‘Chance favours the prepared mind’ said Louis Pasteur and in 1983, for reasons my mind no longer recalls, I looked into the facts behind Turner’s painting of ‘The Fighting Temeraire’.
While there are circumstantial anecdotes of him seeing the ship under tow, in the autumn of 1838, from Sheerness up the Thames to John Beatson’s shipbreaking yard at Rotherhithe, there is no firm evidence he really did so.
That said, it was well reported in the press and the vast hulk of this famed Trafalgar veteran loomed for many weeks on the south side of the river – on which Turner was a regular passenger –as she was slowly ‘taken to pieces’, in the customary naval phrase.
There are two well-known prints of her at Rotherhithe, entirely mastless and in the early stages of dismantling, but simply knowing of the matter would have been enough for him.
The result was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 and has been in the National Gallery since the 1850s, as part of his bequest to the nation on his death in 1851: in 2005, in a BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ poll, it still beat off all competition as the nation’s favourite painting.
Turner, of course, shows the ship towed by a single tug and with a full rig of masts, yards and a few furled sails, although it was standard naval practice to have all spars and other equipment removed before ships were sent to the breakers. Moreover, no civilian breaker could deal with the enormously heavy lower masts – bedded through all decks onto the keel. These had to be lifted out usin
g a sheer-hulk – a floating crane – and only naval dockyards had them to do that for a ship of Temeraire’s size: though a 98-gun, second-rate three-decker of 1798 she was as big as Nelson’s first-rate, three-decker, 100-gun Victory of 1765, a fact accountable to their thirty-year age gap.