrated when it was first exhibited in 1839 at the Royal Academy. It was a particular favourite of Turner’s too. He kept the painting until he died in 1851 and referred to it as ‘his darling’. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London after the Turner Bequest of 1856, where it is one of the most popular exhibits. In 2005, it was voted the nation’s favourite painting, and in 2020 it was included on the new £20 note.