Turner’s painting shows the final journey of the Temeraire, as the ship is towed from Sheerness in Kent along the river Thames to Rotherhithe in south-east London, where it was to be scrapped. The veteran warship had played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but by 1838 was over 40 years old and had been sold off by the Admiralty. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839, the painting was accompanied by lines Turner had adapted from Thomas Campbell’s poem, Ye Mariners of England: ‘The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, / No longer owns her.’
It is unlikely that Turner witnessed the ship being towed; instead, he imaginatively recreated the scene using contemporary reports. Set against a blazing sunset, the last voyage of the Temeraire takes on a greater symbolic meaning, as the age of sail gives way to the age of steam.
Turner’s painting shows the final journey of the Temeraire, as the ship is towed by a paddle-wheel steam tug from Sheerness in Kent along the river Thames to Rotherhithe in south-east London, where it was to be scrapped.
Built of the wood from over 5000 oaks, the 98-gun, three-decker veteran warship had played a distinguished role during the Napoleonic Wars, defending Nelson’s flagship Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. With the advent of peace in 1815, most of Britain’s great warships became redundant, and from 1820 the Temeraire had been moored off Sheerness, serving mainly as a supply ship. In June 1838 the Admiralty ordered that the decaying Temeraire be sold, as the ship was by then over 40 years old and worth only the value of the timbers. Prior to sale, Temeraire was stripped by the Navy of all re-usable parts – including masts and yards – and reduced to an empty hull. The ship was sold for £5530 to John Beatson, a Rotherhithe shipbreaker and timber merchant. As the mastless 2110-ton Temeraire was unable to sail independently, Beatson hired two steam tugs to tow it along the Thames from Sheerness to his breaker’s wharf at Rotherhithe. Moving the Temeraire took about two days, and the ship finally berthed at Beatson’s wharf on 6 September.
It is unlikely that Turner witnessed the Temeraire being towed – he may not even have been in England at the time – although he could have previously seen the ship when travelling past Sheerness. Instead, he imaginatively recreated the scene using contemporary reports. News of the ship’s fate would have aroused his patriotism. Not only was the Temeraire the largest ship ever to have been sold by the Admiralty for breaking up and the largest to have been brought so high up the Thames, but Turner certainly knew of its action at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had already included a glimpse of the ship in a large painting of 1806, The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate, London), and in adopting its nickname, the ‘Fighting’ Temeraire, he explicitly acknowledged its action at the battle which, over 30 years later, continued to be commemorated in literature and art.
Turner’s painting is as much a memorial to the heroic history of the Temeraire as it is a record of the ship’s final journey. He took liberties with the facts, in part to allow the ship to retain its dignity and to draw out symbolic aspects of the image. To this end, he has shown the ship’s three lower masts intact, their sails furled and still partly rigged. He has also replaced the original black and yellow paintwork with white and gold, giving the ship a ghostly presence as it glides across the glassy surface of the Thames. As it moves up river, Temeraire passes a small river craft, its sail hanging listlessly, with a square-rigger in full sail just beyond.
Turner has kept the detail of the Temeraire to a minimum but, tellingly, indicates that the ship no longer flies the Union flag, having ceased to be naval property. The flag’s absence was noted in the lines of poetry that accompanied the picture when exhibited at the Royal Academy, which Turner had adapted from Thomas Campbell’s poem, Ye Mariners of England: ‘The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, / No longer own her.’ The inclusion of the tug’s white commercial flag, flying prominently from its tall mast, adds to the pathos of the Temeraire’s missing flag.
Although the Temeraire was towed by two tugs, Turner has depicted only one pulling the ship (a second tug is just visible in the distance). He has also deliberately altered the construction of the tug, placing its black funnel in front of its mast rather than behind it, allowing a long plume of sooty smoke to blow backwards through the Temeraire’s masts. This revision heightens the drama of the scene and adds the possible symbolic dimension of steam power over taking sail power. Literal-minded viewers were quick to point out Turner’s apparent ‘mistake’, but he was furious when the tug’s design was ‘corrected’ in a later engraving of the painting. Some critics, such as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, viewed the painting as critical of the tug and what it represented, but Turner’s attitude to industrial modernity was more ambiguous. Although he may have mourned the passing of a great warship from the age of sail, he also acknowledged – and often painted – the realities of modern life and regularly travelled on new modes of transport, including steamships and the railways.
The sunset that fills the right-hand third of the painting is fundamental to the picture’s elegiac tone, as it reinforces the narrative of the Temeraire approaching its final berth. As the critic John Ruskin observed, Turner’s ‘most deeply crimsoned sunset skies’ often signified death. The blazing copper hues of the clouds echo the tug’s fiery smoke and the white disk of the sun itself is counterbalanced by the dark buoy in the lower right corner, which also creates scale and leads us into the scene. As the sun sets, a pale crescent moon rises in the top left corner. Turner had long been interested in the simultaneous appearance of the sun and the moon, but here their presence perhaps also accentuates notions of transition. Below the sun, a forest of pale masts – described by Thackeray as ‘a countless navy that fades away’ – recedes into the distance. The sunset is, however, another instance of Turner’s poetic licence. Not only is it likely that the Temeraire reached Rotherhithe in the afternoon, but Turner’s sun is also setting in the wrong direction. A ship coming up the Thames would be heading west and could not have had the sunset behind it in the east. Turner’s positioning of the sun provoked a lively debate in The Times.
When the picture was first exhibited in 1839 at the Royal Academy, reviewers singled it out for praise, with many noting its poetic and patriotic resonances. Despite offers to buy it, Turner kept the painting till he died in 1851. It seems to have held a special place in his affections – he referred to it as ‘his Darling’ – and he may have decided early on to gift the painting to the nation. It was among the first works in the Turner Bequest to be put on display and remains one of the National Gallery’s – and Britain’s – most popular paintings.
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