Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ – ‘the nation’s favourite painting’ - was on loan from the National Gallery to Turner and the Sea at Greenwich (ends 21 April 2014).
The only other known image of the ship being towed to the breakers has just been acquired by the NMM in time to display briefly with it there, winding up a story that started over thirty years ago. Here it is…
'Chance’, said the Louis Pasteur, ‘favours the prepared mind’ and in 1983, for reasons mine 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 using 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. Temeraire saw her last service as guardship at the Nore, moored off Sheerness Dockyard under reduced harbour rig, until the Navy ordered her to be prepared for sale in June 1838 as one of many time-expired ‘wooden walls’ then going for demolition. Their metals were recycled and their timber sold; for building and ship-repair uses, for garden furniture (especially), for firewood, and – with famous ships – for some well-finished furniture and other souvenir pieces. The NMM has two small tables made from Temeraire timber, and a barometer made from her sternpost. St Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, a few hundred yards upstream of Beatson’s yard, also has some church furniture made from her, which he himself presented to it.
The Temeraire’s upper masts and other stores were removed in early July 1838 by men from the Ocean, her sister and replacement as Nore guardship, though the Navy Board then had a brief wobble and considered sending her round for dismantling in Plymouth Dockyard, as usually the case with the biggest ships. On 1 August their Surveyor noted that she would need to be ‘jury-rigged’ again to sail down-Channel, but she stayed on course for the next routine official Navy auction in London on the 16th when she was not only the largest of thirteen ships sold for breaking but, so far, the largest ever sold. Beatson bought her for £5530. His immediate practical problem was how to get her roughly 50 miles from Sheerness, at the mouth of the Medway, up the winding and shoaling Thames to Rotherhithe. Once there she had to be berthed securely upright on the shelving river-bank alongside his wharf for dismantling, top-down: it could be embarrassing if such hulks fell on their side into the river, since there was no way of righting them again and it made demolition much harder. At 2110 tons Temeraire was practically double the size of the largest merchant ship and, breaking another record, the largest ever brought so high up the river. Even mastless and completely empty her draught was 18 feet. The Thames, of course, is a very tidal river, but when I first looked into the matter – way back, in 1983 – no-one had ever considered the practical implications of that. Until then too, a remarkable document in Southwark Local Studies Library had also been completely overlooked. This was Beatson’s accounts ledger and with it, from press reports and tide timings supplied by the Hydrographic Office, it was easy to reconstruct what really happened and when. In 1878, a well-informed correspondent called Henry Liggins told the National Gallery that the ship’s lower masts were finally taken out at Sheerness on 28 August 1838, although official record of that is now untraced. Then, probably starting shortly after dawn on 5 September, the Temeraire was towed from Sheerness by two paddle tugs. These were the 32-ton Samson and 37-ton London, both belonging to the Thames Steam Towing Company, who charged £32. The tow was directed by a Rotherhithe pilot called William Scott (who was paid £25) with a team of 26 other men. Though their exact roles are not specified, ten were paid 25 shillings and fifteen 21 shillings, with one William Burleigh – perhaps the foreman or gang-master – paid £4. What is certain is that Temeraire reached Rotherhithe about midday on 6 September 1838 – near the top of the first spring tides after her sale; that she was turned in the river as the flood was still running, then –at absolute high water – laid as close alongside Beatson’s wharf on the southern bank as possible, with her bow pointing back downstream. There she was undoubtedly secured fast to points ashore, to keep her upright, and apparently tilting gently landward, as she settled onto the shelving riverbank when the tide ebbed. This is how she afterwards appears in the two prints already mentioned. One is by Beatson’s brother, William, and was done in the next week or so (PAD6048): the other is a more professional effort, made a little later (PAD6047).
Whether the five shillings ‘allowed for beer’ in Beatson’s accounts was to help the labours of the tow or to mark its successful end is not clear; neither is where the Temeraire moored or, more probably, anchored in the river overnight. For it would certainly have had to be a two-day tow – at least – solely in daylight and mainly with the spring tide, not against it, given the size of the ship and the low power of paddle-tugs of that time, which also probably partly ‘side-towed’, rather than working only ahead as Turner shows it. Having satisfied my own curiosity on the story, other things intervened for over ten years. Then, in 1995, the National Gallery included ‘The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ in its series of single-picture ‘Making and Meaning’ exhibitions – in this case curated by the late Judy Egerton. Since we knew each other, I contributed the information I had found, as above, and it all appears in her accompanying catalogue to that show. Then, as this was going to press, a wild card appeared in the form of Mr Michael Heron, who had seen the Director of the Gallery, Neil Macgregor, talking about Turner’s painting on television and took in an album of Edward Duncan shipping studies which he had to show them. Duncan (1803–82) was a well-known marine painter, and one of the drawings was inscribed ‘The Temeraire being towed to Deptford [sic] to be broken up’.
It is, in fact, three pencil sketches on a small sheet; one from astern, one from ahead and one from, effectively, starboard broadside. All include two tugs, side-towing, and all show the ship with a somewhat reduced rig and yards slanted ‘a-cockbill’ – a symbol of mourning – with hints of furled sails. To its credit, the Gallery just managed to squeeze a photo of the drawing into the last page of Judy’s book, under the picture credits. Her caption noted a later report that Duncan may been the ‘mechanical marine artist’ who advised the engraver J.T. Willmore on rigging matters when he first engraved of Turner’s picture in 1845, and ‘correctly’ – but notoriously – moved the tug’s mast forward of the funnel.
Turner (inaccurately) shows it aft, for pictorial reasons. While all other evidence is against Temeraire still having masts, she suggested Duncan might have thought about doing a version of the event himself, then went no further, but the sketches could also have been an aid for Willmore – the masted tug mast in the centre view being very close to how he shows Turner’s in the print. Even though Duncan’s Temeraire looks too small, and despite the easy slip of memory in saying ‘Deptford’ rather than Rotherhithe, the inscription puts the incident he intends beyond doubt: he clearly knew that two tugs were involved and shows their use realistically. Does that mean he himself saw it in 1838? Or is it just a demonstration drawing by someone who, as a London marine artist, knew how the two tugs would have been used? Looked at any way, the Duncan image presented an ongoing puzzle, and since 1995 I have often wondered where it had got to. In recent years, one of the pleasant events of Christmas has been an invitation from Christie’s to a stand-up lunchtime bite, with others working in the British art field. This time (2013) it was on Monday 16 December from 12.45– as I suddenly remembered looking at the clock saying that over my desk. For a moment I thought about missing it but dashed for the station: I was there in forty minutes, then before heading back went round to see Christmas shows in a couple of nearby galleries, the second being at Guy Peppiatt Fine Art. We had just agreed to buy a fine watercolour of old Greenwich from his seasonal selection and I wanted to check something while it was still on his wall. ‘I’m glad you dropped in,’ he said, ‘I’ve just had some Edward Duncan drawings back from the mounters this morning: you might be interested and one says it shows the Temeraire being towed to the breakers….’. Though no longer in an album, it was the same one – still a puzzle – and is now securely berthed in the NMM collection. Given that ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ itself, lent by the National Gallery, was already hanging in ‘Turner and the Sea’ at Greenwich, it seemed a good idea not to lose track of it again. The drawing will be displayed with Turner’s painting for the last two weeks of the show (from 7 April).