Britain Loves this Rotherhithe Painting

OK, so it’s not actually about Rotherhithe, but famous works of art featuring south London wouldn’t fill much gallery space, so I wanted to tell you about this well-known painting with a local setting that’s been in the news again recently.

Samsung have just brought out a new TV called The Frame, which can display art and photos which you can change as you wish from a wide selection of works. The company carried out a survey and from 100 well known works of art, The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner came fourth. In a BBC poll a few years ago, the same painting was voted Britain’s most popular, so there’s no doubt that this painting, set on the Thames at Rotherhithe, is one of the nation’s favourites. So much so, it’s going to feature on the new £20 note to be issued in 2020.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838, by Joseph Mallord William Turner

So what’s it about and why is it so popular? Well, it depicts the towing of the de-commissioned HMS Temeraire up the Thames to the breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe – an event which took place in 1838 and was watched by thousands. In 1805, The Temeraire had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar alongside Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, and it played a crucial and decisive role in the battle, enabling the British fleet to defeat the combined fleets of France and Spain. (The irony is that the ship had a French name: Temeraire = audacious, bold). Trafalgar, though it did not end the Napoleonic Wars – that would come ten years later at Waterloo – ensured Britain had mastery of the seas and Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was now impossible.

Detail showing the various craft

In the painting you can see the ghost-like Temeraire, its hull and masts glistening in the sunset, being towed by a small and ugly-looking tugboat, which belches smoke from its funnel as it nears the breaker’s yard. The glorious sunset and sunlit river contrast with the dark and foreboding buildings of Rotherhithe on the right.

Detail – two men row out from the Rotherhithe shore, probably to take the mooring ropes

The painting is intrinsically beautiful, but more than that, it’s full of symbolism. Nostalgia is the main emotion that Turner evokes, as he depicts the passing of the age of sail and a glorious military past, to be replaced by a grittier industrial future where new technology, in the shape of the steam engine, changes the landscape of Britain.

Temeraire at Beatson’s breakers yard, by JJ Williams in National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

For it to be so popular, there’s obviously something about this painting that strikes a chord in the psyche of the nation. The themes of military power, industrialisation, nostalgia and technological change all resonate today and have a relevance to many issues we face in contemporary society.

For an in-depth analysis of the painting, see the website of The National Gallery, where Temeraire is displayed and appropriately located on Trafalgar Square.

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