Art Matters: The Fighting Temeraire

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Andy Royston talks us through his favourite painting by JMW Turner

‘Ye mariners of England, That guard our native seas!  Whose flag has braved a thousand years, The battle and the breeze!
 Thomas Campbell  “Ye Mariners of England”

In this famous painting by J.M.W. Turner, the great old warship Temeraire no longer flies the union flag. Just a white flag flutters from the mast of the tug, showing that a ship is now in commercial hands. It also makes the Temeraire look as if she’s being brought in under a flag of surrender, as if she was defeated.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 – J. M. W. Turner

HMS Temeraire had a noble career in the British Navy. She’d earned her position in British naval history after coming to the aid of fellow British ship, the Victory, during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Napoleon and his fleet were attempting an invasion against Britain and Lord Nelson’s fleet were outnumbered. The painting came to represent an honoured veteran from a heroic past being taken to her end by a bullish steam-driven tug, representing the satanic mills and hellish steam driven future. The Temeraire’s disassembly signifies the end of the historic era.

His Fighting Temeraire is a placebo for the anxieties of a transitional age. It’s faithful to a commonplace about the genius of English history being a mystical marriage of past, present and future. To be British, in that view, was to honour the past without being enslaved to it. To be British was to invent the future without being coarsely  intoxicated by it. It was to feel the tension between what has been and what must come. Simon Schama

MY own love of the painting comes not from the tensions that Schrama describes, but also because it exemplifies Turners love of light. Turner himself wrote beautifully of his own hero, Rembrandt – that sometimes it would be “sacrilege to pierce the mystic shell of colour in search of form”. He believed that this vitality of light and color not only existed poetically, but scientifically too.

His way with sunlight to me is inspirational. He believed that when seen through air or water colours bleed, and blur to form intermediate layers, like ‘visual grace notes’, and in his later years would explore this idea more and more.  It is interesting that Turner never sold it, instead keeping it in his studio. When he died in 1851 he bequeathed it and the rest of the paintings he owned to the nation.

Temeraire and tugboat (detail), Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Temeraire and tugboat (detail), Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The Fighting Temeraire was Turner’s last brush with academic popularity, as the critics and those Royal Academy doyens who lauded this painting would soon turn on him and his art.

Turner of course had romanticised the scene. Her masts, stores and guns were all removed and her crew paid off, She was sold to a Rotherhithe shipbreaker and the ship was then transported 55 miles from Sheerness to Rotherhithe, the largest ship to have attempted this voyage. It has been noted that Turner represented the scene as a sunrise, rather than a sunset, perhaps his own sly comment on the pace of change and forthcoming industrialisation. The scene was aptly summed up by Simon Schama as being “a painting not about the embalming of the British past but about its unsentimental coupling with the future.”

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.

Further reading: Simon Schama : The Patriot – Turner and the drama of history New Yorker Magazine

Other contemporary representations of the ship:


English: The Redoutable at the battle of Trafalgar, between the Temeraire (on the left) and the Victory on the right

English: The Redoutable at the battle of Trafalgar, between the Temeraire (on the left) and the Victory on the right. Painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin.


Andy Royston is a designer, artist and photoblogger based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is one of the world’s best known mobile photographers and his work has been exhibited across the UK and Europe. He is the winner of the 2014 Mobile Photography Awards ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Award. Veteran of the London 1980s music scene, where he designed record sleeves for all kinds of rock stars and indie heroes he is a bottomless pit of musical trivia. Still looking for the next big thing he’ll be dropping into JAQUO.COM to write an irregular column on the musicians he’s most excited about.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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  1. Glad that you picked up on that, Colin. As my own photography is so atuned to the sunrise, I’ve learned that unless folks know that my images are sunrise the meaning of the image changes.

    So to Academy patrons who saw the painting as an homage to the passing of romantic history, this is a traditional, end-of-times painting.

    But looked on as a new dawn, as you say, Turner’s meaning is rather different. He was a clever painter and was always mixing classical and modern themes, and I think he had a lot of subtleties in his work. I appreciate his art the more as I get older.

  2. Nice job, Andy. Interesting comment about the setting of sunset in the painting, as it connects, as you said, with the meeting of the ‘new’ steam age and the old, as seen in the painting, with the new leading the way into a metaphorical new dawn. Enjoyed reading this, and I am a great Turner fan too.

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