The Genius of J.M.W. Turner
by Shaun Taylor (sourced from Elbert Hubbard's, Little Journeys to the Homes of Famous People with annotations by Wikipedia)
Of J.M.W Turner's many pictures, one of his most outstanding and, perhaps, his most famous is, The Fighting Temeraire, painted in 1838. The painting shows a warship, HMS Temeraire, which had been decommisioned and is being towed away to be broken up. Launched in 1798, 'she' ( ships are frequently referred to using 'she' and 'her' in pronoun form) served during the French Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars, mostly on blockades or convoy escort duties. She fought only one fleet action, the Battle of Trafalgar , but became so well known for her actions and her subsequent depictions in art and literature that she has been remembered as "The Fighting Temeraire".
The scene of the battle scarred ship being towed to sea was indelibly etched on to Turner's brain and he subsequently saw fit to immortalize the occasion on canvas. The leading art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin, had this to say about the painting; "Of all pictures not visibly involving human pain, this is the most heartrending. ever painted. The utmost pensiveness which can ordinarily be given to a landscape depends on adjuncts of ruin, but no ruin was ever so affecting as this ship to her grave. This particular ship, crowned in the Trafalgar hour of trial with chief victory -surely, if ever anything without a soul deserved honor or affection we owe them here. Surely some sacred care might have been left in our thoughts for her; some quiet space amid the lapse of English waters! Nay, not so. We have stern keepers to trust her glory to-the fire and the worm. Nevermore shall sunset lay golden robe upon her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding. Perhaps where the low gate opens to some cottage garden, the tired traveler may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on the rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not know that the night dew lies deep in the war rents of the old Temeraire."
The setting sun symbolises the end of an era, as it pertains to the British Royal Navy, and the silvery sun symbolises the commencement of the new industrial era.
Turner painted this picture when he was at the height of his career, having exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, for 40 years. He was renowned for his highly atmospheric paintings in which he explored the subjects of the weather, the sea and the effects of light. He spent much of his life near
the River Thames estuary and did many paintings of ships and waterside scenes, both in watercolour and in oils.