Art Gallery XXXI - Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Fighting Temeraire


Turner's emulation of Baroque painting, however, did not exclude modern references, rather transmuting them into 'high' art. In this way he competed with both historic and contemporary masters. The 'Fighting Temeraire' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with a quotation from Thomas Campbell's poem Ye Manners of England: The flag which braved the battle and the breeze/No longer owns her'. The Temeraire had distinguished herself at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but by the 1830's the veteran warships of the Napoleonic wars were being replaced by steamships. Turner, on an excursion on the Thames, encountered the old ship, sold out of the service, being towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be scrapped. In his painting topography and shipbuilding alike are manipulated to symbolic and pictorial ends. Turner conceives the scene as a modern Claude: a ghostly Temeraire and the squat black tug, belching fire and soot, against a lurid sunset. His technique is very different from Claude's, as thick painted rays and reflections contrast with thinly painted areas, and colors swoop abruptly from light to dark. A heroic and graceful age is passing, a petty age of steam and money bustles to hasten its demise. The dying sun signals the end of the one, a pale reflecting moon the rise of the other. But just as Claude's sunrises and sunsets enlist the viewer's own sense of journey, so does the last berth of the 'Fighting Temeraire' recall the breaking up of every human life.

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