The Fighting Temeraire: Analysis and Meaning 

Painting of the Temeraire ship by JMW Turner

Voted England’s favorite painting in 2005, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up” has become JMW Turner’s best-known painting.  In 2020 the bank of England introduced a 20-pound bill featuring a self-portrait of Turner and the fighting Temeraire in the background. Today, the painting represents the culture of England. Turner witnessed this grand ship being towed in front of his eyes and was immediately inspired. He felt driven to track it down to Beatson’s breaking yard where he made several preliminary studies through rough lithographs.  

About: Joseph Mallord William Turner

As a child prodigy, Turner started working professionally as an artist at the young age of 11. Unlike most artists of the time, Turner had immense support from his family to pursue his career in art. He exhibited his first watercolor art at the Royal Academy in his teen years.  Turner also became one of the youngest members of the Royal Academy. He was a proud Londoner all his life and never let go of his cockney accent even upon receiving tremendous fame. 

Self Portrait of JMW Turner
Self-Portrait by JMW Turner. Public Domain.

Turner was born in 1775, the same year as the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. The painter was born and brought up in the United Kingdom which was known across the globe for its powerful navy. Marine painting, therefore, became an integral part of his career. He studied the different types of ships all around Britain, France, and Italy. As a result, Turner knew his ships well and could draw them from memory.

What is the history of the Fighting Temeraire?

The HMS Temeraire served the United Kindom Royal Navy valuably during the French Revolutionary war. Turner named it the fighting Temeraire for its brave role in the battle of Trafalgar, where it sustained heavy damage, being surrounded by French ships and yet emerged victoriously. The 98-gun second-rate ship also served during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Turner was familiar with the importance of the HMS Temeraire. In Britain, the name ‘Temeraire’ was famous as the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship won one of the most critical moments in the war. Eventually, Napoleon’s forces were defeated, which allowed Britain to dominate the seas for the next hundred years.

The war ended in 1805 which was the last time Temeraire got to flaunt its valor. After the wars, this grand ship was used for shipments and storage. This shows that the warship was far too valuable to be scrapped easily. Even after two wars, the Temeraire had enough strength to continue serving her country.  Turner witnessed the ship being tugged to the scrapyard in 1838. This is when the painter was inspired to paint the legacy of this hero ship.

Why was the Fighting Temeraire famous?

At first glance, we see a gigantic ship, gliding across the reflective surface of the water. The ship seems to be drifting towards the audience. The ship is being towed by a much smaller tugboat in front of it which has massive clouds of smoke coming out of the chimney. This smoke partially obscures the view of the Temeraire.  

On the other side, we see an absolutely remarkable and beautiful sunset. Even though it is predominated with dull yellow and ochre, Turner manages to show just how bright and magnificent it is.

Turner expresses his mastery of light manipulation through this painting. The right side of the painting features water underneath a sunset. Therefore the colors used for the water are nothing like the conventional blue and grey. This unique use of colors makes it seem as if the sun is almost melting into the sea. Turner’s understanding of perspective can be seen in the small details. In the distant center of the painting, we can see some other ships approaching the viewer. These ships have been realistically and accurately scaled down. 

The painting is almost like a portrait of Temeraire. The more we know about it, the more it adds to our understanding of the meaning behind the painting. The hero ship of the battle of Trafalgar is deserving of glorification. What makes this work characteristic of the romantic era is its inspiring history and the storytelling value of the painting.

Symbolism: What does The Fighting Temeraire Represent?

An artist draws inspiration from their life when they are moved by an event. This motivation to spend endless hours painting a single snippet of their life is backed by these strong emotions. Turner captures his feelings about the scene he witnessed and spills them on the canvas for us to relate to his sentiments. 

Turner was a British national and for him, the scene of the Temeraire being tugged ashore was of personal significance, as was for all Britons of the time. The painter captures a sentimental narrative about the inevitable end of a powerful symbol of national pride. To enhance the emotions of this event, Turner made a few changes to the actual scene he saw.

Painting of the Temeraire ship by JMW Turner
The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner. Public Domain.

A large boat such as the Temeraire would require two tugboats but Turner painted only one. This artistic liberty enhances the impact of the scene, by showing how a mighty ship is being put to rest by a drastically small boat. This is in stark difference from the glory of the sun from which it emerges, leaving behind the days of its grandeur. He also added a small white flag at the head of the ship which symbolizes submission. 

Meaning and Analysis

In Britain, Temeraire was an important symbol of their nation’s proud history of naval dominance and heroic military success. The ship was almost like an immortal connection between the citizens and those who had lost their lives in the war. However, its inevitable disassembly marked the end of an era. 

Turner paints the ship close to the canvas’ left side rather than the center. This placement forces the audience to look at the small details in the painting. The boat is colored in dull tones of white, grey, and brown, giving it an unearthly appearance. It seems as if the boat is lifeless. A tiny black tugboat is pulling the powerful cruiser forward. This points towards the industrial revolution and how much changing times have affected technology. This technological change had a big hand in the decommissioning of large ships like the Temeraire. 

One of the strongest symbols of resignation and acceptance is the small white flag waving at the highest point of the ship. The last moments of the Temeraire have been given an emotional tinge through the sunset. A setting sun is also a symbol of an ending, but a beautiful one. It’s as if the Temeraire matches the valor of the sun and both have to inevitably resign from their greatness. 

Turner has also used contrasting art styles to give a different emotional narrative to different areas of the painting. While the details on the ship are fine and delicate, he has used thick impasto near the setting sun. This gives the ship a more lifeless and silent touch whereas the sunset seems unsettling and impromptu. 


Unlike most of his work, Turner did not commercialize ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. The painting was stored in his studio till his death when hen he donated all his work to his country.   The importance of the painting was recognized by the citizens and the government alike. The painting was considered a representation of Britain’s history, its greatness, and its final interaction with industrialization. Centuries after the death of the Temeraire it is still a part of Britain’s cherished tradition.

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