<<The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838 is an oil painting executed in 1839 by the English artist J. M. W. Turner. It depicts one of the last second-rate ships of the line which played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the 98-gun ship HMS Temeraire, being towed towards its final berth in Rotherhithe south east London in 1838 to be broken up for scrap. The painting hangs in the National Gallery, London, having been bequeathed to the nation by the artist in 1851. In 2005, The Fighting Temeraire was voted the greatest painting in a British art gallery. The painting, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, won 31,892 votes, more than a quarter of the 118,111 cast in a poll organised by the BBC Today radio programme.
Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a ballad titled The Fighting Temeraire, referencing the scenario depicted: "And she's fading down the river, But in England's song for ever, She's the Fighting Téméraire." Turner himself presented the painting for display in 1839 accompanied by an altered excerpt from Thomas Campbell's poem Ye Mariners of England, reading:
"The flag which braved the battle and the breeze,
"No longer owns her."
The composition of this painting is unusual in that the most significant object, the old warship, is positioned well to the left of the painting, where it rises in stately splendour and almost ghostlike colours against a triangle of blue sky and rising mist that throws it into relief. The beauty of the old ship is in stark contrast to the dirty blackened tugboat with its tall smokestack, which scurries across the still surface of the river "like a water beetle". Turner has used the triangle of blue to frame a second triangle of masted ships, which progressively decrease in size as they become more distant. Temeraire and tugboat have passed a small river craft with its gaff rigged sail barely catching a breeze. Beyond this a square-rigger drifts, with every bit of sail extended. Another small craft shows as a patch of white farther down the river. In the far distance, beyond the second tugboat which makes its way towards them, a three-masted ship rides at anchor. The becalmed sailing vessels show the obsolescence of sail.
On the opposite side of the painting to Temeraire, and exactly the same distance from the frame as the ship's main mast, the sun sets above the estuary, its rays extending into the clouds above it, and across the surface of the water. The flaming red of the clouds is reflected in the river. It exactly repeats the colour of the smoke which pours from the funnel of the tugboat. The sun setting symbolises the end of an epoch in British Naval history. Behind 'Temeraire', a gleaming sliver of the waxing moon casts a silvery beam across the river, symbolising the commencement of the new, industrial era.
The demise of heroic strength is the subject of the painting, and it has been suggested that the ship stands for the artist himself, with an accomplished and glorious past but now contemplating his mortality. Turner called the work his "darling", which may have been due to its beauty, or his identification with the subject.
Some inaccuracies have been pointed out:
- The ship was known to her crew as "Saucy", rather than ""Fighting" Temeraire".
Before being broken up, the ship had been lying at Sheerness Dockyard. Her masts and rigging were removed before her sale and journey to the breaker's yard. All of her cannon, anchors and assorted hardware had been removed and salvaged for the navy to use as spare parts.
There were two steamboats towing the hull, rather than just the one in the painting. In the painting, a second paddle-wheel tug can be seen making its way up the river.
The relative placement of the sun and crescent moon identify the scene as a sunset rather than a sunrise. However, the ship was being towed up the River Thames (westbound), and so the sunset could not have been behind her.>>