Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Turner's Take on the Temeraire

Today in 1838 HMS Temeraire, one of the ships which fought Napoleon at Waterloo, was towed along the Thames to be destroyed at a breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe – and artist  JMW Tuner was on hand to record the scene.  Aboard a steamer he made preliminary sketches for what became his most famous and best loved painting, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up.

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up.
He created an image we all know, a three-masted ghost ship, bleached of all colour, pulled by a dark steam tug on water which reflects the glorious reds, yellows and oranges of sunset, echoing the smoke and fire of battle. The picture symbolises the end of era, the passing of the age of sail, and the emergence of a new, powerful age of steam.

The reality was a little different because the day was actually dull and cloudy so, presumably, the wonderful sunset was unlikely – and, since the ship was towed upriver, the sunset is, apparently, in the wrong place. In addition, by the time she was towed away HMS Temeraire had  no mast or rigging left: she was a hulk, left lying in Chatham Dockyard after being used first as a prison ship and then as a receiving ship for newly recruited sailors.

It was a sad end for the 98-gun second rate ship-of-the-line (a small warship) which had been badly damaged during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where her crew captured one French ship and were involved in the surrender of another. Turner used the individual history of one ship to portray the decline of an entire fleet, and it seems to have touched a nerve with the public as, unlike much of his work, it was popular from the very beginning.

 For Joseph Malord William Turner, acclaimed today as an innovative ‘Painter of Light’ who paved the way for the Impressionists, was often scorned in his own time (especially for his later work). The critic and writer John Ruskin was a great fan, but many of Turner’s paintings were as controversial as the works of modern artists who vie for success in the competition which bears his name. Turner Prize entries like Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or Tracey Emin’s My Bed sparked outrage and fury, just as some critics condemned Turner. Rev John Eagles in Blackwood’s Magazine accused him of doing ‘mischief’ to art, while the Times writer mentioned his ‘detestable absurdities’.

Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Emin’s unmade bed may seem a long way from Turner’s light-filled canvasses, but all three were trying to portray their ideas about life and the world around them in a new and different way. Turner ignored the 18th and 19th century conventions about what and how to paint and experimented, using water colour techniques with oils to achieved the effect he wanted as he tried to capture the elusive luminosity and transparency of light. He was fascinated by light, which seems to have some kind of spiritual element for him, and on his death bed, in 1851, is supposed to have said: “The sun is God.”

Turner's self portrait, painted in 1798
In 1898, some fifty years after Turner's death, the  poet Henry Newbolt, paid his own tribute when he wrote The Fighting Temeraire.  You can fnd the full poem at http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/15899/ but I've included part of it here:

Now the sunset breezes shiver

Temeraire! Temeraire!

And she's fading down the river.

Temeraire! Temeraire!
Now the sunset Breezes shiver
And she's fading down the river,
But in England's song for ever
She's the Fighting Temeraire. 

Why not mark the day by painting a picture of your own? Or make a paper boat...   

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating little tid-bit of history I never knew about! This was a delightful read ~ maybe I will go make me a paper boat!!


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