Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Fighting Temeraire by J. M. W. Turner

James W Singer 2 June 2024 min Read

Fighting Temeraire by British Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner is a seascape that expresses poetic and patriotic feelings.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK.

Historical Context

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest British painters during the Romantic era. His paintings, filled with intense passion and energy, exemplify Romanticism and its ideas of emotion over reason. One of Turner’s greatest paintings is Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery in London, UK. It is a masterpiece of poetic and patriotic feelings.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Self-Portrait, ca 1799, Tate Britain, London, UK.

J. M. W. Turner, Self-Portrait, ca 1799, Tate Britain, London, UK.

General Composition

Fighting Temeraire is an oil on canvas measuring 90.7 by 121.6 cm (35.7 by 47.9 inches). This unusual composition presents a large wooden warship being pulled by a smaller, relatively new metal tugboat. The tugboat blows fiery smoke into the air and furled the sails of the warship behind, while the latter drifts like a ghost ship as it emerges from a cloudy mist in a pale vision of white and gold against the setting sun. Radiant shades of yellow, orange, and red are cast into the sky above and the water below.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Warship

That lofty warship is the famous HMS Temeraire, which gloriously fought during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 against Emperor Napoleon. It is a three-deck vessel made from over 5000 oak trees with 98 cannons. The famous ship has reached the end of its life. It has been decommissioned and sold by the British Navy for £5,530 (approximately £718,969 in 2024) to John Beatson, a private shipbreaker and timber merchant. Turner has captured the warship’s final voyage along the Thames River as it heads to its final port to be dismembered.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Tugboat

The dark metal tugboat is a paddle steamer. Although compact in size, it has paddle wheels powered by a mighty coal-burning engine. The deck is filled with a crew. They congregate along the boat’s taffrail, and their faces are reduced to ovals when looking from afar. The tugboat was portrayed leaving the port town of Sheerness in Kent with its warship-cargo for the district of Rotherhithe in southern London.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Historical Accuracy

Turner did not personally witness the two-day towing of the HMS Temeraire along the Thames River. Nor did he witness its arrival to Rotherhithe on September 6, 1838. He most likely read about the ship’s demise from the news or heard of it through acquaintances who lived in the area. The painting Fighting Temeraire is thus not a first-hand account of the event and was not meant to be historically accurate. Inconsistencies granted by artistic license prevail in opposition to historical fact through a veil of poetic emotion and patriotic feeling.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Final Pomp

The ship, en route to a shipbreaker port, would not have retained its original sailing appearance. Eyewitnesses confirmed how the British Navy had already seized its valuable masts and sails, telling of an empty mastless hull being tugged along the river. Consequently, HMS Temeraire was not glorious nor full-bodied, but a brutally reduced butchered version being dragged to oblivion.

Contrary to that harsh reality, Turner decided to depict a more majestic version of the ship’s final sail: fully rigged, riding high in the water, and painted with a white-gold color scheme. He did not want to feature a stripped-reduced, low-riding, black-and-yellow hull. What he was aiming for was a final pomp, not a sad whimper.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Transition

When the warship was being towed, it was steered by two tugboats. Turner chooses to present only one tugboat because presenting the second tugboat behind the warship does not add to the painting’s narrative. It would simply have been a distraction. Turner also places the smokestack prominently at the front of the tugboat and not logically over the engine between the paddle wheels to express the theme of steam power overtaking sail power.

Is Turner expressing a mournful loss? Is Turner anti-steamboat? Contemporary accounts had it that Turner regularly traveled on steamboats along the Thames to the different properties that he owned. Steamboats in the 1830s were used like buses in the 1930s. They were reliable, inexpensive, and quick. Therefore, Turner should not be framed as a Luddite, but he does reminisce upon the passing of a previous age by pointing out a transition between sails and steam.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Thames River

The Thames River appears as a wide empty waterway foregrounding the HMS Temeraire. Joined by a serene and ethereal sunset on the right side of the canvas, it composes a sight of beauty as the stage is set for a moment of reflection. Even though the river used to be full of water traffic and received thousands of tons of raw sewage daily, Turner opted for a more Romantic view with wide breathing space, aesthetically infused colors, and pristinely clear waters over the noisy, dirty, and smelly reality comparable to a highway full of congestion and muck.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Sunset

Poetic and artistic license can add greater depth and feeling to a scene. This comes into play for the positioning of the sun. Geographically speaking, the HMS Temeraire has left the seaside port of Sheerness in the east to the riverside port of Rotherhithe in the west. The ship, while being tugged west, should be facing the sun, which sets in the west. Therefore, the sunset is supposed to be before the ship rather than behind it. But Turner has inverted the east and west horizon to include a setting sun into his landscape.

A sunset implies the poetic end of a day, just as it implies the patriotic end of the ship. Turner has included the moon in the upper left corner of the scene to add a further element of time and transition. Perhaps the setting sun represents the passing days of sailing, and the rising moon represents the approaching days of steam?

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Modern Masterpiece

The 64-year-old Turner received several criticisms from his contemporaries for his depiction of the Fighting Temeraire. Some criticized the historical inaccuracies of the mast-and-rigged ship. Others found the yellow sun like a blob of mustard on the wrong horizon. On the other hand, he was praised almost universally for his poetic and patriotic take on the famous warship. The painting was displayed at the 1839 Royal Academy Exhibition and instantly became a modern masterpiece. Despite many offers, Turner refused to sell the painting and kept it until his death. In 1851, he bequeathed it to the nation. Fighting Temeraire remains one of the most beloved paintings of the National Gallery in London, UK.

Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

J. M. W. Turner, Fighting Temeraire, 1839, National Gallery, London, UK. Detail.

Bibliography

1.

Victoria Charles, Joseph Manca, Megan McShane, and Donald Wigal, 1000 Paintings of Genius, New York, NY, USA: Barnes & Noble Books, 2006.

2.

Fighting Temeraire,” National Gallery Online Collection. Retrieved 13 May 2024.

3.

Helen Gardner, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed. Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

4.

Inflation Rate Between 1839-2024: UK Inflation Calculator,” CPI Inflation Calculator. Retrieved May 14, 2024.

5.

Matthew Morgan, Talks for All: Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, 18 March 2016, YouTube.

6.

Self-Portrait.” Tate Britain Online Collection. Retrieved 16 July 2023.

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