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The vote on Turner's Fighting Temeraire


The Fighting Temeraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner

In 1838 the Temeraire was towed up the Thames to be broken up and sold for her fittings and oak. Thirty-three years earlier she arguably had saved Nelson's Victory at Trafalgar, when the Royal Navy fought to end Napoleon's invasion threat to Britain.

I was just musing that we had to write something about Turner when Mary Tompkins Lewis published a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the most popular painting in Britain, Turner's Fighting Temeraire. Did it win its popularity in a BBC poll because it involves a ship and a sunset? Turner had far more in mind that that, and perhaps the voters did, too.

Mary Lewis writes -

Under a pale sliver of a moon at left and a sun that hovers on the horizon of a sanguine sky at right, Turner's majestic Temeraire glides soundlessly on the river's broad, glass-like expanse. Powerless now and pulled by a stalwart, steam-powered tug, an icon of the new technology that had replaced it, the hulking ship seems wraithlike, its image all but disappearing into the waters that capture so clearly the tug's reflection.

The history that Turner remembered sounds a different chord, as Mary Lewis recalls.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was struck down by a French sharpshooter from the Redoubtable. He was dying below in the hold of the Victory as the French prepared to board. But under Captain Eliab Harvey, HMS Temeraire rushed to the rescue and saved Nelson's colours from descent, releasing shattering broadsides against the Redoubtable and a second French ship, the Fougueux, lashing the two ships to her sides and fighting across the decks. By the way, Harvey was also an MP.

The 19th century art critic John Ruskin, who contributed some of the most brilliant reflections on Turner, thought how the great old ship would be cut up for wood, and wrote -

Never more shall sunset lay golden robe on 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 its rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not answer, nor know, that the night-dew lies deep in the war-rents of the wood of the old Temeraire.

Turner's painting speaks of courage - to those who remember their own history.

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