The Fighting Temeraire – J.M.W. Turner

I have been pretty quiet over the weekend, as I had a tooth pulled out, and this momentarily gave me a dip in my inspiration.  Not that my tooth being pulled has anything to do with Turner and his paintings, but I guess that there is a vague link to my tooth and the Temeraire being decommissioned, although I think that the boat got a better send off than my tooth did as I sat there for 20 minutes, swearing under my breathe at the dentist as he tugged away at it.

I have written about Turner before, and as you probably know, if you read this site with any conviction, I am not a huge fan of realism, favouring the more fantastical or surreal, but there is a certain charm to some of the seascapes which Turner produced.

Turner, more so than most, was probably fairly liberal with the truth in his paintings, and I know that many have come under fire for his artistic licence; and while this one, on the surface doesn’t appear to be incorrect, there are some inconsistencies that he has used to create an emotion, rather than present what is real.

The HMS Temeraire, was a 98 gun ship, and was one of the last second-rate ships of the line to be used in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The painting shows the boat being towed by a paddle wheel steam tug boat to its final berth in Rotherhithe (South East London) in 1838. Here the Temeraire would be broken up for scrap.

This painting is probably less about the actual ship itself and more to do with the dawning of the industrial era. The newer technology taking the old to its final resting place. Turner depicted this in a rather clever way.

You will notice that the main focal point of the painting – the Temeraire – is positioned well to the left of the canvas. It looks almost ghost line in its light colours, with a triangle of blue sky set behind it. It’s regal beauty almost merging with the colours of the sky, like a dream. Behind the main attraction, you can see numerous boats that it has passed, the detail of each has been captured to show the differences of the ship going to be decommissioned opposed to those being kept in service.

To the right we see a smeary sunset, the rays from it catching the clouds above and the water below, the fiery red which illuminates clouds and water is mimicked in the smoke which spills from the tug boats funnel.

Behind the Temeraire you can see a silvery waxing moon, which casts its beams across the water. The heroic age of strength of this ship, coming to an end. Turner called this painting his “darling” due to his attachment to the subject and his appreciation of his own work.

This painting’s name is actually “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838”, but that is quite a mouthful and was truncated after Sir Henry Newbolt later wrote a ballad describing the scene.

I mentioned earlier that Turner had used some heavy artistic licence in this painting, which might not be obvious at first inspection. The Temeraire (or Saucy as she had been known to the crew) had been sat in Sheerness Dockyard for sometime before being moved to Rotherhithe, and the rigging and masts had been removed before this final trip, along with all the canons, and other hardware… but where is the beauty painting a ship without its fundamental elements which makes it what it is.

The Temeraire had also been pulled by 2 tugboats, not one, and the journey had been made in the other direction (the sun sets in the west, but the Thames estuary is at the eastern end of the river). Had Turner not have taken this artistic licence, he would not have created what he considered to be one of his masterpieces.

While this painting was displayed at the Royal Academy for a short period after painting, Turner then kept the painting in his studio/showroom until his death. It was lent out in 1844 as part of a deal to create reproductions, but he then refused to lend it further sending notes which read “…no considerations of money or favour can induce me to lend my Darling again…”

Turner’s intention was to leave the painting to the nation on his death in 1851, but his will was unclear and it went through litigation, but eventually in 1856 this and a large body of his work was released to the National Gallery.

You can now see this painting at the National Gallery in London.

What do you think of “The Fighting Temeraire”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


9 thoughts on “The Fighting Temeraire – J.M.W. Turner

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  1. And there was the movie which I’m sure you’ve seen “Mr. Turner” with Timothy Spall. I enjoyed the movie (I believe) I do recall vividly the exhibition and the dabbing of a spot of red on a painting of his presented in the gallery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You always get me to see things in a painting that I NEVER would have given a second glance on my own. Beautiful. And, you’re right, this ship was given more glory than your tooth I’m sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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