Art Stories : The fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner

This painting has a connection with a James Bond movie, the 20 pound bank note and the Industrial revolution. In 2005 the BBC Radio did a Survey to discover the Greatest Painting in Britain. The shortlist of ten paintings consisted of masterpieces such as Sunflowers by Van Gogh, A bar at the Follies Bergere by Manet and The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck among others. More than a hundred thousand people in Britan voted to select their most beloved painting. The fighting Temeraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner won garnering almost a third of the votes.

The fighting temeraire

The complete name of the painting is “The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up”. If you haven’t seen this painting before it’s hard to make out what is going on in this piece at a first glance. It’s a waterscape. There is what seems like a ship and a boat on the left. But it’s not very clear. There is a misty quality to the way the paint has been laid out. To really understand the painting you need to know more about the subject of the painting first – “The fighting Temeraire”. What is the fighting Temeraire?

HMS Temeraire was a 98 gun war ship of the Royal British Navy during the 1800s. It fought in the famous Battle of Trafalgar against the French and the Spanish and rose to a hero status after it helped win the battle in 1805. Because of this Temeraire was the subject of many historical paintings. In 1838, the old ship was sold by the admiralty to be broken up for more than 5000 pounds. It is believed that when the Temeraire was being tugged up the River Thames to be broken up, Turner saw this and decided to paint it. It was a great subject. Such an iconic war ship was now being tugged away to be broken up and sold. It’s glory days now over. It had served its purpose. The ship can be compared with the human life. A life filled with many eventful memories finally coming to an end. Turner had a special love for ships and painted them in a number of his paintings. He especially liked to depict ship wrecks. Ships fighting the elements of rain and storm. The painting of the Temeraire is a contrast though. The water is calm. Almost without any ripple. The sky is quite magnificent as the sun is about to set. In the foreground is a steam tug. Ugly looking and spewing smoke. It’s pulling the Temeraire. A white almost ghost like ship.

There is another layer to this painting. To understand it we need to understand the time period when this was painted. 1839. It was the era of the industrial revolution. The age of the steam engine. The industrial revolution was replacing a lot of things including the Royal Navy fleets. Turner seems to be depicting this with the contrast of the Steam tug and the old warship being tugged away. The setting sun is probably signifying an end to a glorious past. There is a crescent of the moon on the left signifying the birth of a new age.

A factory in Germany in 1868

There is yet another layer to this painting which is auto-biographical. Turner is telling his own life story with this painting as well. He sees this as a story of his glorious life as well. No doubt this was his most favorite painting and he refused to sell to anyone. He even refused a blank cheque offered to him for purchasing this painting. Today, JMW Turner is considered a pillar in art and his style influenced the upcoming impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renior et al. But during his lifetime, he also received criticism from his contemporaries for moving away from the traditional style of painting, especially in his later pieces. Much like the fighting temeraire, Turner died lonely and unceremoniously while living under a pseudo name of Mr. Booth in Chelsea. Turner bequeathed all his paintings to the British nation and asked that they all be shown together for free to the public. The fighting temeraire can be viewed at the National Gallery in London and all his remaining works are housed at the Tate Gallery in London.

In 2016, the Bank of England announced that the next 20 pound bank note will feature JMW Turner and his famous painting the fighting temeraire.

20 pound bank note

Okay, now for the James Bond connection to this painting. If you have seen the movie Skyfall, you might remember the scene where Bond meets the new Quartermaster. It’s set in the National Gallery and they are talking about this painting. The fighting temeraire has been used as a symbolism for Bond’s old age.

Q: “Always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?”

James Bond: “A bloody big ship.”

This is one of the lesser known masterpieces outside of Britain. It’s not one of those instantly recognizable paintings to the general public. But it’s a very interesting piece nevertheless. I find this painting’s commentary with respect to the industrial revolution relevant today more than ever. A new revolution of Artificial Intelligence and automation is ushering in displacing millions of jobs changing our lives in unpredictable ways. Much similar to what happened during the industrial revolution more than two centuries ago.

True masterpieces are timeless!