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Turner: Art, Industry and Nostalgia review – Fighting Temeraire sets Tyneside ablaze | JMW Turner

Turner: Art, Industry and Nostalgia review – Fighting Temeraire sets Tyneside ablaze | JMW Turner
Turner: Art, Industry and Nostalgia review – Fighting Temeraire sets Tyneside ablaze | JMW Turner

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JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire might be the most famous painting in London’s National Gallery and in 2005 was voted The Greatest Painting in Britain, but it’s hardly cool. Its heady atmosphere of patriotic pride and supercharged sentiment is the quintessence of the traditional image the gallery is trying to slough off in its bicentenary year. So while Caravaggio and Van Gogh are at the heart of celebrations in London, The Fighting Temeraire has been, as it were, dragged off by steam tug to be quietly moored on the Tyne.

Yet instead of just borrowing this unfashionable masterpiece, as part of a project entitled National Treasures that has sent 12 NG paintings out and about, Newcastle’s Laing Gallery has built an ambitious and moving exhibition around it.

This lovely show demonstrates precisely why Turner’s 1839 depiction of a ghostly giant of the age of sail being pulled to its final breakup by a newfangled steam tug is just so tearjerkingly evocative of Britain’s past – especially Newcastle’s. In fact, one fascinating find here is a model of a Victorian steam tug built in Newcastle. These low-slung working boats, mounted with a steam engine that drove two paddle wheels, were a Tyneside speciality – it was the Tyne-built steam tugs, London and the Samson, that pulled HMS Temeraire to the breaker’s yard.

Now the steam tugs too belong to a rusting past, as does so much of the north-east’s shipbuilding industry. The show includes powerful black-and-white photographs by Chris Killip of the last days of Tyneside supertanker-building in the 1970s. In one, children play on a terraced street corner, dwarfed by a half-built tanker looming in fog; in another, workers look tiny below the monster propeller of the ship they’re building. By 1979, this Tyne industry would vanish. “I didn’t know at the time that it was going to end as quickly as it did,” a wall text quotes him as saying.

Baffling genius … Dunstanburgh Castle, by JMW Turner. Photograph: Laing Art Gallery

This north-eastern perspective puts the nostalgia of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire in a smoky new light. It also makes visual sense. The sublime disparities in scale in Killip’s photographs capture, just as they mourn, the great industrial yards and their massive creations, all taking you straight back to Turner. The show includes the artist’s mighty 1818 watercolour A First Rate Taking on Stores, which depicts a colossal Royal Navy ship surrounded by smaller boats. Turner dwells on the fortress-like immensity of its gun-studded side, which makes the little boats seem like toys. Looking at this, you see why the navy in this era was said to defend Britain with “wooden walls”.

What’s incredible is how Turner can communicate the stateliness of this nautical behemoth in watercolours on a little sheet of paper. His genius can be baffling. He knows the way water moves and how clouds flow with such intimacy he can unleash their forces like a magician controlling the weather. In an early sketch of Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland, he adds fishing boats caught in a swirling channel against the castle’s seaside cliffs.

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Turner also acknowledged the horror in the battle of Trafalgar. His awesome oil sketch of the 1805 confrontation – in which Nelson led his ships straight into the French fleet in a gory, foolhardy triumph that destroyed Napoleon’s pretensions to sea power – concentrates on the men, British as well as French, trying to survive in the sea after losing their ships. Behind them, the battle is a confusion of smoke and sails. Who’s winning? Is anyone?

The Temeraire fought alongside Nelson’s HMS Victory. Built at Chatham dockyard in Kent from more than 5,000 oak trees, it served in the Napoleonic wars and was specially praised for its actions at Trafalgar. A detailed 1805 model of the Temeraire is on show, laboriously made from animal bone by French prisoners. The Victory is preserved as a national monument, while the Temeraire’s fighting days were forgotten and it was used as a floating barracks on the Thames for naval recruits. By 1838, it was time to drag the old hulk to be scrapped.

Sea giants … a still from ARC, an 11-minute video by John Kippin, 2010. Photograph: © John Kippin

It all leaves you primed to look at Turner’s painting of this vessel as never before. A pale ghost ship can be seen towering in the evening light, already vanishing, its richly wrought prow a wonder from a lost age. Such ships existed, Turner is saying, as did the people who sailed and fought on them. But here now is the cheeky, brash, steam-driven tug whose paddles chop the water into spuming waves. The river is spookily still, a burnished mirror for a sun that’s determined to give the Temeraire an appropriate sendoff, with rays exploding in a twilight display of crimson, gold and scarlet. It’s fire in the sky that echoes the long-silenced guns of Trafalgar.

Patriotic? Sentimental? Hell yeah. But The Fighting Temeraire is really a painting about what it is to be outmoded in an ever-changing industrial world – for a sailing ship, a 1970s shipyard worker, or indeed an artist. Like the Temeraire, Turner saw impossible changes in his lifetime. He witnessed the Industrial Revolution, saw sail give way to steam and even caught the birth of photography. A letter from him is on display in which he refuses to lend the work – let alone sell it – “for any price”. The mysterious intensity of The Fighting Temeraire and his attachment to it come from his identification with the doomed ship.

Turner kept this painting with him until he died and left it to the National Gallery. This fine exhibition frees a great work from cliche by taking a national anthem and turning it into a Springsteen rustbelt ballad.

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