The ship as icon: Turner's Battle of Trafalgar

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Essential information

Opening times: 
National Maritime Museum, Second floor, Nelson Navy Nation gallery

Find out what made J. M. W. Turner's largest painting so controversial.

Nelson’s presence, mortally wounded, is only implied in the highlighted crowd around Victory’s mainmast. This powerful absence is prefigured by the smallness of Nelson’s figure, and those around him, beneath similarly towering masts. Also symbolically, the falling mast bears his white vice-admiral’s flag, while the code flags spelling ‘d-u-t-y’ – both the last word of his famous Trafalgar signal and the last coherent thought he spoke (‘Thank God I have done my duty’) – are coming down from the mainmast.

On the right is the French Redoutable, from which Nelson was shot, surrendered and sinking, although she in fact went down in the storm after the battle. British seamen in the foreground boats raise a cheer, unaware of the tragedy behind in Victory, herself shown on an exaggerated scale as a dominating symbol of British sea power.

Other men try to save friends and foes alike from a darkly heaving sea, in which a tangle of floating rigging resembles a monster’s head and a Union flag is spread out above, as if to cover the fallen.

Below the surface loom fragments of Nelson’s motto, ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat’. This can translate as ‘the price of glory is death’. That the cost is equal for the common sailor as much as the admiral is thrust into the viewer’s face.

On delivery in 1824 the painting provoked court criticism for its non-chronological approach to Nelson’s victory, and its powerful allusions to the blood price of Britain’s triumph, at Trafalgar and more generally in becoming the world’s dominant sea power. Ambassadors used to classically heroic treatments are said to have sneered at it and seamen, including Sir Thomas Hardy, Victory’s captain, have always criticized it on technical grounds. Turner himself later considered the picture spoilt by the eleven unpaid days that he spent at St James’s adjusting it to the views of Admiralty men.