March 6, 2009


The Tale of the Temeraire: A Great Painting Tells of the Ship's Final Passage (MARY TOMPKINS LEWIS, 3/06/09, WSJ)

Under a pale sliver of a moon at left and a sun that hovers on the horizon of a sanguine sky at right, Turner's majestic Temeraire glides soundlessly on the river's broad, glass-like expanse. Powerless now and pulled by a stalwart, steam-powered tug, an icon of the new technology that had replaced it, the hulking ship seems wraithlike, its image all but disappearing into the waters that capture so clearly the tug's reflection. A second steamer emits its own sooty trail in the background, and smaller sailing ships recede into the middle distance. Fog- and smoke-shrouded factories or storehouses appear on shore at right, and a skiff with tiny figures and a shadowed buoy float in the shallows closer up. There is little to distract us, however, from the arresting vision of the Temeraire on its final voyage, and the ineffable sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, a stately passage from an age that had harnessed human valor to one of machine-driven power. Turner's "Fighting Temeraire," in fact, is a history painting of the highest caliber.

Contrary to legend, we know that Turner did not witness the Temeraire's last journey up the Thames, and countless critics in his day and ours have enumerated the ways in which the painter plays fast and loose with the facts here. News accounts tell us, for example, that the ship had been dismasted before setting out for Rotherhithe. From a contemporary print we learn that Turner moved the smoking funnel far to the fore of his tug; and a chart of the Thames makes plain that the westward course of the voyage has the sun setting, incongruously here, in the east.

The effect of each aberration is telling: The fiery, foreground plume draws our eyes to the Temeraire's ghostly, imagined masts, and to its broken spar that hangs limply at front, no longer supporting a jackstaff or the Union flag that was removed when it was sold to a ship-breaker. The blood-red smoke of the tug, moreover, echoes the distant scarlet sky, where the sun may fall on the glorious naval triumphs of Britain, or rise to illuminate the new age of industry that followed, or perhaps both, in Turner's cyclical vision of history. In many of his greatest paintings, including the pendant views of ancient and modern Rome with which he exhibited the "Temeraire" at the Royal Academy in 1839, or those of the rise and fall of ancient Carthage, another naval power often seen as a metaphoric mirror to modern Britain, such details remain not only ambiguous but irrelevant to the epic tides of history and human ambition that Turner captures in his visions of time as an endless continuum of change.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2009 10:19 PM
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