The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner, National Gallery

The Fighting Temeraire is an oil painting by the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner. The painting depicts the HMS Temeraire a battle-aged and decommissioned gun ship being towed by a paddle-wheel steam tug to her final berth in 1838 to be broken up for scrap.

The HMS Temeraire played a distinguished role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and thus became a celebrated gunship known as the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. The 98-gun ship was one of the key ships that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar at which the British decisively destroyed the Napoleonic naval threat. Britain was bracing itself against invasion by Napoleon who had brought together fleets from France and Spain, in order to neutralise the British navy. Success at the Battle of Trafalgar sowed the seeds of the colonial power that was to follow British victory over Napoleon.

Thirty three years after her best known battle, the ‘Temeraire’ was decaying and no longer in use and her last voyage was to be towed up the Thames to be broken up, at a south-east London shipyard. This composition depicts a glorious sunset, through which sails a squat, dark tug boat, pulling a ghostly sailing ship.

Turner, J. M. W. - The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken (cropped)

Now the sunset breezes shiver
Temeraire! Temeraire!
And she’s fading down the river.
Temeraire! Temeraire!
Now the sunset Breezes shiver
And she’s fading down the river,
But in England’s song for ever
She’s the Fighting Temeraire.

By Henry Newbolt, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, 1898

J. M. W. Turner was eighteen years old when Britain entered the Napoleonic Wars and he like the nation were strongly patriotic. The Temeraire was a well-known ship from her heroic acts at Trafalgar and her sale by the British Admiralty and subsequent scrapping attracted considerable press coverage. This painting had symbolic meaning for Turner and his audience and was immediately appreciated for its symbolism and the atmospheric style used by Turner to explored the interplay of the water and the effects of the setting sun.

Many of Turner’s paintings can be found in museums across the world, depict famous landscapes and seascapes. My favourites include:

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                The Fighting Temeraire
  • Subject:           A  98-gun ship tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838
  • Artist:              J. M. W. Turner
  • Date:                1839
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:  91 cm × 122 cm (36 in × 48 in)
  • Museum:         National Gallery, London

Artist Essential Facts:

  • Name:             Joseph Mallord William Turner
  • Born:               1775 – Covent Garden, London, England
  • Died:               1851 (aged 76)  – Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, England
  • Nationality:   English
  • Movement     Romanticism

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“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare

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Photo Credit: 1)  J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons   2) J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons