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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Joseph Mallord William Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up – 1839

London, National Gallery

The Temeraire was launched in 1798, a 98-gun Second Rate ship of the line. She was the second ship to carry the name — her predecessor had been built in France, launched as Le Téméraire, but was captured in 1759, during the Seven Years War, becoming a British ship but keeping her name, minus the accents. In 1805 the (second) Temeraire played an exceptionally gallant part in the battle of Trafalgar attacking the Franco-Spanish line directly behind the Victory and taking not one but two enemy ships captive. So she was a vessel with an heroic pedigree. But by the 1830s the age of these leviathans was at an end. Oak and sail were giving way to steam and on 5 and 6 September 1838 it was the Temeraire’s turn to succumb to inevitable progress. A hulk, stripped to an empty hull, she was towed from her moorings at Sheerness by two steam tugs on her last journey to Rotherhithe where she was broken up. Turner would have read of this in the newspapers — it is highly unlikely that he witnessed the journey himself. However the story elicited a response from him which resulted in a most remarkable picture — perhaps his most-loved painting.

Half of the picture is filled with a glorious sunset. To the left, buoyed on a calm and tranquil sea the Temeraire is towed to her doom. Turner has used colour to impart an ethereal quality to the old vessel — she seems to loom over her nemesis like a ghost ship — anticipating her eventual demise. The real Temeraire, during her last journey would not have been masted but Turner has given her some stunted masts so that she should retain a semblance of dignity. The tug paddles remorselessly towards the viewer; other sailing vessels retreat towards the setting sun.

At first sight the message is clear — the Temeraire, valiant emblem of the age of sail, is being ushered unceremoniously to her demise by a squat tug belching acrid smoke and flame — an era of grace, power and heroism is replaced by ugly, brutalistic utility and the exigencies of money. But Turner may not necessarily have attached such negative associations to the tug. He had included steamers in many works prior to this and he may well have seen the tug as a symbol of necessary and inevitable change. It is the sunset, as much a focus of the composition as the two disparate vessels, which betrays an underlying significance — all things come to an end including our own lives.

And what a sunset it is. No one does sunsets like Turner. He was always striving to better his hero Claude in his portrayal of light, and particularly the sun. In paintings such as this Turner succeeds triumphantly. This part of the canvas, in contrast to other areas, is covered with thickly impastoed paint — very unlike Claude. Golds, crimsons and reds are built up to produce a quite extraordinary evocation of the different colours which the setting sun imparts to cloud and atmosphere. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 it received ecstatic reviews. One reviewer thought that the painting was ‘the most wonderful of all the works of the greatest master of the age’. But it was William Makepeace Thackeray who put his finger on it when he likened the picture to ‘a magnificent national ode’.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

1838 Christen Købke: View of Lake Sortedam, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst

1838 William Dyce: Madonna and Child, Nottingham, Castle Museum

1840 Jean-Baptiste-Camille CorotBreton Women at the Well, Paris, Musée du Louvre

1841 Théodore Chassériau: The Toilet of Esther, Paris, Musée du Louvre

Further Paintings of Interest

Sketch for Hadleigh Castle

John Constable

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden

John Constable

The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault