The Story Behind The Fighting Temeraire

Many people in Britain are familiar with Joseph Mallord William Turner's magical painting of the Fighting Temeraire, but what's the story behind Britain's favourite painting? The Fighting Temeraire or "The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up" (to give it's full name) hangs in the National Gallery in London and continues to wow visitors. It depicts a glorious sunset, through which sails a squat, dark tug boat, pulling a pale and almost ghostly sailing ship, "The Fighting Temeraire" behind it.

The 98-gun Temeraire was one of the key ships that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Britain was bracing itself against the possibility of invasion by Napoleon. Napoleon had succeeded in bringing together fleets from France and Spain, in order to ravage British interests. The Battle of Trafalgar was to sow the seeds of British colonial power for many years, as well as decisively destroying the Napoleonic threat. Admiral Lord Nelson was the genius commander behind the British tactics in the battle: a master tactician, and already a national hero. The French fleet was commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. He had 33 ships, compared with the British 22. By dawn of the 21-Oct-1805, the two fleets were visible to one another. Nelson arranged his fleet into two columns, to pierce the enemy line head on. Nelson's Victory ploughed straight through the line, taking terrible damage, before opening fire. The Victory smashed the French flagship the Bucentaure, with Admiral Villeneuve, the only man left standing on the quarter deck. Then the Victory's progress was blocked by the Redoutable. The Temeraire, captained by Sir Eliab Harvey, flanked the Redoutable on the other side, and the Victory and Temeraire smashed their foes with shattering broadsides at point blank range.

Captain Jean-Jacques Lucas of the Redoubtable said: "It would be difficult to describe the horrible carnage caused by the murderous broadside. More than 200 of our brave lads were killed or wounded. I was wounded at the same instant, but not so seriously as to prevent me from remaining at my post ... A little later a third ship [HMS Temeraire] came up and stationed herself astern of the Redoubtable and fired into us at pistol range; in less than half an hour our ship was so riddled that she seemed to be no more than a mass of wreckage. In this state the Temeraire hailed us to strike, and not prolong a useless resistance. I ordered several soldiers who were near me to answer this summons with musket-shots, which was performed with the greatest zeal. At the very same minute the mainmast fell on board the Redoubtable. The entire stern was absolutely stove-in, rudder-stock, tiller, and two tiller-sweeps, sternpost, wing transoms, and transom knees were in general shot to pieces." The ships behind Victory engaged the Franco-Spanish fleet as they came through. A musket shot from the Redoubtable hit Nelson and knocked him down, breaking his back: he was taken below and missed the battle as it climaxed towards British victory, although he was kept informed at all times. The Temeraire continued to fight the Redoutable and managed to smash the French ship Fougueux in the process. The tactic of piercing the Franco-Spanish line was successful, and during the storm which blew up later that day, many of the crippled vessels were finally destroyed. Nelson died in the course of the battle, and was given a state funeral. Thus the Temeraire acquired its legendary place in British naval history. Turner wanted to make a statement about the passing of an age, the glorious age of sail, and it's transformation into the more mundane age of steam and steel. Others of his paintings, such as Rain, Steam and Speed also deal with themes of modern technology transforming our landscapes.

The scene depicted by JMW Turner occurred on 6-Sep-1838, as the Temeraire was pulled up the Thames to the Beatson's ship-breaking yard at Rotherhith. However, the reality of the scene was slightly different. It is said that the Temeraire was in fact pulled by two tugs, not one, and there was no sunset according to observers on the day. The composition lovingly romanticises the passing of the Temeraire. In 2005 the painting was voted "Britain's favourite painting" in a BBC poll. Not surprisingly, this vote coincided with the 200 year anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Now the sunset breezes shiver Temeraire! Temeraire! And she's fading down the river. Temeraire! Temeraire! Now the sunset Breezes shiver And she's fading down the river, But in England's song for ever She's the Fighting Temeraire. Henry Newbolt, 'The Fighting Temeraire', 1898