More about The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838

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Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is known to many in the UK as the nation’s favorite painting.

It is a jewel of The National Gallery - no pressure. As someone who wrote her thesis on Turner, I’d have to say this isn’t my favorite of his works, but I don’t have millenia of British nationalism impacting my selection.

This painting depicts the ridiculously famous HMS Temeraire - what would have been known as some serious whip game in the early 20th century. In 1805 this 98-gun ship and its dedicated crew held off Napoleon’s British invasion (way before The Beatles’ version) in the Battle of Trafalgar.

If you still aren’t convinced that this is a worthy subject for a wildly honored painting, know that it is featured in 13 Paintings Children Should Know - a huge resume point.

Strangely, the feeling that permeates this painting is not triumph, but rather a kind of melancholy. Turner was known to be a volatile man, but this disconnect of a victorious vessel being pulled off into the sunset still seems large, even for him. The painting does not in fact depict a victory lap, but instead the last ride. The full title of this painting is actually The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up. And yet, even that title is misleading. Though the ship depicted is being solemnly led off, in reality all that would have remained for this procession was a battle-scarred hull: all of the valuables had been stripped and the masts removed, leaving only the skeleton of the ship. Plus, two tugboats were needed to move the massive ship. Onlookers (including Turner) had the chance to see the ship in this grander condition upon its return to England, fresh off the battle-waves, when it would have been battered, but not yet barren.

If the common title is incomplete, and Turner’s depiction is aggrandized, what, then, is the reality of this painting? The materials themselves! This, normally, would be nothing to get excited about. A painting made of paint? Groundbreaking. However, Turner is known to conservators as the problem child, because he often created paintings using all kinds of non-painting materials, such as wax, resin, fats (which don’t dry), and more. Perhaps this respect for materials, in addition to the dignified solitude of the ship being pulled, is Turner’s nod to Britain’s celebrity ship as it goes on to be recycled.

Much like the aged ship, Turner was in his 60s when he painted this work, though he was still a widely recognized and celebrated artist. Indeed, he remains one of the most well-known artists in the world (#canon). This status, however, is deserved, as he was a groundbreaking artist who responded to industrialization in both a thoughtful and elegant way, as captured in this portrait of a great ship. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but it doesn’t look like Turner’s legacy will ever go dark.



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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 is an oil-on-canvas painting by the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, painted in 1838 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839.

The painting depicts the 98-gun HMS Temeraire, one of the last second-rate ships of the line to have played a role in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames by a paddle-wheel steam tug in 1838, towards its final berth in Rotherhithe 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, as part of the Turner Bequest. In a poll organised by BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2005, it was voted the nation's favourite painting. In 2020 it was included on the new £20 banknote, along with the artist's 1799 self-portrait.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Fighting Temeraire

Comments (2)

Kanyun Zhou

I like this painting because of its skillful and harmonious use of colors. It gives me a very comfortable and pleasant feeling. Especially the sky and the boat make me feel like a picture of twilight.


I like this piece because of the way the colors are blended in the sky, which makes it look beautiful.