The heartfelt tug of time

What was Turner saying in 'The Fighting Temeraire'? Was he harking back to a pre-industrial age? Or was he, at 64, rounding the last bend of the river? By Andrew Graham-Dixon

JMW Turner officially titled his most celebrated work The Fighting Temeraire but in private he called it by another name: "My Darling." A new exhibition at the National Gallery investigates the subtle bonds of love between painter and painting. It also suggests that, like many of the great monuments of art, The Fighting Temeraire was most clumsily manhandled by the people who set it on its pedestal in the first place.

The painting shows a superannuated English warship from Nelson's Trafalgar fleet, making her last journey down the Thames, pulled by a black tug through waters the colour of gold and precious stones, lit by the flare of an autumn sunset. It is a beautiful but complicated object. Painted more than 20 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it is Turner's melancholy tribute to a glorious moment in the nation's past: Rule Britannia sung in a minor key. But it is also more than that. It is a work of disguised autobiography: a painting that reconciles some of the selves Turner still felt striving within him, even in the last and most radiant phase of his creative life.

Two big mistakes have been made about the nature of the painting. The first concerns its origins. The starting point for the picture has always seemed somewhat uncertain, partly because Walter Thornbury, Turner's first and most eccentrically inventive biographer, was himself so definite on the subject: "In 1838 Turner was with Clarkson Stanfield and a party of brother artists on one of those holiday excursions in which he is so delighted. Suddenly there moved down upon the artists' boat the grand old vessel that had been taken prisoner at the Nile, and that led the van at Trafalgar. She loomed through the evening haze pale and ghostly, and was being towed to her last moorings by a little, fiery, puny steam-tug. 'There's a fine subject, Turner,' said Stanfield. So Turner painted it..."

But a few years after Thornbury published this passage, in his life of Turner, Clarkson Stanfield denied the story altogether. There had been no boat party. There has been no sighting of the Temeraire, and Stanfield insisted that although he "should have been proud to have suggested this subject to Turner, saying that he did so is an invention and a lie." Subsequent commentators have failed to agree on whether Turner did or did not base his picture on an actual sighting of the Temeraire, which was indeed towed along the Thames in early September 1838, to a breaker's yard in Rotherhithe.

Now, thanks to the industrious researches of Judy Egerton, author of the catalogue of the National Gallery exhibition, the literal-minded may at last be liberated from their perplexity. She proves that even if Turner did happen to see the Temeraire on its way to its final resting place, what he painted bears little resemblance to any event that actually took place. The real Temeraire was a graceless, dismasted hulk by the time she had been consigned to the breaker's yard, and she was certainly not the gorgeous, white and gold, three-masted phantom ship painted by Turner. Furthermore, the tug that pulled her, unlike Turner's, had a funnel aft not fore and a mast fore not aft; and it did not pull her anywhere at sunset, as Turner has shown it, because no tugboat captain would ever have tried or have been allowed to tow such a large ship through the shallow and treacherously sand-banked waters of the Thames as nightfall approached.

It may be that this only proves what should have been obvious ever since Turner applied the last touch to his canvas, but sometimes the obvious needs to be proved. The Fighting Temeraire is not a picture of something that really happened, but of something imagined. It is not a picture of a fact, but a picture of a feeling. The second big mistake that has been made about the painting turns on the question of what that feeling might comprise.

Turner first exhibited The Fighting Temeraire in 1839, in the dawn of the Victorian period, and eminent Victoria interpreters were soon misinterpreting it as an eminently Victorian painting. Thackeray turned it into a neat capsule of moralised, nostalgic sentiment: "The little demon of a steamer," he wrote, "is belching out a volume (why do I say volume? Not a hundred volumes could express it) of foul, lurid, red-hot malignant smoke, paddling furiously, and lashing up the water around it; while behind it (a cold grey moon looking down on it), slow, sad and majestic, follows the brave old ship, with death, as it were, written upon her ..." Thackeray saw Turner's picture as a wistful, disapproving allegory of steampower replacing sailpower - and therefore, by extension, an allegory of nasty, dirty, industrial modernity overwhelming a more beautiful and romantic past.

Ruskin, infected like Thackeray by a peculiarly Victorian terror of change, also assumed the painting to hark after a purer, nobler age now besmirched by the soot of industry. For Ruskin, the smoke that belches fiercely from the funnel of the tug in Turner's painting was an early warning sign of what he would later come to call "The Dark Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century." Its blackness was the dangerous, polluting blackness of modernity itself, veiling the beauty of the world.

If Thackeray makes Turner's battleship and tug sound like the cutely contrasting terrier and bloodhound in Sir Edwin Landseer's painting Dignity and Impudence (exhibited in the same year), then Ruskin makes it sound like one of those scenes of female virtue despoiled, painted by ingenious, elaborate Victorian genre painters like Augustus Egg. Seeing Turner's painting through Victorian eyes, Thackeray and Ruskin cheapened it and him too. There may be a form of nostalgia at work in The Fighting Temeraire. But it is Turner's nostalgia, not Victorian nostalgia, and it cannot be simplified to social polemic.

Turner spent much of his life among ships and travelling on them. He did so through necessity and through compulsion. The broken quality of light reflected in moving water was the subject of many of his greatest paintings, and the source of his insights into the nature of existence. It was a subject which had preoccupied him from the beginning of his life. He was brought up in Covent Garden, a few minutes walk away from the Thames. Ruskin wrote a particularly flowery passage about Turner's childhood, filled with visions of boats and the sea, which may have embroidered on the truth but which was almost certainly based on Turner's own conversation.

The riverscape in The Fighting Temeraire, which recedes into a subtly graded, blue distance forested with the masts of ships, has the quality of an ideal. Perhaps it is a childhood recollection made perfect in art. The Temeraire looks like something recalled from a dream, distanced by soft focus and a generalised unreality in Turner's handling.

Turner was 64 years-old when he painted The Fighting Temeraire and the picture is as much a personal allegory as anything else. Its full title is The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. Turner, who was prone to morbid reflections, and who spent much of his life assembling rather crude and sentimental metaphors into rather turgid poetry, may well have intended it to be a slightly maudlin parable of his own situation in life. He certainly knew that he too had rounded the last bend of the river.

Turner often saw his life in nautical terms. At the time that he painted The Fighting Temeraire, he liked to preserve his anonymity in public by passing himself off as an imaginary gentleman called Admiral "Puggy" Booth. He quite often referred to his paintings as his fleet, and sometimes even referred to himself as a ship, subject to many winds. England's other great 19th-century painter John Constable went further and directly compared him to a man o' war. The two painters were putting last touches to their works in the 1832 Royal Academy Annual Exhibition when Turner added a particularly violent dab of red to an otherwise low-toned seascape; "He's been in," said Constable, "and he's fired a gun."

The Temeraire was a particularly appropriate choice of personal emblem for Turner because ship and man were contemporaries. The Temeraire's finest hour of all had come at the Battle of Trafalgar, and Turner had forged his own reputation as a painter during the long war with France. He was 18 when it broke out, 30 when Trafalgar was fought and 40 when Napoleon was finally defeated. By that time Turner had turned himself into the country's most prolific, most highly regarded, best paid painter. Britain's triumphs naturally reminded Turner of his own. But The Fighting Temeraire is a complicated painting, because the Temeraire is not the only emblem of Turner that it contains.

The old warship can only represent one part of Turner's identity: dreamy remembrance of the fieriness of his own youth, his own victories and their cost, mingled doubtless with other and more inchoate feelings. The painter has included other elements of himself and perhaps too another displaced self-portrait. Chugging into the future, doing away with the dead past, the tug is a progressive, forward-looking thing and therefore is a symbol entirely appropriate to the most prophetic and radical painter of his time. The tug, incidentally, is a rather better likeness than the grand old ship she pulls in her wake: small but determined, like Turner all his life, and like him it wears black. Its funnel is like a paintbrush, painting the sky with the very elements of Turner's pictorial revolution: tinted steam and fire.

Turner was inherently melancholic and the implied message behind almost all that he had was a simple one. All things will come to naught, be consumed and devoured by the forces of time and the cosmos. The sun is setting on both the tug and the Temeraire. But Turner was also very persistent and behind his persistence there lay, always, a cussed spirit of bravado and optimism. Despite the fact that all things must fade to nothing, that every fire must lie down to embers and then to ashes, there are things that may be salvaged from the flux, if only for a while - and they are the things that make life worth living after all.

"Thank Time for all his jewels," he wrote in one of his notebooks once. Art was the main jewel for Turner, because it was his way of glowing as nearly forever as he could. That is why Turner's truest self-image, in The Fighting Temeraire, is neither the Temeraire nor the tug, but something else. Something brighter, which is less the symbol or emblem of him than the purely visual incarnation of his contrary being: a great, low, blazing sun, which has turned the sea and the sky and all other things into visions.

n 'Making & Meaning: The Fighting Temeraire', continues at the National Gallery until October 1, 1995. Admission is free

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