Just Voted Britain's Favourite Picture, We Explain Why It's the ... PAINTING THAT SAILED INTO HISTORY

Daily Mail (London), September 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

Just Voted Britain's Favourite Picture, We Explain Why It's the ... PAINTING THAT SAILED INTO HISTORY


Byline: CHRISTOPHER HUDSON

THE SCENE could hardly be more poignant. One of Britain's most formidable fighting ships, a pale copy of how she looked on the day all her guns blazed in glory at the Battle of Trafalgar, is towed up the Thames to a naval scrapyard at sunset.

This is the picture that has been voted the greatest painting in Britain, trouncing works by Constable, Manet and Van Gogh in a BBC poll for Radio 4.

J.M.W. Turner's masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire is, in many ways, the perfect choice. For in an age when multiculturalists and politicians are so dismissive of our history, you only have to visit the National Gallery and study The Fighting Temeraire to understand where the roots of Britishness lie.

Its full title is 'The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up'. Turner, then in his mid-60s, was on a Margate steamer going up the Thames when he passed the noble old ship, sold out of the service of the Navy, being towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be stripped and sold for scrap.

He at once appreciated the melancholy symbolism. For the Temeraire, which means 'reckless' or 'daring' in French, had a distinguished history.

She was the second ship of the line behind Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805.

When she tried to pass the Victory to take on herself the fire directed at the flagship, Nelson ordered her to keep astern. She obeyed, but then turned her guns on the enemy.

Two hours later, to quote the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, 'she lay with a French 74-gun ship on either side of her, both her prizes, one lashed to her mainmast, and one to her anchor'.

Turner had already painted her in 1808, three years after Nelson's victory, in his depiction of the Battle of Trafalgar.

NOW, 30 years on, this stateofthe-art warship, which had saved the Victory and helped rescue Britain from Napoleon, was no more than a ghostly hulk being towed upriver by a modern steam tug belching out fire and soot.

The breaker at the yard paid [pounds sterling]5,500 (about [pounds sterling]3 million in today's money) for the hull of the Temeraire.

The Fighting Temeraire made a huge impression on everyone who saw it, from the novelist William Thackeray onwards.

It symbolised the end of an era - the passing of the Age of Sail and the dominance of a new machine age, with all its ugliness and vitality.

No other painting captures such a momentous change so succinctly.

Our survival as a nation over the centuries has depended more upon the Royal Navy than any other institution, while the Industrial Revolution was the foundation of our modern prosperity.

The Fighting Temeraire today conjures up nostalgia for past greatness, but also pride in our achievements since those days.

Turner's technique - varying the thickness of his paint to create a world of resplendent colour and beauty, bathed in light - has never been bettered. …

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