J. M. W. Turner’s Best and Worst?

The anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar—October 21, 1805—makes this week a great time to look more closely at two of Turner’s paintings I mentioned in last week’s post.

And yes, that title was an overstatement for dramatic effect.  Turner produced so many great paintings that any critic would be hard-pressed to say that any of them stood out as his “best.”  As for “worst,” well, as influential as his late watercolor studies with their loosely suggested forms are considered to be in the development of abstract art, they don’t really float my boat any more than…I digress.  But one of these Trafalgar-related paintings became one of his best-loved, while the other was one of his least liked.

A bit of background first.  I’ve read a lot of naval fiction set around this period of history: Julian Stockwin, C. S. Forester, Alexander Kent, and everyone’s favorite, Patrick O’Brian.  While Turner was honing his craft in England, largely unable to travel abroad due to Napoleon’s wars in Europe, the likes of Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, and Richard Bolitho (all of whom were inspired by real individuals) were ranging the globe, defending British interests as far abroad as India and the Caribbean from the French threat.  After the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens in 1803, Great Britain itself was threatened with invasion.

Prior to the negotiation of the treaty in 1802, the Royal Navy’s successes had already secured it a place in the British popular imagination that would be cemented by the decisive action off Cape Trafalgar, and by the death of one of Britain’s most daring and popular naval commanders, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.

So perfectly…had he performed his part, that the maritime war, after the battle of Trafalgar, was considered at an end: the fleets of the enemy were not merely defeated but destroyed; new navies must be built, and a new race of seamen reared for them, before the possibility of their invading [Britain’s] shores could again be contemplated.(1)

Out of 33 French and Spanish line-of-battle ships that confronted a British fleet of 27, 22 were captured during or after the battle, making an invasion impossible.  The Royal Navy’s supremacy was secured, ensuring safe passage for British troops to the Continent: it might not be a stretch to say that “Without the Battle of Trafalgar…there might not have been a Battle of Waterloo.”(2) At home, panic was replaced with the atmosphere of patriotic fervor, compounded of “feelings that mixed mourning with celebration,”(3) in which Turner produced his first two Trafalgar paintings.  He probably joined the crowds lining the London streets to watch Nelson’s funeral procession on January 9, 1806(4).  As a painter of maritime scenes, who also plied the waters of the Thames in his own small boat(5), he brought an additional layer of understanding to the events.

In 1822, his reputation for accuracy in nautical subjects(6) probably helped him secure the commission for his only painting completed by royal command, The Battle of Trafalgar: 21 October 1805. 

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

In spite of his interest in the subject, this painting—his largest ever, at eight and a half feet tall and ten feet wide—must have been a source of great frustration for Turner.  He had made a special effort to be accurate in his depiction of the ships’ rigging, but several naval officers suggested changes to it, as well as remarking on his having several events that occurred at different times during the battle taking place simultaneously in the painting.(7)  The palette is cooler and more subdued than in many of his other works(8), and critics of the period and modern writers alike frequently comment on the painting’s staged, theatrical quality, particularly in the Victory in the center of the painting.  Even the falling foremast seems static, and “the tumbled-together masts and sails look like so many tangled sheets and collapsed laundry-poles.”(9)

In my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses of that area of the painting lies in the lighting.  The shadows of the guns and portlids, and even the fore- and mainchains (the ledges to which the shrouds supporting the masts are attached) fall very neatly and regularly across the ship’s hull, while the falling foremast doesn’t seem to cast a shadow at all.  The billowing sails appear somewhat flat, in part because of a lack of contrast between the sunlit and shadowy areas.

To add to the frustration, King George IV didn’t start paying Turner for the painting until 1825.(10)  Turner’s next major painting of a subject related to Trafalgar had the potential to be much more lucrative for him, but even when he was offered £5000 (over $600,000 US in 2011) and then allowed to name his price(11), he never sold The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, exhibited in 1839.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

The colors, with their subtle, pearly variations, are difficult to reproduce, and this photo is considerably cooler than the original painting.  Turner used his “most ferocious pigments…lemon yellow, chrome yellow, orange, scarlet, vermilion, and red lead” over a ground of earth tones to create a fiery sunset symbolic of the ship’s impending destruction.(12)  Critics were quick to link the setting sun with the Temeraire‘s demise, while the Art Union of May 15, 1839 also made a connection with the rising moon at far left and the dawning age of steam, represented by the tugboat.(13)

However, given the overall tone of the painting, I’m inclined to think that Turner thought of the tugboat, and the modernity it represented, as instruments complicit in the majestic ship’s melancholy fate.   Blackwood’s Magazine for July-December 1839 and the Spectator on May 11(14) focused on the ghostly quality the moonlight gave the ship.  The ethereal blue Temeraire  stands tall, in contrast against the heavy, largely horizontally oriented tugboat which, like  the small boat and unidentified object in the far right of the foreground, is rendered in dark, heavy reds and browns.

Nearly every modern source will note the fact that by the time the Temeraire was ready to take this final journey, her masts would have been removed.  What some of them seem to miss is that not only are the masts still present in the painting, but there are sails bent to the yards.  Turner “had always had a dream of ships in his head,”(15) and to paint the Temeraire as she appeared at the time, as depicted in this 1838 aquatint, would have destroyed the dreamy dignity of the scene:

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

I sense a note of protest and regret in Turner’s inclusion of the masts: “this should not have happened the way it did.”  Instead, he has re-imagined the Temeraire as fully equipped to make her final voyage with all the noble grace befitting a beautiful ship at the end of a distinguished career.

1. Robert Southey, The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson (Project Gutenberg e-text, 2006, downloaded September 29, 2013), 214.

2. Roy Adkins, Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 338.

3. Bailey, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J. M. W. Turner (Harper Collins, 1998) 99.

4. Ibid., 100.

5. Ibid., 95-99.

6. Ibid., 101

7. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner, text volume (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), 139-140.

8. Ibid., 140.

9. Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 237.

10. Butlin and Joll, Paintings, 139.

11. Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 346.

12. Ibid., 343-344.

13. Quoted in Butlin and Joll, Paintings, 209.

14. Quoted in Butlin and Joll, Paintings, 209.

15. Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 344.


This novice artist welcomes comments and conversation, but please keep it polite. Inappropriate or offensive comments may be edited or deleted.

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