Monday, 13 September 2010

In England’s song forever


In an online history group I belong to there was a discussion of the merits of J. N. W. Turner’s painting Rain, Steam and Speed. It’s a fine painting by a fine artist, arguably the greatest, most original English painter of the nineteenth century. It’s impressionist before the impressionists, a great swirl of energy and movement, conveyed by whirlwinds of colour.

It’s not my favourite Turner painting, though; that honour belongs to The Fighting Termeraire, not just because of the brilliant execution, vivid colours and painterly technique but because of the story, the melancholy pathos of the subject, telling of the passing of one age and the advance of another, the eclipse of elegant romance and the rise of ugly functionalism.

The painting’s full title is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838, one of the permanent exhibits in London’s National Gallery. The subject is essentially a prosaic one: an obsolete battleship, one that had served as the second ship of the line with Nelson and the Royal Navy at Trafalgar, no longer of any practical use, being taken away by a steam tug to be scrapped, the timber salvaged for other purposes. Here we are, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, an age of utility, an age without the patience for nostalgia and sentiment.

But Turner, who witnessed the final passage of the Temeraire while sailing on the Thames to Greenwich, has transformed the subject, given it a mythical quality in a scene of death and transfiguration. There is the great ship, the HMS Temeraire, known for her past glories as the Fighting Temeraire, in subdued and ethereal colours, her time long-past, already dead, grand and ghostly in the mist.

She contrasts sharply with the tug, squat and ugly but clearly defined, most definitely of the present age, a demon belching out fire and smoke, as Thackeray wrote. Adding to this most symbolic of all Turner’s paintings is a vivid setting sun, heightening the general sense of loss and nostalgia, the sense that there has passed away a glory from the earth. The age of sail has gone; the age of steam arises.

In his account of the painting John Ruskin was particularly expressive;

We have stern keepers to trust her glory to-the fire and the worm. Never more shall sunset lay golden robes on her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding. Perhaps, where the low gate opens to some cottage-garden, the tired traveller may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on its rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not answer, nor know, that the night-dew lies deep in the war-rents of the wood of the old Temeraire.

But thanks to Turner and his painting the vanished Temeraire is now as immortal and as mythical as Jason’s Argo. Paradoxically it is more real than the unnamed tug, representative itself of an age that has been submerged by the endlessly changing tides of time.

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
Of renown for ever clinging
To the great days done.

Now the sunset breezes shiver,
Téméraire! Téméraire!
And she's fading down the river,
Téméraire! Téméraire!
Now the sunset's breezes shiver,
And she's fading down the river,
But in England's song for ever
She's the Fighting Téméraire.

21 comments:

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  2. you writing is as fluent, colorful and passionate as turner's painting!

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  3. Yes, this is a wonderful blog.

    Turner was never my favourite English painter of that era. I have always been more of a Constable person but some of Turner's works fascinated me as an art student. Perhaps I did not understand his work at the time. He definitely produced the best seascapes. His depiction of the stormy, choppy seas is quite remarkable.

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  4. Yun yi and Shermeen, it's a pleasure to have readers like you. :-)

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  5. Ana is fluent, colourful and passionate like a Turner, yes; but she is also lucid and precise. Quite the opposite of the master painter, if I may say so :)

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  6. Shermeen, you make me blush. :-) Are you on Facebook? I'd love to have you in my circle of friends. I have a number of My T people there already.

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  7. Turner is f***ing great, if any of my 20-something mates saw this they would flog me alive. But I do admit, they are beautiful.

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  9. Brendano, so do I, though I remember being really puzzled when I saw The Death of Ophelia for the first time. I think I was about six years old and could not understand why she was floating along so placidly. :-)

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  10. Spitfire, I'm one of your 20-something mates and I think you are f***ing cool. :-))

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  11. For Ophelia, Millais painted poor Lizzie Siddal in a bath tub - with oil lamps, which gradually went out, to keep the water warm. No wonder she was always ill.

    I saw it in the Tate ... it's surprisingly small.

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  12. There is one shop in London that I always pass-by with the buss, it is in Kensington, they seem to specialise in naval motifs. With proper old, BIG, as in British-Empire-over-the-top-BIG pictures. They are seriously great needless to say there is no way in hell that you can afford them less you are, well, rich. Simples.

    I do not think I have ever seen a Turner there (I do not think I could actually spot one but still) but it is well worth checking out if you are ever in South Ken.

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  13. If I'm ever in South Ken! It just happens to be where my parents have a house, so, yes, Ana, is to be seen on those streets. :-))

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  16. Whenever I am in Hampstead, I always go to Constable's tomb to pay homage. My favourite constables are his view across London from Hampstead Heath and his portrait of Maria Bicknell (great aunt of the poet W. H. Auden).

    I take comfort in the fact that no son of a mother (to use an expression from the Urdu language) ever bought Turner's masterpiece and it was found among his belongings after he died.

    Some say he watched the spectacle on return from Margate. Others say he did so whilst returning from a day in Greenwich, no doubt invigorated by its rosy-cheeked daughters 'Others say, others say.' Personally, I go for the latter account:


    The Fighting Téméraire has become one of his most famous paintings. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 it was greeted with universal acclaim, and did much erase the unsatisfactory impression his most recent canvases had produced. It was regarded as a work of genius, and for John Ruskin it became 'the last thoroughly perfect picture [he] ever painted'. William Makepeace Thackeray called it 'as grand a painting as ever figured on the walls of any academy, or came from the easel of any painter'. Further comment is perhaps superfluous except to note that Thackeray expressed regret that there was no 'art of translating colours into music or poetry'. That is the secret of The Fighting Téméraire: the art of colour itself is taken to the highest possible pitch. It is deployed, like music or the language of poetry, for its own sake without any recourse to some ultimate reality. The light is not of this earth but has the effulgence of a vision.

    There is some dispute over whether Turner is depicting a sunrise or a sunset, but in this context it does not matter.

    (Peter Ackroyd. Turner. Vintage, 2005. 136).

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