The 98-gun ship 'Temeraire' played a distinguished role in Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, after which she was known as the 'Fighting Temeraire'. The ship remained in service until 1838 when she was decommissioned and towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up.
The painting was thought to represent the decline of Britain's naval power. The 'Temeraire' is shown travelling east, away from the sunset, even though Rotherhithe is west of Sheerness, but Turner's main concern was to evoke a sense of loss, rather than to give an exact recording of the event. The spectacularly colourful setting of the sun draws a parallel with the passing of the old warship. By contrast the new steam-powered tug is smaller and more prosaic.
Turner was in his sixties when he painted 'The Fighting Temeraire'. It shows his mastery of painting techniques to suggest sea and sky. Paint laid on thickly is used to render the sun's rays striking the clouds. By contrast, the ship's rigging is meticulously painted.
Russell Celyn Jones: What strikes me about the painting is the notion of ships having memory. Now this is quite different to ships representing men’s memory, men who’ve travelled on the ship, who’ve even died or fought on the ship, I’m talking about the hulk itself having a memory of some kind that the artist has to interpret for us in the form of colour and in the form of brushstrokes. The Temeraire was sold out of the Navy to John Beatson who paid £5,000 for the ship and then towed it up from its permanent home to Rotherhithe where he had his breaker’s yard. And the ship had had a glorious military past at the Battle of Trafalgar, and at the time, two ships were trying to board and destroy Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, and the Temeraire was there and managed to board both of these ships and take them as prizes. So, in a sense, the Temeraire is accredited with saving Nelson’s ship from being taken over and possibly swung the tide of the war. So as far as the painter was concerned, this ship had a heroic past and he mourned to some extent it being brought up to the knacker’s yard – to be brought up for its timber. You know, it constituted 5,000 oak trees and that was the value of the ship to John Beatson.
What Turner does is transfer the story of the ship, the memory of the ship, or the emotional experience, onto the landscape. So if you look at Turner’s painting and see this golden ship being tugged into London by a dark steamship and of course the sunset and various other elements of the painting, it all adds up to an emotional memory of that ship and the sunset is probably the crucial element to that painting. You know, the blood-red sunset, that seems to be suggesting the ending of an era and the beginning of a new one in the new moon of course. The colour of the ship is the colour of dreams. It’s the colour of the other world. There’s a line of poetry that begins, ‘the sea is the beginning of another world’, and that is, in a sense, what this ship represents, that it travels on this other world. So the spectral colour of the ship, I think, suggests to me, its memory of death, not just its own death, but hundreds of men have died on that ship in the middle of a battle probably, because it has to be remembered it’s a military ship. It’s not a civilian cargo ship and what it looks like to me is the kind of ship you struggle to remember from some other time in your life such as sleep, such as a time in the past, such as childhood. It reminds me of ships that travel in the night, that are lit up like cathedrals, really, in the middle of the night.
There’s something about the painting that is not just about a ship. There’s something going on and even if you don’t know the biographical information, you will feel, I think, something about that painting, which will be stirring up in you a sort of history. It might be for an age gone by, it might be for your own youth, but something about the painting triggers emotions of all kinds in the viewer.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Russell Celyn Jones.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty, April 2009