The Fighting Téméraire – Joseph Mallord William Turner

Questions to arouse interest. What is represented in this picture? Which boat is the Téméraire? What smaller boat is towing it? Why do you think it needs to be towed? What is the time of day? What makes you think so? Is the ship moving or stationary? Why does it float so high in the water? What other boats can you see in this picture? What can you see in the background? What is the condition of the water? What kind of a feeling does this picture give you? Why do you like the picture?

Original Picture : National Gallery, London, England.

Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner. Birthplace : London, England.

Dates: Born, 1775; died, 1851.

The story of the picture. One evening when the artist, Mr. Turner, and a party of friends were sailing down the river Thames in London, there suddenly loomed before their astonished gaze the dark hull of the famous ship called the Téméraire. They had heard and read of the many great victories won by this noble vessel, and the glory it had brought to England. Its name Temeraire means “the one who dares.” Now its days of usefulness were over, and it was being towed to its last place of anchor to be broken up.

At first they gazed in silence, for it was a sad and solemn sight to watch this feeble old boat creeping along like a disabled soldier, its former glories fading like the setting sun. The silence was broken by the exclamation of one of the young men, “Ah, what a subject for a picture!

And yet we must remember that at the time Turner painted this picture it was considered just as commonplace and uninteresting to paint a sailing vessel as it would be for our artists to paint a bicycle or a wagon.

But Turner painted something more than a picture of a boat. He has made us feel not only the sadness in this parting scene but also all the glories of the splendid victories won in former days. Again we recall the Battle of the Nile, when the English commander, Lord Nelson, won the victory over Napoleon’s fleet and captured the Téméraire from the French. We remember how Nelson, then a young man but having already lost an arm and an eye in battle, was put in command of the English fleet and sent against the French; how after a severe storm the two fleets, going in opposite directions, passed each other in the fog, Nelson reaching Italy and Napoleon landing in Egypt. Then the older naval officers in England, who thought they should have been appointed to this important command, said all they could about the folly of sending so young a man as Nelson, and told how much better they could have done. So the people were dissatisfied and finally the order for extra supplies and provisions was countermanded just as Nelson heard where Napoleon was and wanted to start out. Then Lady Hamilton, the wife of the English minister to Italy, used her influence in his behalf, and the provisions were furnished secretly. We do not care to dwell long on that fierce Battle of the Nile, which began after six o’clock in the evening and lasted all night. Only the flashes of the guns told the positions of the different boats until the burning of the French flagship made a more terrible illumination. It was a great victory for the English.

For forty years after this the Téméraire remained in active service. It took part in the famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar; it was the second ship in line, and the first to catch Nelson’s well-known words, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Many lives were lost in this battle, among them that of the great commander.

At length the good old ship was considered unfit for active service. Then for several years it was used as a training ship for cadets. Now, no longer fit for that either, it was to be broken up for lumber. At the time when the Téméraire was captured all war vessels used sails, but less than twenty-five years later they began to use steam. That, too, was a reason why the Téméraire was to be destroyed.

To Turner, who was born near the river Thames and grew up among boats and sailors, the sight of this old boat made a strong appeal, not only because he was an artist, but because he was also a patriotic Englishman full of pride in the ship’s great victories.

The setting sun casts a parting glow upon the great, empty vessel as it stands high out of the water. The sky is ablaze with rosy light, which is reflected in the quiet surface of the Thames, but our eyes are drawn at once to the great Téméraire. We glance at the long, dark shadows and reflections of the two vessels, but soon find our eyes wandering to the brilliantly lighted masts, to the gorgeous sunset sky, and back again to the proud old boat. In the dark smoke of the tug there is a touch of brilliant red.

The small boats scattered here and there help to bring out the distance from that far-away shore so unconscious of the passing of the great ship. At least three fourths of the picture is sky.

All of Turner’s first paintings were in tones of blues and grays, so soft and delicate they were often indistinct. It was not until after he had traveled through Italy, and spent many days in Venice, where all is brilliant color, that he began to make his pictures blaze with color. He had completely mastered the pale shades, so it needed but a touch of brilliant color here and there to make his whole picture glow. In ” The Fighting Téméraire ” more than half the picture is painted in the soft gray colors of dusk, but the sunset and the touch of red in the smoke of the tug seem to set the whole picture aflame. A gentleman once said to Turner, after looking at this picture, “I never saw a sunset like that.” Turner replied, ” No, but don’t you wish you could?”

In Turner’s day water colors were very popular, and Turner painted a great many of them. His water colors are much better preserved than his oil paintings. The “Téméraire” was painted in oils. The sky has faded considerably in the original picture, and others of his oil paintings have become indistinct. It is believed that this is because he so often used poor materials.

Turner himself considered this picture, ” The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up,” as he called it, his best work, and bequeathed it to the National Gallery in London, refusing to sell it for any price.

You will remember that later, when America proposed a similar fate for our battleship, Constitution, the people raised a protest and the plan was given up. It was then that Holmes wrote his famous ” Old Ironsides,” which might have applied equally well to the Téméraire.

” Oh, better that her shattered hulk Should sink beneath the wave; Her thunders shook the mighty deep, And there should be her grave. Nail to the mast her holy flag, Set every threadbare sail, And give her to the god of storms, The lightning and the gale!”

Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. How did the artist happen to see this ship? What does the name “Téméraire” mean? For what was this vessel famous? Tell about Lord Nelson and the Battle of the Nile. From whom did he capture the Téméraire? When was this battle fought? Tell about the Battle of Trafalgar. What saying of Nelson’s has become famous? Who won the victory? What became of the Téméraire then? Why was it now to be broken to pieces? Before the use of steam, how were vessels propelled? How was the Téméraire propelled? To what did Turner compare this old ship? Why was it a sad sight to him? What colors did he use in this picture? How did the artist consider this painting? To whom did he leave it? Why did Americans object when it was proposed that the battleship Constitution be broken up?

To the Teacher : A description of the picture may be prepared by a pupil and given orally to the class. This may be followed by a written description of the picture and a short biography of the artist, as a class exercise in connection with the English composition work.

There’s a far bell ringing At the setting of the sun, And a phantom voice is singing Of the great days done. There’s a far bell ringing, And a phantom voice is singing, To the great days done. Now, the sunset breezes shiver Téméraire ! Téméraire ! And she’s fading down the river, Téméraire ! Téméraire ! Now the sunset breezes shiver, And she’s fading down the river, But in England’s song forever She’s the “Fighting Téméraire!’

— Henry Newbolt

The story of the artist. Joseph Mallord William Turner was born, lived, and died in London. His father was a jolly little barber who curled wigs and dressed the hair of English dandies, as did all the barbers in those days. He was very popular because he was so good-natured and full of fun. He was also very ambitious for his little son, who had been left to his care by the death of the mother.

The story is told that one day, when Joseph was six years old, his father was called to the home of a wealthy patron, and, having no one with whom to leave the child, he took the boy with him. At the patron’s home the little boy climbed up into a big chair and waited patiently, but it seemed a very long time indeed before his father could satisfy the exacting customer. Finally the boy became interested in studying a carved lion on a silver tray lying on the table near by. He studied this lion so carefully that when they reached home, and while his father was preparing their supper, he drew a lion in full action, and brought the drawing to show his father. It was decided then and there that Joseph should be an artist. The father also wished that his son might receive an education. But Turner did not learn much at school, for as soon as the boys and girls found he could draw wonderful pictures they offered to do his sums for him and helped him with his lessons while he drew pictures for them in return.

The jolly little barber was so pleased with his son’s drawings that he put them up in his shop. His patrons began to inquire about the little artist, and when the proud father put a price mark on the drawings, they were soon sold. Later, Turner was apprenticed to an architect to learn architectural drawing, but he was not successful. He did not seem to be able to understand the theory of perspective or even the first steps in geometry. However, he finally must have mastered these subjects, for some years later he became Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy.

Later in life Turner traveled in France, Germany, and Italy, and it was then he began to use those brilliant colors which we always associate with his work. Turner rarely sold any of his paintings. He called them his “children,” and was unwilling to part with them. But his engravings and illustrations made him very wealthy.

Of Turner’s many pictures of the sea, perhaps the best known is ” The Slave Ship.” Other famous pictures by Turner are “Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Rail-way,” ” Steamer off Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals,” “Approach to Venice,” “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus,” “Sun Rising in a Mist,” and “Shade and Darkness —The Evening of the Deluge.”

Questions about the artist. Where was the artist born? What did his father do for a living? How did Turner happen to draw his first picture? Why did he not learn much at school? What did his father do with his drawings? What subject proved difficult for the boy artist to learn? Was he ever able to master it? Where did Turner travel? What colors did he use in his paintings? Why would he not sell his pictures? How did he become wealthy?