J.M.W Turner’s 1839 maritime painting in the Romanticism style, full name ‘The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up’ depicts HMS Temeraire being brought out to sea by a modern steamship to be scrapped.
Laid down in 1793 and formally launched in 1798 for the Royal Navy, the HMS Temeraire was 185 ft (56 m) long and equiped with 98 guns. The ship served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and was in active battle in the Battle of Trafalgar. After some 20 years in active service the HMS Temeraire was reclassified a number of times as a prison ship, receiving ship, Victualling depot and finally as a guard ship. She was decommissioned, masts stripped and sold in 1838 to be taken apart and the materials salvaged, the ship was made from 5000 oak trees alone.
Painted one year after her demise, J.M.W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (as the ship was affectionately known) is one of Britain’s most famous paintings. It is widely observed to not just be a painting about a ship, but rather about replacement, the past being trumped by the future, or the fast advancement of an industrious nation and how quickly things can become obsolete. A mere, although modern, steamship tugs out a Royal Navy warship to be pulled apart.
While The Fighting Temeraire was painted a year after the event, it is widely assumed that J.M.W Turner did not actually see this event occur. Another notable fact is that Turner has chosen to have a sun set in the background, a clear symbol of the The Fighting Temeraire’s fate – however time and geography tells us that for the sun to be where it is, this must have occurred at sunrise.
J.M.W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire can be found in the National Gallery in London