The Fighting Temeraire (1839) by JMW Turner
You may have asked yourself why we have chosen ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by JMW Turner.
The Fighting Temeraire, as far as art history is concerned, is one of the paintings most beloved by the British and Turner himself, who refused to sell it or even lend it, despite being offered exorbitant sums of money. The painting was bequeathed to the nation on his death and it is possible to admire it at the National Gallery in London.
HMS Temeraire is, along with HMS Victory, the symbol of the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson and beyond that, of the invincibility of the Royal Navy, as well as its military, economic and political power.
This power was the result of the birth of the Bank of England during the reign of William of Orange (1689-1702). The primary purpose of the bank was the rebuilding of the Royal Navy, which became an expression of the country’s naval dominance. By doing this, the Bank catalysed Britain’s status as the global power.
Through the magic formula of debt financing, in just 12 days, the Bank raised £1.2 million, half of which was used to rebuild the Royal Navy. The consequence of this was the complete transformation of Britain’s industry and agriculture, which made possible its ascent to become the global power.
The Temeraire was manned by 750 sailors and equipped with 98 cannons. She had, along with the Victory, a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar. The heroics of the ship’s sailors and her Captain, Sir Eliab Harvey, forced two French ships, the Redoutable and the Fougueux, to surrender. The story of the Temeraire was so ingrained in the collective mind and consciousness of the British people that the House of Commons passed a special vote of thanks to three men: Nelson, Captain Collingwood of the Royal Sovereign and Harvey.
The Temeraire remained in service until 1838, when the decision was taken to decommission and break her up, to make way for new steam-engined ships. Turner shows the moment when the ship is pulled along the quiet waters of the river Thames in a fiery sunset, a symbol and reminder of the casualties of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Subtle white brushstrokes, spread over the blues, the oranges and the reds, make the reflections of the water and the light of the sky more transparent; the contours and contrasts are not precise or sharp but hazy and softened in a veil made of light, fog, reflections, making possible the evocation of feelings and emotions full of nostalgia for a past that’s fading.
It is a sublime and dignified journey towards death, in which the Temeraire appears to us white, almost a ghost with touches of gold, reminiscent of her heroic past. The steam tug, depicted as a dark mass, is the "future", it is the new technology that marks the end of the glorious sailing tradition. Thus, past and future both reflect themselves in the tranquil and transparent waters of the Thames, both telling us the history of a nation and her people.