JMW Turner is one of Britain’s best loved artists. He became known as the ‘painter of light’ due to his trademark style and use of colour in landscapes and seascapes. The Fighting Temeraire, one of his most famous oil paintings, shows the warship Temeraire being towed by a steam-powered tug on its last ever journey before being broken up. It is said to symbolise the decline of Britain’s naval power, the passing of the ‘glorious’ age of sail and the growth of ‘modern’ technology in an increasingly industrialised Britain. The industrial revolution and the history of the Royal Navy were therefore both saluted, through Turner’s revolutionary brand of romantic landscape painting.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was born in Covent Garden and lived in London all his life. He was admitted to study at the prestigious Royal Academy School aged just 14 and found success as an artist at an early age. Along with artists like Constable, Goya and Delacroix, Turner became one of the most celebrated painters of the Romantic movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The characteristics of this movement can be difficult to define, but have their roots in liberty, individual rights, creativity, our relationship with nature, a nostalgia for a time before industrialisation and a sense of emotion and spirituality.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire in 1839. The painting re-imagines the final journey of HMS Temeraire, a 98-gun warship which featured in the Napoleonic wars and played a significant role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, being towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up.  The painting is a reflection on the end of an era, with Turner’s masterful use of light and colour evoking a sense of loss, particularly in the symbolism of the sunset – and end of days. The Temeraire appears almost ghostly, although still elegant and magnificent in size, while the modern tugboat appears plain and utilitarian, puffing out smoke as it diligently undertakes its rather sad but perhaps inevitable role in a new, industrial age.

 

Did you know?

The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain’s favourite painting in a BBC poll in 2005.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.