‘The Fighting Temeraire’ is one of my favourite paintings… indeed in 2005 it was voted Britain’s favourite painting in a BBC poll. Not surprisingly, the vote coincided with the 200 year anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
By 1839 Turner was well in his sixties when he painted the 98 gun ageing battleship being towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up. The painting is staggering for its beauty and elegance, and is deeply evocative of a sense of loss; the graceful old warship slipping silent through the waters behind the prosaic, belching, little steam-powered tug. The gloaming combines dramatically with the twilight of Nelson’s era of rigging and rum, heralding the decline of British sea power in the minds of many at the time.
Temeraire had served her country well. She was one of the key ships that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, serving alongside HMS Victory, as Nelson ploughed straight through the French and Spanish lines. Following the battle the damage report showed that every sail and yard had been destroyed; only the lower masts were standing and they had been shot through in many places; the rudder had been shot off together with the starboard ‘cat-head’, from which the starboard anchor should have been suspended. Eight feet of her hull on the starboard side was stove in and the quarter galleries on both sides of the ship had been destroyed as she was crushed between the French ships.
But Turner did not want to show her scars, and was somewhat imaginative with the details of his masterpiece. As he watched, on the evening of the 6th of September 1838, the Temeraire was pulled up the Thames to Beatson’s ship-breaking yard. Despite the rain, he would have seen that she was in fact pulled by two tugs, not one, and that her masts, rigging, and most of her decks were missing. In the painting the ships are shown travelling east, away from the sunset, even though Rotherhithe is west of Sheerness, and besides there was little or no sunset that day according to other observers. Turner called the work his “darling”. But that’s not the point… details are rarely nostalgic, and should never be melancholy.
I am telling you all this because at the weekend I found the spot from which Turner watched her final journey. It’s just next to The Angel Pub in Rotherhithe, which if you happen to be passing, is well worth a stop for a pint! No comments about ‘battle scarred hulking old wrecks’ please…