524. The Fighting Téméraire* (1839).
* "The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last berth, to be broken up ." Acad. Catalogue.
I return to this picture, instead of taking it in its due order; and I think I shall be able to show reason for pleading that, whatever ultimate arrangement may be adopted for the Turner Gallery, this canvas may always close the series. I have stated in the Harbours of England that it was the last picture he ever executed with his perfect power; but that statement needs some explanation. He produced, as late as the year 1843, works which, take them all in all, may rank among his greatest; but they were great by reason of their majestic or tender conception, more than by workmanship; and they show some failure in distinctness of sight, and firmness of hand. This is especially marked when any vegetation occurs, by imperfect and blunt rendering of the foliage; and the "Old Téméraire" is the last picture in which Turner's execution is as firm and faultless as in middle life; the last in which lines requiring exquisite precision, such as those of the masts and yards of shipping, are drawn rightly, and at once. When he painted the "Téméraire," Turner could, if he had liked, have painted the "Shipwreck" or the "Ulysses" over again; but, when he painted the "Sun of Venice," though he was able to do different, and in some sort more beautiful things, he could not have done those again.
I consider, therefore, Turner's period of central power, entirely developed and entirely unabated, to begin with the "Ulysses," and close with the "Téméraire"; including a period, therefore, of ten years exactly, 1829-1839.
The one picture, it will be observed, is of sunrise; the other of sunset.
The one of a ship entering on its voyage; and the other of a ship closing its course for ever.
The one, in all the circumstances of its subject, unconsciously illustrative of his own life in its triumph.
The other, in all the circumstances of its subject, unconscioucly illustrative of his own life in its decline.
I do not suppose that Turner, deep as his bye-thoughts often were, had any under meaning in either of these pictures: but, as accurately as the first sets forth his escape to the wild brightness of Nature, to reign amidst all her happy spirits, so does the last set forth his returning to die by the shore of the Thames: the cold mists gathering over his strength, and all men crying out against him, and dragging the old "fighting Téméraire" out of their way, with dim, fuliginous contumely.
The period thus granted to his consummate power seems a short one. Yet, within the space of it, he had made five-sixths (or about 80) of the England drawings; the whole series of the Rivers of France 66 in number; for the Bible illustrations, 26; for Scott's works, 62; for Byron's, 33; for Rogers', 57; for Campbell's, 20; for Milton's. 7; for Moore's, 4; for the Keepsake, 24; and of miscellaneous subjects, 20 or 30 more; the least total of the known drawings being thus something above 400: allow twelve weeks a year for oil-painting and travelling, and the drawings (wholly exclusive of unknown private commissions and some thousands of sketches) are at the rate of one a week through the whole period of ten years.
The work which thus nobly closes the series is a solemn expression of a sympathy with seamen and with ships, which had been one of the governing emotions in Turner's mind throughout his life. It is also the last of a group of pictures, painted at different times, but all illustrative of one haunting conception, of the central struggle at Trafalgar. The first was, I believe, exhibited in the British Institution in 1808, under the title of "The battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizen shrouds of the Victory" (480). A magnificent picture, remarkable in many ways, but chiefly for its endeavour to give the spectator a complete map of everything visible in the ships Victory and Redoutable at the moment of Nelson's death-wound. Then came the "Trafalgar," now at Greenwich Hospital, representing the Victory after the battle; a picture which, for my own part, though said to have been spoiled by ill-advised compliances on Turner's part with requests for alteration, I would rather have, than any one in the National Collection. Lastly, came this "Téméraire," the best memorial that Turner could give to the ship which was the Victory's companion in her closing strife.*
* She was the second ship in Nelson's line; and, having little provisions or water on board, was what sailors call "flying light," so as to be able to keep pace with the fast-sailing Victory. When the latter drew upon herself all the enemy's fire, the "Téméraire" tried to pass her, to take it in her stead; but Nelson himself hailed her to keep astern The "Téméraire" cut away her studding-sails, and held back, receiving the enemy's fire into her bows without returning a shot. Two hours later, she lay with a French seventy-four gun ship on each side of her, both her prizes, one lashed to her mainmast, and one to her anchor.
The painting of the "Téméraire" was received with a general feeling of sympathy. No abusive voice, as far as I remember, was ever raised against it. And the feeling was just; for of all pictures of subjects not visibly involving human pain, this is, I believe, the most pathetic that was ever painted. The utmost pensiveness which can ordinarily be given to a landscape depends on adjuncts of ruin: but no ruin was ever so affecting as this gliding of the vessel to her grave. A ruin cannot be, for whatever memories may be connected with it, and whatever witness it may have borne to the courage or the glory of men, it never seems to have offered itself to their danger, and associated itself with their acts, as a ship of battle can. The mere facts of motion, and obedience to human guidance, double the interest of the vessel: nor less her organized perfectness, giving her the look, and partly the character of a living creature, that may indeed be maimed in limb, or decrepit in frame, but must either live or die, and cannot be added to nor diminished from heaped up and dragged down as a building can. And this particular ship, crowned in the Trafalgar hour of trial with chief victory prevailing over the fatal vessel that had given Nelson death surely, if ever anything without a soul deserved honour or affection, we owed them here. Those sails that strained so full bent into the battle that broad bow that struck the surf aside, enlarging silently in steadfast haste, full front to the shot resistless and without reply those triple ports whose choirs of flame rang forth in their courses, into the fierce revenging monotone, which, when it died away, left no answering voice to rise any more upon the sea against the strength of England those sides that were wet with the long runlets of English life-blood, like press-planks at vintage, gleaming goodly crimson down to the cast and clash of the washing foam those pale masts that stayed themselves up against the war-ruin, shaking out their ensigns through the thunder, till sail and ensign drooped steep in the death-stilled pause of Andalusian air, burning with its witness-cloud of human souls at rest, surely, for these some sacred care might have been left in our thoughts some quiet space amidst the lapse of English waters?