The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

“The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, no longer owns her.” – Thomas Campbell

Such were the words that Turner chose to accompany his magnificent work when it was first displayed in the Royal Academy. When we look at the majestic Temeraire, silently moving through the rainbow infused water of the River Thames, we can almost feel the “battle” and “breeze” that Campbell refers to. Yet, as one observes the setting sun and the stillness of the water, one is equally aware that those are experiences long in the past. In ‘The Fighting Temeraire,’ Turner does not convey a scene of life and vitality, but rather depicts an artifact of history, incongruous to the world in which it abides.

This combination of history and modernity is most accutely displayed by Turner through his placement of the ghostly pale Temeraire next to the dark and blackened tugboat. The contrast in colour between the two vessels highlights the differences of two eras of British history. Yet, Turner’s representation of these two eras is not balanced. Notice how the smoke of the tugboat appears to be consuming the mast of the ship.. When one considers that this piece was painted in the age of the Industrial Revolution, it seems that the powers of modernity are actually vanquishing the powers of the past. Indeed, this idea is further confirmed through Turner’s beautiful sky, which (with the sunset on the right) seems to reflect the end of a day, and by extension, the end of an era.

To give a little more context to this piece, the Temeraire had famously fought in the Napoleonic Wars, but had been sold by the Admiraility of Britain when Turner commenced his painting. The work depicts the Temeraire being towed to its destruction, an event widely reported by the British media at the time.

However, there is more to this painting than simply a reflection on technological advancement. When Turner painted ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ he was at the height of his career, just like the ship itself. In this way, it is not an embellishment to suggest that Turner saw the ship as a metaphor for himself – a great practician of his craft, but ultimately on the road to death.

Regardless of whether one chooses to view ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ as Turner’s reflection on his own mortality, it is evident that this work is unlike many of Turner’s others. Rather than capturing the motion of the sea and sky as Turner so often does with magical effect, here he captures tranquility. Strokes of blue fan out behind the grand Temeraire – the colour of calm, but also the most sombre colour in the artist’s palette.

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