“The Fighting Temeraire” by JMW Turner is a symbolic painting depicting real life events. The celebrated work marks the passing of an epoch – the transition of sail to steam – as the old man-of-war and veteran of Trafalgar is towed to the breakers yard in 1838. But with all the pomp and ceremony surrounding the painting, it has gone almost unnoticed that parts of the warship can be seen today in the parish church of St Mary’s Rotherhithe.
The HMS Temeraire in Turner’s Painting
Turner’s painting (full title: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up) is as symbolic as it is true to life. Not only does it convey “progress” in the transition of sail to steam and the scrapping of an old warrior, it also echoes the blandness that seems to accompany much modern design. In a way the picture is ironic, in that the vessel being scrapped is not the scruffy little steamer in front, but the ethereal and celebrated ship behind. The composition is also unusual, with the main subject positioned to the left of the picture. The setting sun to the right, which occupies half the painting, further symbolises the end of an era.
Some commentators have cast doubt on whether Turner was in fact present when the ship was towed past. Either way, there is no doubt a measure of artistic license has been used in his painting. For instance, the Temeraire had by then been stripped out and moored up in Chatham dock yard for years. This, combined with considerable damage sustained at Trafalgar, meant that – as underscored by eye witness accounts – the ship was in a sorry state when it made its final journey.
But perhaps that in itself is symbolic? Perhaps the Temeraire, as Turner depicted her in all her glory beneath the ethereal light of the setting sun, was designed to look like a ghostly reminder of better days? Or is Turner making a statement about his own dissent over the changing times? Will we ever really know? And does it really matter? The bottom line is that it’s a fine painting of a majestic ship (voted the greatest painting in a British art gallery after a 2005 poll – quite an accolade!).
The Temeraire Today
After HMS Temeraire was broken up, some of her timbers were fashioned into two bishops chairs, two episcopal chairs and a communion table for the church, which has a long association with the sea. St Mary’s was the parish church of Captain Christopher Jones, Master of the Mayflower, the pioneering ship that carried the Pilgrim Fathers from Rotherhithe in south east London to the New World.
HMS Temeraire at the Battle of Trafalgar
The Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on September 11, 1798. She was named after a French 74-gun ship captured at the Battle of Lagos in 1759, due to the British custom of naming new ships after old prizes (those were the days!). Second-rate ships were generally smaller versions of First Rates, and often served overseas as flagships because First Rates were considered too valuable to lose. However, the English Second Rates had three decks, giving them an advantage in close combat. This also meant they were easily mistaken for First Rates, which probably gave the English a psychological advantage. To a degree, the Temeraire would have looked rather like the HMS Victory, the flagship at Trafalgar and the only remaining survivor of the battle.
At Trafalgar, the Temeraire was next astern to HMS Victory, captained by Admiral Horatio Nelson. With the Victory in trouble, the Temeraire was badly damaged as she fought to relieve Nelson’s flagship, but in the process helped force the surrender of the French ship Redoutable and captured the French ship Fougueux.
There were some powerful egos on show that day. Temeraire’s captain, Eliab Harvey, a man known for his fiery temper, had inserted his ship right into the thick of the action and significantly altered the course of the battle. At that point, concerned for Nelson’s safety, several of his officers suggested the Temeraire should break the line ahead of the Victory. While Nelson initially agreed, he soon changed his mind. Nelson’s biographer wrote:
“[As Temaraire] ranged up on Victory’s quarter, Nelson (‘speaking as he always did, with a slight nasal intonation’) said, ‘I’ll thank you, Captain Harvey, to keep in your proper station, which is astern of the Victory.”
Both ships survived, as did Harvey. Nelson, on the other hand, was killed by a French marksman aboard the Redoutable at a range of 50 feet.
Trafalgar Captured in Paint
The Victory, Nelson’s resolute flagship, is probably the most famous ship in British naval history and the oldest ship still in commission. Today she is somewhat quieter than in previous years, preserved as a museum ship in dry dock in Portsmouth, England. The Victory took part in four major sea battles: The First and Second Battles of Ushant (1778 and 1781 respectively), the Battle of Cape St Vincent (1796) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Is is as the flagship at Trafalgar for which she is best known, and the ship that bore Nelson’s body back to England. Victory was utterly crippled during the battle, being in the thick of the action ahead of the Temeraire, and was eventually towed away from the line by the Third Rate HMS Spartiate.