Joseph Mallord William Turner‘s ‘The 'Fighting Temeraire' tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, painted between 1838 and 1839 when the artist was at the height of his career, is an atmospheric study of light and empire. After forty years of exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London, Turner was renowned for his studies of the sea and the effects of light, many of which were painted in and around the River Thames or in many of the industrial heartlands of nineteenth century England. This reproduction from life of a ship being towed away for scrap is a highly metaphorical canvas, symbolising the decline and fall of the old British Empire, summed up in its proud naval tradition, as it is rendered unfit for further service. The subject, the 98-gun ship 'Temeraire' played a starring role in Nelson's victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Remaining in service until 1838 when it was towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up for scrap, the ‘Temeraire’ represents the decline of Britain's naval power as it travels east towards the sunset. Foregrounding the importance of the vessel Turner painted the ship in a gloriously vivid light, illuminating the rigging and masts while the clouds and surroundings are rendered in thick, layered paint.
Currently on display in the National Gallery, London, having been bequeathed to the nation by the artist in 1851, it was recently voted the nation's favourite painting in a poll organized by the BBC. This symbolic reproduction of the shifting fate of a nation is a vivid symbol of the decline of a perceived strength that bound a nation into some kind of unity. Also a contemplation on mortality from an artist reaching the end of his life, ‘The 'Fighting Temeraire' tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up sums up the bittersweet glory of a vessel that has been rendered unfit for use.
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