Perhaps one of J M W Turner’s most famous paintings is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up
The painting hangs in the National Gallery, London, having been bequeathed to the nation by the artist in 1851. In 2005 it was voted the nation’s favourite painting in a poll organised by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
At the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, the ship went into action immediately astern of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. During the battle Temeraire came to the rescue of the beleaguered Victory, and fought and captured two French ships, winning public renown in Britain.
The symbolism of the painting is obvious. The sun is setting on a glorious chapter of English naval history. Steam driven vessels are replacing sail and here one of the iconic battleships is being towed the wrecking yard by a fairly grubby little tug boat.
The tugboat and the Temeraire form one of the major structural elements of the painting. The battleship already a ghost, is linked to the dirty brown tugboat by the plume of smoke coming from its smokestack and by a sailing ship that the two vessels are moving past.
At the top of the painting, this image is framed by a patch of blue sky in the background and the reddish-brown reflection of the sunset on the river.
At the bottom, the fiery sunset bleeds into the dark browns that fill the water around the two ships.
The fiery red sunset modulates into a cloud which hangs over the Temeraire in much the same way as the smoke from the smokestack does, but it’s purer and cleaner and tonally related to the hues. of the ghostly battleship.
Like most of Turner’s sunsets, the one is like no sunset you will ever see. It is part of Turner’s genius to turn even the most glorious of scenes into a work of art.
In the sky, directly above the setting sun, hangs the spirit of the Temeraire, trailing clouds of glory.
The painting has immense emotional impact. The might and beauty of the sunset dominates the painting which is suffused with a sense of loss. The ghostly grandeur of the battleship dwarfs the stocky utilitarian tugboat.
The painting is also typical of many of Turner’s major works with its major theme of the overwhelming power and beauty of nature.