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This Britain

Turner wins national art poll

As 'The Fighting Temeraire' wins a nationwide art poll, Louise Jury looks at how a masterpiece came into being

Although Britain is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle this year, it has not been the country's passion for the sea that has catapulted the Temeraire back to national headlines, but art.

J M W Turner's The Fighting Temeraire yesterday topped the poll held by the National Gallery and BBC Radio 4's Today programme to find the nation's favourite painting.

Yet it is not the ship's moment of glory, second in line to Admiral Lord Nelson's Victory, that Turner records, but its sad demise.

The painting, produced between 1838 and 1839, shows the old ship being towed by a steam tug up the Thames from Sheerness in Kent to a breaker's yard in Rotherhithe, south London - hence its full title The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up 1838. In a move interpreted by some as Turner's nostalgic commentary on the passing of the age of sail to be replaced by that of the Industrial Revolution, he contrasted the veteran ship, seen against the setting sun, with the modern steam-propelled tug.

And he bequeathed an extra dignity with a new nickname he apparently invented - the Fighting Temeraire. The Temeraire was named after a French ship previously defeated by the British Navy. At the time of Trafalgar, the ship was known by the epithet Saucy.

When the great sea battle off Spain was won, it was praised in the dispatch to the Admiralty in which the death of Nelson was also announced.

Peter van der Merwe, of the National Maritime Museum, which is highlighting the Temeraire's role at Trafalgar in its exhibition on Nelson and Napoleon, said it was a glorious painting but few people today probably knew much of the Temeraire's distinguished history.

"They know the painting but they don't know what part she played at Trafalgar," he said.

Yet in the 19th century, it was sufficiently famous for her ignoble end to be reported in The Times.

Turner may have read the reports because, despite claims that he sketched her progress upriver from life in 1838, no sketches exist while they do for similar related works.

And it is not an accurate representation of the scene. The ship was enormous and required two tugs to pull it, not one. The masts and sails would have been removed already and the sunset was an impossibility unless the ship was going the wrong way, Mr van der Merwe said.

However, the painting, produced late in Turner's life, remained a personal favourite which he called "my darling" and refused to sell despite all offers.

He gave it to the nation as part of a bequest to the Tate upon his death, although it hangs in the National Gallery.

Minna Moore Ede, an assistant curator at the National Gallery, said it was fitting that the nation had paid homage to Turner in return for his generosity. His innovative greatness should not be underestimated.

"He's become quintessentially British, yet at the time he was a prototype Impressionist," she said. "He was, of course, a truly great colourist and this is one of his masterpieces. And he was truly innovative in terms of technique."

Many of his later works were deemed mad or incomprehensible by contemporary audiences yet this work had won immediate praise.

It won 31,892 votes in the national poll for favourite works in a British gallery against 21,711 for John Constable's The Hay Wain, which was in second place, and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet's work which lay in third with more than 13,000.

Nearly 119,000 votes were cast making it Radio 4's largest poll.