Painting Explorers: The Fighting Temeraire

Dramatic skies!

Joseph Mallord William Turner was a really famous artist who lived from 1775 – 1851. He was especially famous for his paintings of dramatic skies and weather. He even went on trains and ships to study the movement of the sky and how to create it using paint! 

 He laid his paint thickly to show the sun’s rays striking the clouds in a very messy, but natural way. But the ship’s rigging is very delicately painted. The sails would have looked very uniform against that dramatic, sweeping sunset – so Turner showed this in his painting skills.

The 98-gun ship ‘Temeraire’ played a really important role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when Turner was around 30 years old, after which the ship was known as the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. The ship stayed in service until 1838 when it was decommissioned and towed from Sheerness, Kent, to Rotherhithe, just near London to be destroyed.

The painting was thought to represent the decline of Britain powerful Navy. The ‘Temeraire’ is shown travelling east, away from the sunset, even though Rotherhithe is west of Sheerness, but Turner really wanted to bring a sense of loss in the painting, rather than to give an exact recording of the event. 

Look at the two ships there. You can see the tall, ornate ship standing proudly in the water, and steam boat tugging it – you can see it looks very small in comparison. Turner did that on purpose to show how mighty that old ship was and how sad it is that they’re being taken over by these new steam ships.

Did you ever hear the tale about the Fighting Temeraire?
A battleship from Chatham borne, the tale is one I’d like to share.
Two hundred years ago she sailed – and even now the stories told
Of this most valiant of ships – who led the charge so strong and bold
From icy northern waters to the soft and warm West Indian bays.
In trade and battle, proud and tall, she served with valour all her days
Her timber salted hard as flint to cut a path through winter’s sea
With battle cry and canon shot for Nelson’s win and victory
Ninety eight guns she had and how they pounded foes, by day by night.
Fire thrown down from lofty heights – a terrifying force to fight
Her timber shook and breathed with life – alive she was, for forty year
But times they change, new ships are made – and no more use for Temeraire.
A ghost ship now, is Temeraire but one that still could raise a chill
With mast-like branches bare by snow – faded now but reaching still
Led now, as peaceful as a lamb her masts now pierce the sun bled sky,
Quiet now, she slips to dock eternal – timber still, so worn and dry
The axe will carve her bow throw ghostly battle cries into the air
But history remembers all – it shall remember Temeraire.

How would you paint a stormy sky?

Sit outside when it’s raining, or if there’s a big sunset!

Look at the colours! Sometimes, just before the sun goes down, the clouds turn different colours – yellow, pink, purple – against the blue sky. How could you paint it? What paints would you use? Watercolours or oils? Or even acrylic paints! Would you use a brush or something else? Cotton wool balls, a sponge?

Try painting things that move too!

Getting things to look like they’re moving is very tricky on a painting. The key is to look at something that’s moving and see if you can see why it looks like it’s moving. Are the colours dragging along and merging? Turner uses colours like this to get movement in his paintings. Practise making some marks first!

Have a go at painting a stormy scene!

A stormy day at sea like The Fighting Temeraire, or a blustery day in the countryside – or even in the city! Have a go at getting movement in your pictures like Turner!

Click on a painting below to explore more!

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 NG_logo_blackPainting Explorers in association with The National Gallery