J.M.W. Turner: Painting The Fighting Temeraire | National Gallery

September 27, 2019 0 By Peter Engel


Hello, ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to the National Gallery. My name’s Matthew, Matthew Morgan. I work here in the Education department,
and I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity,
in the next half an hour, to talk to you about
this remarkable painting. not only by one
of my favourite artists ever, of all time, anywhere, J.M.W. Turner, but, in my view,
one of his most intriguing, fascinating and all-round amazing paintings. It’s a painting
that I think is very well known. Perhaps lots of you recognise it,
and know it, and have looked at it many times. But, hopefully, by the time I’m finished,
I will have revealed some things about it that you’ve either never noticed, never seen before,
or never thought about before. Turner, born not very far
from where we are now. Born in Covent Garden. Sometimes described as a Cockney. Couldn’t possibly be a Cockney,
not born within the sound of Bow Bells. But it’s a way I think for,
particularly his contemporaries, to place him,
place him as a working-class person. A person who didn’t come
from a very privileged background. His father was a wig maker and barber. But Turner was something
of a child prodigy. Not something of a child prodigy,
he was a child prodigy. He received his first payment
for an art project at the age of 11 when he was paid to colour in prints. He exhibited his first watercolour
at the Royal Academy at the age of 15, just 15. Think what you were doing
when you were 15. I certainly wasn’t exhibiting
at the Royal Academy. And he became a full member
of the Royal Academy at the exceptionally young age of 27. So, he was an amazing Young Turk,
I suppose, we might say of the British art scene. However, by the time
we come to this painting, Turner was an old man. He was, in fact, I think, 64
when this painting was painted, and his career had progressed
very much further than the painter of landscapes
and marine scenes that he had started off by being. He made his name largely, or, in
some ways, as a painter of marine scenes, and we have a couple here. Really fantastic, dramatic, amazing views of boats on the sea. And throughout his life
Turner never forgot that marine painting was an integral part of his oeuvre. He painted all sorts of ships, all around Britain,
around the coast of Britain, and into France, Italy. If you’ve seen his scenes of Venice,
you will very often see ships there. He knew about ships and shipping. In fact, there’s a fantastic story – that he was staying with one
of his patrons, Sir Walter Fawkes, and he was asked by his children
to paint a watercolour. And he took a piece of paper,
and just started painting. And they looked at him,
and they couldn’t see what he was doing. He seemed to be just pushing the paint
around on this piece of paper, but out of it emerged
this fantastic watercolour, which we still have,
of a Royal Navy ship, a ship of the line, which he had painted from his memory,
entirely from his own memory. Turner knew his ships, which brings me very neatly
to the painting in question. What do we have here? Well, of course, we have a ship
in the background, this gigantic ship,
gliding almost along the water. Very high in the water. Gliding towards us. A pale yellow colour. A very ghostly colour. Almost a green
in some places on the painting. Drifting towards us out of the corner, surrounding the ship in the sky
are these clouds, these purple clouds, almost a bruised sky. And, in some ways,
when I look at this painting, I think of this ship
coming out of the clouds towards us. There’s nobody on it. It’s completely empty. It is a Mary Celeste, almost, of ships. It doesn’t need any people at this stage,
because it’s being towed. It’s being towed by this dark ship,
or dark boat, in front. This tug pulling it along. The tug, its smoke coming out,
covering the front of the ship behind, but pulling us. And we can see, beautifully painted,
a fabulous piece of painting by Turner, its wheels turning the water,
it’s working very hard to pull this gigantic ship. On the other side of the painting, though, we have this absolutely
remarkable, gorgeous sun, limpidly hanging, an almost pink colour. But the sky lit by the sun – how dramatic, how beautiful,
how wonderful, how bright. Can you see these colours? These yellows.
Turner very much a fan of yellow. Criticised by a lot of his contemporaries, criticised by a lot of his contemporary
critics for using yellow. Often accused of painting with mustard. But look at that yellow.
Not mustard at all. I think
it’s absolutely gorgeous and beautiful. And pinks and reds and purples. What dramatic colours in the sky. The sun is also casting its light
on the water here. Now, we know this is water,
because, obviously, these are ships, but if you were
just to have a blow-up of this bit, I’d challenge anybody
to know that this is water. Look at the colours. None of the colours
that one associates with water here. No blues, very few whites,
hardly even any greys. Over here we have
a more conventional painting of water. But here Turner is showing us
the colour and the brightness, and the effects of light on water. Something for which he was,
by this stage, already very famous for, or very well known for
as a painter of light on water. Behind this large ship,
there are other ships, stretching into the distance. Can you see them here?
Going all the way back. Maybe you can’t see it out there,
but do have a closer look. Here we have another tug pulling along. We are on the Thames, and the Thames, at this point,
was a busy, packed, working river. It was not like it is today – quiet, full of people rowing,
and that sort of stuff. It was noisy, it was dirty, it was filthy. It was like a motorway. And Turner is showing us this,
by showing all of these ships on here, particularly this one, I think,
behind the tug. It looks to me as though the tug
is slightly pushing him out of the way. “Come on, out of the way.
I’m pulling this big boat.” This other ship is going,
“Oh, better move. Don’t want to be sunk.” Turner tells us what this boat is,
who this boat is, because, in some ways,
this painting is like a portrait. And just like a portrait,
if you know who the sitter is, it adds to your knowledge
of what’s going on. So, too, if we know what this ship is,
or who this ship is, it adds to our knowledge,
because it isn’t just any ship. Turner isn’t just showing us
a scene on a river. He’s showing us a particular scene
at a particular time. This ship is the Temeraire. Turner chose to call it
‘The Fighting Temeraire’. It was a hero ship. It was a ship that had served
in the Battle of Trafalgar. The Battle of Trafalgar,
a huge naval battle between the British and the French, in which the British
had defeated the French Navy, defeated
the French and Spanish joint Navy, and had wrestled control of the sea,
particularly around the Mediterranean. The French were never able to get such a large naval contingent
again after the battle. And the Temeraire was well known for having been
right in the thick of the fighting. It had saved Nelson’s flagship,
the Victory, from attack. It had captured not one,
but two enemy vessels, which it lashed to its sides
throughout the battle. And if you ever see any other paintings
of the Battle of Trafalgar, you will very often see
the Temeraire depicted, because it was so close to the Victory. So, this isn’t just any ship.
This is a ship with a history. This is a ship
that has achieved great things. However, after the Battle of Trafalgar,
it never saw action again. After it had been a hero ship,
that was the end of its story of fighting. After that, it still was in service,
but it spent most of the rest of its life semi-permanently moored off Sheerness
as a supply ship. You can see how large it is. I wonder how many supplies
they managed to cram into it? And there it remained, until the Royal Navy decided
that it had come to the end of its life. They no longer needed it. However, a ship like this,
you don’t just sink it, and say, “Well, we have done with it.” It’s a major expensive piece of equipment. The Navy did what is actually had done
with almost all of the ships that had fought in Trafalgar
by this stage, and would continue to do to all of them,
save the Victory, which is it sold them. And it sold them for scrap. It is said that the Temeraire
required 5,000 oak trees to be built. Just think for a moment
about a forest of 5,000 oak trees gone into one ship. Now, you’re not just going
to throw that away. Just think about the countless nails needed to attach
the 5,000 oak trees together. You’re not just going
to throw those away, either. So, the Navy sold the Temeraire, and here it is, as Turner tell us,
being towed to its last berth, being towed to the breaker’s yard
where it would be disintegrated, and reused for all sorts of other things. So, this is a painting of the last moments
of a hero ship. And I think we are expected
to feel a particular way about this. I think what Turner is doing here is
he’s using all of his considerable skills to play with our emotions,
to make us feel what he wants us to feel. Look at this sun. The sun is setting, isn’t it?
It’s going down. Sunset. A symbol for the end of the day. The end of days coming down. And perhaps, you might not have noticed,
up here in this corner, is the moon coming up. So, the day is finishing.
The moon is coming up. The hero ship – ghostly, empty. Gliding along, pulled by this tug, this modern steam-powered,
ugly-looking thing. That’s exactly how almost all
of the commentators who saw it, when it was first exhibited in 1839,
read this painting. In fact, it was exhibited here
in the National Gallery. We shared our space
with the Royal Academy at that time. Almost all of the contemporary reviews
of this painting read it in that way, that this is an elegy to this ship
that is dying, this hero ship
that is being ignominiously pulled, and then going to be ripped, literally,
limb from limb. There’s something
to be said about that, I think, and if you look a little bit closer, you
can see all sorts of other little clues that that might be what Turner intended. So, if we see the smoke from the tug,
billowing over the Temeraire, we can see that it is over this bit here, this dolphin striker,
the front of the ship, where the jack staff, the flag
of the Royal Navy, would have hung, but, of course, there’s nothing there, because it doesn’t belong to
the Royal Navy any more, it’s been sold. And, more than that,
that’s now covered by this dirty smoke. Smoke that’s almost alive
with flame itself. We can also see, perhaps,
there’s this white flag here at the top. Can you see that? Tiny little flag
at the top of the mast of the tug, indicating, again, that the Temeraire
is no longer in the Royal Navy, and is, in fact, being pulled along
by a merchant ship. So, it’s a sad painting. Well, maybe. Perhaps it is sad. But one of the things
that I love most about Turner is that it’s not always easy
to guess what he meant. In fact, as he progressed in his career,
he almost completely moved away from putting literal meanings
and interpretations in his paintings. He liked to make his paintings
a bit confusing, a bit difficult to read, a bit difficult to say, “Well, it’s
all about this,” or “it’s all about that.” They’re challenging. They’re challenging for the intellect, as well as sometimes
challenging aesthetically. So, if we spend a moment
looking at the tug. As I say, Turner’s contemporaries
said that this tug was nasty and dark. Turner spent a long time
drawing tugs, painting tugs. In fact, the first example of him
drawing a tug in one of his sketchbooks is in 1815. Quite some time before this. And he continued to draw
steamboats and steam tugs. In about the middle of the 1820s, they start to appear
in his watercolours, as well. And prior to painting
‘The Fighting Temeraire’, Turner had spent a summer in France,
in French rivers, drawing tugs, drawing all sorts
of vessels in French waterways, intending to turn them into prints, which would be used
for a print book of French rivers. So, he had lots of experience of tugs, lots of experience of steamboats,
and he knew them well. And we’ve got no real evidence
that he didn’t like them. In fact, lots of his paintings
and drawings seemed to indicate
that he was very interested in them. We know that he used them extensively around Britain and around the continent, so he clearly wasn’t above
getting into something like this. He, at this point, was very often
going down to Margate, and Margate was serviced by steam vessels, and we know that he took those. So, he perhaps isn’t quite so anti-tug, as some of his contemporaries
thought that he might be, or anti-steamboat,
as his contemporaries thought he might be. However, again, this uncertainty,
difficult to pin down, because if we look at the tug,
at the steamboat, and we look a little bit below it, look at the reflection of the tug, and then look at the front
of the Temeraire. I hope you can see
that they are surprisingly similar. Surprisingly similar in shape and size. Is Turner indicating that the tug
is about to replace the sailing boat, or has, perhaps,
already replaced the sailing boat? Is this, in fact, Turner saying, “Steam, this is the future.
Sail, that’s the past”? Let’s have a look at the sun over here. Lighting the tug, lighting the steamboat. We can see the bright effects
of the sun on its front. It doesn’t touch the Temeraire at all. The Temeraire maintains
this yellow glow of its own. Again, are we expected
to connect the tug to the sun… …saying, “Yes, this is bright.
This is the future”? I don’t know.
That’s why I find it so fascinating. The Temeraire, as I say,
was a hulk ship, a storage ship off the coast of Sheerness. When it was sold by the Navy,
it had already had its masts cut down. Didn’t need its masts very much. And after the Navy sold it, they went through and took out anything
that they could use. They took out all the rigging,
all the guns, obviously, all the stores and all the masts. Fascinatingly described as “being
pulled out like teeth from a mouth”. Sounds very painful. So, what are we looking at here? Well, we can’t possibly be looking
at the ship as it really was. However, there are lots of reports of Turner being witness to this event. Watching it, seeing it, drawing it. One of the ones I like best
is that Turner and some of his friends go down to Greenwich for a meal, and on the way back, they see this boat, and one of Turner’s friends,
a marine artist called Clarkson Stanfield, says to Turner, “Wow, look at that.
That’d make a great picture.” Now, just for a moment,
imagine that you’re sat next to one of the greatest artists
of your generation, and you’re an artist yourself, I find it very unlikely that you would see
a scene like that and suggest it to him. You’d think, “Oh, I’m going
to paint that before he gets in there.” Clarkson Stanfield
denied this ever happened. Turner never said that he saw this ship. He never said that he saw
the Temeraire being towed. But there’s something about this painting
that, I think, is crying out for us to address whether this is
an eyewitness account, to think about, is this actually the way
the ship really was? And partly that’s because Turner
tells us this is a specific ship. We don’t know
where Turner was at this time. None of his sketchbooks
have any sketches at this period. He didn’t attend a meeting
of the Royal Academy at this time. We don’t actually have any records
of him being anywhere. He could have been in the UK,
he could have been in London, he could have been on the continent. We just don’t know. Was he sick? Was he at home? Again, no evidence. So, it is possible that he saw this. But if he did see it, if he was there, then this cannot be
how the Temeraire looked to him. These masts cannot have been there. This rigging cannot have been there. So, if Turner did see it,
that is not what he saw. Interestingly, Turner owned
an inn, a pub in Wapping, not very far from Rotherhithe
where the Temeraire was broken up. Turner owned lots of property
around London. And if he had ever gone to this pub, The Ship and Bone Blade, he could have seen the Temeraire
in the breaker’s yard being broken up. And I like to think that
that’s how he knew about this story, is that he saw the ship,
and he immediately connected to it, connected to its story, and wondered about it
coming down the river. Turner playing a bit fast and loose
with the facts. We know, for instance,
that there were two steam tugs. Here we only have one. There is another one,
as I mentioned, all the way over here, but that wouldn’t be much good
for towing a boat. Imagine that you have this gigantic ship,
and you are towing it down the Thames. A Thames that’s already full
of lots of other ships. You’re going to need some help.
It cannot do anything itself. It is dead in the water. So, you have a tug at the front
and a tug at the back, which is pulling it slightly. Turner doesn’t show that. Perhaps the other tug is, sort of,
all the way over there. We don’t know. But I don’t think he’s terribly interested
in showing the veracity of how gigantic ships
are tugged down rivers. I think he’s interested
in showing us the emotions, the emotional impact and content
of what’s going on. Some years after this painting
was exhibited, somebody also noticed
a small, factual inaccuracy with it. If you think about your geography, if you think about
where the Thames meets the sea, and think about where London is, this sun could not possibly be a sunset, because this sun,
if it was where it’s supposed to be, is in the east. So, this is a sunrise. So, suddenly, this painting takes on
a completely different aspect. Is this a sunrise? Is Turner saying,
“Well, this is the end of this ghost ship, and hooray for steam,
steam is coming forward. We are going to now have a steam future”? I don’t think so. I think that Turner knew which side
of the world the sun rose and the sun set. I think Turner knew
where he was adding bits to the Temeraire. Turner understood
exactly what he was doing. He had painted many suns. Our ‘Ulysses deriding Polyphemus’, has a fantastic sunrise. And he clearly spent
many, many, many hours looking at weather features,
the sun, particularly. And this sun, I am certain
we are intended to engage with directly. The way in which Turner has painted,
the impasto of the paint put on, you can almost feel
the physical action of Turner pushing the paint onto the canvas. Absolutely remarkable,
absolutely gorgeous, particularly here. The sun is as much a part
of this painting, as much a key player, I think,
in the way we are expected to read it, as these ships. Turner isn’t here trying to tell us
about what actually happened. He’s not interested in saying, “I stood on this spot,
and I saw this event.” Turner is trying to tell us how to feel. He’s trying to evoke
an emotional response in this event. He is playing with our emotions,
perhaps, we might say. We think this must be real,
because it is a real ship, which really existed,
and this really did happen. But we don’t imagine that he genuinely saw
Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. That doesn’t bother us whether
he was actually there, and really saw it. It’s a product of his imagination,
and that is OK. We struggle to imagine this is
a product of Turner’s imagination, just, I suppose, as we might struggle if we were told that a portrait painter
had never seen the sitter that they were painting. However, Turner’s not interested
in getting us to connect to being on the banks of the Thames,
and seeing this ship. Turner’s trying
to convey something deeper, and that’s one of the reasons
I love this painting, because what is Turner trying to convey? Well, maybe he is genuinely sad about the demise of this amazing ship. If you’ve ever seen paintings
of the final moments of Nelson, particularly there’s one by Arthur Devis,
there’s another one by Benjamin West, Nelson is very often shown
surrounded by dark figures, and he’s very often lit, almost glowing. Is Turner connecting his painting
to that of Nelson, or the last moments of Nelson? Is he saying, “It is wrong of us to be just throwing away
these hero ships”? Today we live in a world
where preservation, or particularly in this country,
preservation is very big. We don’t tend to throw things away. But we anthropomorphize this ship,
don’t we? Just like a sitter in a portrait,
we connect to it. But, really, it’s just a hunk of wood. It has no feelings. It is nothing, except a tool,
a very large complex tool, but it is a tool. Turner is making us think beyond that, making us think of it
almost like a person. Turner might be
saying something else, however. He might be talking
about the end of empire. Turner was very concerned
about the British Empire. Very concerned
about the British Empire in the world. Is Turner saying,
“This is the end of the empire. This is the end of the British Empire.
After this it’s all going to go wrong”? One last thing, just to think about. We’ve looked at this tug quite a lot. If you ever get a chance
to look at portraits of Turner himself, I think, very often,
he looks a bit like this tug. He is short and squat,
and he often wears a top hat. And I can’t help but imagine
that somewhere in Turner, with his working-class background, his love of Britain,
his love of the working people of Britain, somewhere in there he is actually pleased
that this tug still exists. Thank you very much indeed.