TURNER, Joseph Mallord William
(b. 1775, London, d. 1851, Chelsea)

The 'Fighting Temeraire' tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up

Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm
National Gallery, London

While the Suffolk-born Constable wished to become a natural painter, Turner, son of a modest barber in Covent Garden, yearned for sublimity. Trained as a topographical draughtsman, he achieved his ambition through mastering the idioms of Claude and of the grander Dutch seventeenth-century marine and landscape painters as well as the melodramatic effects of the scene designer Jacques Philippe de Loutherbourg. Now nearly forgotten, this Alsatian-born member of the French Academy delighted the London public, and influenced artists from Gainsborough to Turner and Joseph Wright of Derby, by staging panoramic peepshows in which painted landscapes, theatrical lighting and sound were combined to simulate natural phenomena and tragic catastrophes.

In search of the Sublime, Turner travelled widely, sketching grandiose scenery and extreme weather conditions, which he translated into canvases exhibited with poetic quotations. He considered Dido building Carthage, or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815) his masterpiece, bequeathing it together with the Sun rising through Vapour to the National Gallery on condition that they be hung beside Claude's Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. (This bequest is now honoured.)

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 1830s 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 impastoed rays and reflections contrast with thinly painted areas, and colours 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.