Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Tale of the Temeraire

Picture from a story in today's Wall Street Journal. HWPL owns a book Joseph Mallord William Turner, text by John Walker, which has the painting in a color plate.

In the late summer of 1838, H.M.S. Temeraire, a once-glorious remnant of the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, was towed up the Thames to the wharf at Rotherhithe, to be broken up and sold for her fittings and oaken timbers. J.M.W. Turner's painting of the doomed ship's final passage, in which he summoned her illustrious past by rechristening her the "Fighting Temeraire," never left his possession and became part of his bequest to the nation after his death in 1851 at age 76. Enshrined in the National Gallery in London since 1856 and embodying a nostalgic nation's memory of an age when it ruled the waves, Turner's canvas remains among his best-known and best-loved works. Even today, as scholars debate the meaning of its ambiguous but deeply stirring imagery, "Fighting Temeraire" elicits a charged emotional response.

Picture gleaned from the Web.

Contrary to legend, we know that Turner did not witness the Temeraire's last journey up the Thames, and countless critics in his day and ours have enumerated the ways in which the painter plays fast and loose with the facts here. News accounts tell us, for example, that the ship had been dismasted before setting out for Rotherhithe. From a contemporary print we learn that Turner moved the smoking funnel far to the fore of his tug; and a chart of the Thames makes plain that the westward course of the voyage has the sun setting, incongruously here, in the east.

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