For anyone who might be traveling to London this winter, you might also be interested to learn that the National Maritime Museum will launch a new exhibition, Turner and the Sea, on November 22.
I wrote last week’s post from the (somewhat) sunny Shuswap, where I spent a few days visiting relatives, kayaking, watching the sockeye salmon run in the Adams River, and reading up on the Battle of Trafalgar for next week. Since I returned, just in time for the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve had to sleep on the floor in my studio. It’s a long story, but the end result is that the place is a mess, and most of the objects cluttering the floor are things I wouldn’t want to get paint on. I’ve added the sky to my painting of Mount Cascade, but it might be a couple of days before anything major happens with that work in progress.
For now, let’s take a quick look at Turner’s four oil paintings relating to the Battle of Trafalgar. I’ll go into more detail on two of them next week.
Turner was present (and sketching) when the British flagship, HMS Victory, entered the Thames estuary on December 22, 1805, and went aboard soon afterward to make many more detailed sketches.(1) In 1806, he exhibited two paintings based on these studies. The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, is on display at Tate Britain—but what we now see is the result of Turner’s reworking of the painting in 1808, which was thought at the time to be a considerable improvement.(2)
His other 1806 painting, The Victory Returning from Trafalgar, depicts the ship in three different positions. Both nineteenth-century viewers(3) and modern naval historians(*) generally consider(ed) it to be a poor likeness. This work also resides in the Tate, but they don’t provide an image (or much information) online due to copyright issues.
He painted the battle again in 1822 by royal command, and the resulting piece was considered far less of a success.(4) The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 has been displayed in Greenwich Hospital (now The Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich) since King George IV donated it in 1829.(5)
Finally, amidst a growing public awareness that there were few ships still afloat that had participated in the battle, Turner may have been present in Rotherhithe when HMS Temeraire was towed to the breaker’s yard there in 1838.(6) He exhibited a painting of the scene in 1839, which remained tremendously popular throughout the century(7) and is probably his most recognizable work. It’s on display in the National Gallery in London—and you can even buy smartphone cases decorated with copies of it on Zazzle.
1. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), 1:39.
3. Gabriele Crepaldi, Turner (Munich, London and New York: Prestel, 2011), 56.
4. Butlin and Joll, Paintings, 1:139-140.
5. Ibid., 1:140.
6. Ibid., 1:208. I say “may have been” because Olivier Meslay says otherwise. Olivier Meslay, Turner: Life and Landscape (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), 102.
7. Meslay, Turner: Life, 102.