The Fighting Temeraire, Joseph M. W. Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s masterwork The Fighting Temeraire is a staggering vision of nostalgia, decline, and re-birth. The artist, at the height of his popular and artistic acclaim, painted the canvas between 1838 and 1839 and majestically captured the transition between two periods in British history. Often described as a precursor to the French Impressionist movement, by the time of painting Turner had enjoyed four decades of success at the Royal Academy in London. Although rarely painting subjects deemed by his society as fit for creative study, Turner was broadly accepted and adored by his peers. As such The Fighting Temeraire is his crowning achievement, featuring prominently in the collection of the National Gallery in London, after having been donated to the nation by the artist in 1851. As well as appearing as an icon of British nationhood in a recent James Bond film, The Fighting Temeraire was also recently voted the nation’s best-loved painting in a BBC survey. Such is the symbolic resonance and emotional power of the work that it still manages to retain its effective energy so long after the event it captured disappeared from public memory.
Having closely studied the effects of light and the rapid changes that the Industrial Revolution was causing all across the British countryside, Turner united in this stunning painting the elements of light, water, and the clash between modernity and popular legend. The Fighting Temeraire depicts the ship of the same name being dragged out to the docklands of South East London to be broken up for scrap. Having decayed and rendered unfit for further service, the massive ‘Temeraire’ was one of the stars of the historic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, in which the British Naval forces commandeered by Nelson scored a decisive victory over the French. Commemorating its final journey before it is scrapped, Turner’s canvas is a vivid representation of the parting icon of British sea power. Instead of painting the boat in dark yellow and black as it was, the artist used gold and white accents to juxtapose the ship against the dark paddle steamer that billows smoke and flame.
The climax of Turner’s career, whether in terms of recognition by the public and critics, or in terms of his technical mastery, this symbolic image of the changing fate of a nation is an icon of decline, resilience, change, and unity.