Day 9 – Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London.
Originally posted on 27 March 2020
Isn’t this a wonderful painting? Evocative, atmospheric, rich in colour, packed with meaning – all in all, it is beautifully painted. Indeed, a few years back it was voted ‘the Nation’s favourite painting’, and has even found its way onto the £20 note. An even greater sign of its prestige: it was featured in a James Bond film – a rather clever choice, in context, as it happens. It’s also the perfect painting in times of transition, so I’m very happy to think about it today, at the request of my sister, Jane.
‘The Fighting Temeraire’ was, unlike many of Turner’s later works, well received when first exhibited. Despite many offers, he never sold it, holding onto it until his death, when it was left to the Nation as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856. It’s been ours ever since. It is, in purely painterly terms, one of his most beautiful and successful paintings, I think. The rich colours of the setting sun reflected in the calm water create a warming glow, which add to the cool greys of the Temeraire – the sailing ship on the left hand side of the painting – to create a pervasive atmosphere of melancholy. The paint is thickly applied on the right, building up a notable ‘impasto’ (a thick application of paint), creating the effect that the clouds surrounding the surprisingly-thinly painted disk of the sun are made of solid colour, or dying sunlight. But there is little detail here – all is suggested. Turner is showing, but not telling. There is far more detail on the left, where the ship and the tugboat are drawn with something close to precision, the latter being bold, and ‘present’, the former, with its cobweb of masts and rigging, almost fading away, veiled by the mists, as if it were a ghost ship.
In Stoppard’s play, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, we know where the play is going. He uses a quotation from Hamlet to tell us that these more-than-alive pair will inevitably pass away. The same is true here: ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to its final birth to be broken up, 1838’. Artists didn’t really give their paintings titles much before the 19th Century. The names we know are merely descriptions of what we see, or nicknames from the 19th or 20th century which stuck, even though, very often, they make no sense. ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ is not laughing, nor is he a cavalier, for example. Turner seems to make up for the previous lack of titles with names of notable length – this is not his longest by any means. And it is interesting because it marks changes in the English language. The ship, the second of the line at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (the first was, of course, Nelson’s ‘Victory’), was called the ‘Temeraire’. By calling it ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ Turner acknowledged its vital role in the British Victory – it captured two enemy ships! However, on its return to England there was a devastating storm, the Temeraire was severely damaged, and it never fought again. It was moored towards the mouth of the River Thames, at Sheerness (probably the second best thing connected with Sheerness that I know), where it served as a guard ship (it kept its cannon, and could have fired at any invading vessel) and a supply ship (it stored food and resources for other ships in the fleet). But by 1838 the Navy was no longer building sailing ships, and the Temeraire was, in any case, obsolete. It was sold for scrap and towed into London, one tug boat pulling from the front, another tug boat assisting with steerage from behind. On arrival, it was broken up. Notice the terminology: it was towed by a tugboat. By saying ‘tugged to its final birth’ he is following a trend in the change of the use of the word ‘tug’ to mean ‘towed by a tugboat’. Some have even said he instituted this change.
Sorry, I got distracted. Back to the painting. The title is important because we know what is going to happen – the ship is coming to an end, in the same way that the day is coming to an end. The sunset may look real, but this isn’t realism, it is symbolism. But it isn’t just this ship which is coming to an end, it is an entire era: this is the end of the Age of Sail. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and we are well into the Age of Steam. Look at that tugboat, determined, powerful, triumphing over the sailing ship’s impotence in the face of a calm sea, black and ominous, belching its smoke and steam over the damaged dowager’s fragile forms. Now look at the Temeraire, majestic, skeletal, doomed. Things were so much better in the good old days!
But wait. The sun isn’t the only thing in the sky. At the top left, you can see the moon. Even as a sliver its silvery light traces echoes through the clouds and over the surface of the water, it is unmistakable but often goes unnoticed. In English we use the word ‘crescent’, which comes from the Latin ‘crescere’ – ‘to grow’, even though crescent moons aren’t always growing. Of course, we do have the words ‘waxing’ and ‘waning’, but nowadays we don’t really use them very much. The Italians, on the other hand, have the terms ‘crescente’ and ‘calante’, ‘growing’ and ‘falling’ (or, in this context, diminishing). As they have the two words, they know how to apply them – and they would know that this crescent moon is waxing, not waning. This is the beginning of the lunar cycle, and if the sun is being used symbolically, so, surely, is the moon. It may be the end of the Age of Sail, but it is also the beginning of the Age of Steam – and Turner loved steam power: just think of his painting, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, a celebration of the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution. He wasn’t at all worried about smoke and steam, as it happens, and loved bringing them into play to enhance the evocative nature of his paintings.
Some things end, yes, but others things begin. This is a painting about development, about transition, melancholy perhaps, but not without optimism, which is why it is a perfect painting for today.
I could stop here, but I have to go back to my outburst from yesterday (#POTD 8). Because, basically, Turner GOT IT WRONG.
Think about it. Look at a map. Look at the painting. Going from Sheerness to London you are going West. The sun sets in the West. It’s in the wrong place. So either the ship is lost, the sun is lost, or this is sunrise not sunset. But we know it is sunset – even without any movement, Turner gives us the sense of ‘setting’. And that’s not all. The ship is being towed, because its sails are furled, and, in any case, there is no wind. Look at the mirror-like surface to the water. And yet there is a ship in full sail in the background to the right of the tug – where did that wind come from? And where is the second tugboat? Has he tucked away behind the larger vessel?
There are also a couple of technical shipbuilding details. First, the masts. It was very hard to erect the masts of a ship like this, and the only people who really had the equipment to do it were the Navy. Before the ship was sold, the masts were taken out. How do we know? Well, look at the second illustration, an etching by John and William Beatson from September 1838, which shows the Temeraire laid up at Beatson’s Yard in Rotherhithe. No masts. The second point relates to the construction of steam boats: the engine needs to be in the middle to keep the boat balanced, so the funnel must be in the middle with the mast at the front. Turner has swapped them round. This was such a terrible mistake that, when the painting was engraved in 1845, the artist responsible, James Tibbetts Willmore, swapped them round so make the image more accurate.
This illustration really shows why Turner made the change – after all, he did know his boats and ships, and would have known it was wrong. Adding the sails back onto the Temeraire gives it that sense of majesty, and of dignity – it helps us to feel more sympathy with this loyal vessel. And by switching the mast and the funnel, he creates a smoother line, rather than the clunky, jumping series of verticals in the print, and enhances the diagonal which goes from the ship in full sail in the background, and the crescent moon at the lop left. Maybe this diagonal is a symbolic timeline, in which the background represents the past, with the Temeraire as it was, leading through the present – the tugboat – to the future – the inevitable growth of the moon.Ah yes, the moon. The best time to tow a ship up a river would be when the tide is highest, and that occurs when there is a full moon. And yes, art historians have checked the shipping charts (we don’t all sit around all day going ‘Isn’t this a wonderful painting?’), and lo-and-behold on 8 and 9 September, 1838, when the Temeraire was towed upstream, there was indeed a full moon. And yes, Turner got it wrong. But this isn’t a piece of documentary evidence, it is a work of art. It is, like Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ yesterday, more beautiful than true. And yes! This is a wonderful painting!