Philip Hensher: An artful choice, an admirable painting

'The Fighting Temeraire' is an elegaic work positioned deep within the national psyche
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The Independent Online

The listeners to the Today programme have been invited to vote for Britain's favourite painting. I have to admit, when I heard about this poll, my heart slightly sank. It wasn't just that I'm not mad about the whole idea of putting works of art into a hit parade, an enterprise which ignores the fact that many of the greatest works of art appeal, and were always intended to appeal, to a sophisticated minority. Bronzino's famous allegory in the National Gallery, for instance, makes a point of not being accessible to anyone but a highly learned audience; its greatness really lies in the way it refuses any kind of popular appeal.

The other reason one's heart sank was the idea of what might win it.

There are plenty of paintings of incredible popularity which, frankly, I can't be doing with. Most of these are, admittedly, by the pre-Raphaelites - oh God, I thought, what if it's that awful Waterhouse Ophelia? Didn't someone tell one once that the Tate's best-selling picture postcard was Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose? Worst of all - a prospect which seemed all too likely - it might be that late Monet Waterlilies in the National Gallery.

I know all the arguments in its favour. All I know is that when some bright spark in the marketing division decided to print it on the front of T-shirts, it suddenly looked exactly like an expanse of vomit. No - I would have said: let's not vote for our favourite painting. Let's just keep our own favourite paintings, quietly, in our own minds, and only mention them to our closest friends and relations.

Well, I take it all back. The viewers of the Today programme have utterly redeemed themselves with a wonderful, unexpected choice. I suspect that a slight confusion has taken root; they seem to have been voting, in large numbers, for their favourite British painting, rather than in order to establish Britain's favourite painting. Otherwise, would they not have gone for the Manet Bar at the Folies Bergères, a Piero della Francesca, or the wonderful Titian Bacchus and Ariadne? Whatever the facts of the case, they've voted for Turner's The Fighting Temeraire Towed to its Rest.

It's a wonderful choice; it's one of the paintings which really embodies all Turner's marvellous virtuosity. There's that glittering, almost rococo decorative manner which was often sparked off in Turner by great ships - my favourite is that blaze of a painting, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus. There's the brilliant sense of light, half observed and half idealised - no late afternoon at sea was ever so golden as this; or, rather, it is the summation of all the golden afternoons that ever were.

And there is the meaning of the painting. When people describe Turner as a forerunner of the Impressionists, they elide over the fact that, wonderfully free painter of the effects of light as he was, devoted advocate of the virtues of plein-air painting, his paintings are almost always driven by highly intellectual concepts, and are, often, as firmly based in literary ideas as Waterhouse's Ophelia.They are paintings full of thought, as well as sensuous response.

The choice of The Fighting Temeraire tells us, surely, a lot about the abiding myths of Englishness. It's particularly appropriate that it has been chosen in this Trafalgar anniversary year, though I doubt that the revival of interest in Nelson on its own is responsible for this choice.

The theme of the painting is the scuttling of one of the great battleships which fought in the Trafalgar action, 30 years after the event. It's a most beautifully elegiac painting, and one which focuses our attention on a perverse aspect of Englishness, when it contemplates its own acts of heroism.

The history of English arms is largely one of a succession of triumphs; on the other hand, the myths of English heroism are almost entirely those of failure and disaster. Captain Scott's heroic failure resonates for us in a way it never would had he been the first to reach the Pole and survived the return journey.

Trafalgar is so resonant an idea for us - more so than the battle of Copenhagen, or the Nile - because of Nelson's death. Every schoolboy used to be able to recite the details of the battle, Nelson's dying words, and the dead hero's homecoming. And for Turner, the emotional possibilities of an ancient battleship going to its last rest are infinitely greater than any portrayal of any triumph of arms.

I can't think of any really resonant painting by an English painter of a successful battle. The paintings of Lady Butler, exciting as they are, don't have the emotional force of this painting by Turner, so noble in its depiction of a great act of farewell that you might, after looking at it, wonder who won the Battle of Trafalgar in the first place.

It's a wonderful choice; it really is one of the greatest of English paintings. But like many of the great English works of art, it does have a curious ambiguity about it. Even before the British had an empire at all, they were writing - in The Tempest - fantasies about giving the whole thing up. When an English painter wants to produce a resonant fantasy about a triumph of English naval might, he turns, to an image of its noble, moving decay.

That is something I don't pretend to understand; but when you think of what they might have gone for, it's admirable that the listeners to the Today programme have selected a painting positioned so deep within the national psyche.