To Raise the Temeraire
I remember the first time I saw The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner. It was on the cover of an anthology of literature book. It was a collegiate tome that my father had acquired, when he took business classes at a local community college (In America, this is a two-year university level program). He wasn’t much of a reader, but he held onto that book. One night, when I was about seven or eight, he read Hemingway’s The Undefeated to me from that book. It was an odd choice, as my mother loved Hemingway, and my father knew practically nothing about him. However, that book was to become influential in other ways.
It was the first place I’d read James Joyce, as it reprinted The Dead, the final story from Dubliners. It was also where I read H.G. Wells’ Country of the Blind, and were I was first exposed to the name Oscar Wilde. Reprinted in those pages was The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I still have that book, along with its dog-eared pages, and faded cover; decorated with the image of The Fighting Temeraire.
As a child, I used to imagine what that painting depicted. I had a thing about ships, like a lot of children do, even these days. I was too young to know what the Temeraire was, so I assumed that it was the name of the river, and not the vessel. So, in my imagination, I made up a story as to what the painting was about.
I pictured a sultry afternoon on a river. A steamship was heading into rough waters, as it pulled a damaged vessel behind it. It was headed, I presumed down River Temeraire, into some kind of delta country—similar to New Orleans. Images of riverboat gamblers, gunslingers, and corset-clad “painted ladies” filled my imagination. I imagined those where the people on that boat.
In time, I was to discover that the Temeraire was the name of the vessel being towed. I was to also discover the name of the river on which it sailed.
As a teenager, when I began to really read classic lit, I also discovered the works of classic artists. Sir Joshua Reynolds, John William Waterhouse, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner were to become familiar to be. So much so that I can pretty much tell who’s who by looking at their paintings. Many of their works adorned the covers of paperback editions of works by our good lady, Jane Austen, and the venerable Anthony Trollope, or Boz himself; Charles Dickens. I began to associate certain artists with certain authors as well. Though sometimes the subject didn’t always match the text, either in terms of time period, or even subject matter. I can’t tell you how many copies of Frankenstein feature a mundane looking man, as opposed to The Creature, or Gothic castle ruins. There are even some cover paintings that contradict the fashions depicted in said novels. But, that’s another discussion, perhaps even a nitpicky one.
As for the truth about The Fighting Temeraire, it came to me in the form of a podcast.
I had listened to the In Our Time podcast from the BBC. In that episode, the painting, and its subject were both discussed. By that point, I was well into my thirties, and knew that Turner was British, and not some American that traveled to Cajun country. I had already been exposed to more of his work in my twenties as well, so his style was firmly established to me. I learned The Temeraire was an English vessel, not a river. I was also to learn that the river that was depicted in the painting was the venerable Thames. Yes, the city to the right of the painting is lovely old London.
As for The Temeraire…it’s story was more extraordinary than the one I’d concocted.
At the Battle of Trafalgar, the Temeraire came to the aid of Admiral Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory. While mortally wounded, Nelson continued to command his men, until finally succumbing to his wounds. He had been shot through the chest by a sniper, and with the bullet firmly lodged in his lungs, it was only a matter of time. It took Nelson approximate three hours to die. But in that time, he fought for every last second of life—not for himself, but for his crew.
As Nelson lay dying, a French vessel, the Redoutable prepared to board the Victory. Captain Eliab Harvey, of the Temeraire wasn’t having any of that, and ordered his crew to fire a broadside directly at this adversary’s deck. He then ordered the Temeraire to ram the Redoutable, which it did! Captain Harvey then ordered his crew to lash the Temeraire to the Redoutable, and then fire its broadsides at close range. They gave the French crew a constant lead-injected bombardment.
HMS Victory in Portsmouth.
Then, French ship, the Fougueux came alongside the Temeraire. It fired at her, and did some damage. To which the hard-gambling, hard-fighting Captain Harvey did something unexpected. He ordered his crew to wait until the Fougueux was in range. Then, the opposite side of the Temeraire opened fire on her. He then gave the order to lash her side as well.
Pause for a moment, and think about that.
Captain Harvey, and his crew, were fighting two ships at once! Where are the statues of that man? Not to sound crude, but his cajones were so big, it’s take all the brass in Britain just to make one statue of him. In American terms, he was, “One tough son of a bitch.” I mean that with affection.
The Temeraire took some serious damage, including a deck fire, as did the Redoutable. Both crews lobbed grenades at one another, and suffered mass casualties. Meanwhile, the Victory had martialed its crew, and was firing at the Redoutable. Eventually, the French vessel was reduced to driftwood, after it received a two-sided pummeling.
The Fougueux crew was decimated by a small arms gun fight with the Temeraire crew. Which must have looked like High Noon on the high seas. This was followed by First Lieutenant Thomas Kennedy, who lead a boarding party to the Fougueux. The beleaguered French vessel had lost its captain, and was surrendered by its first mate.
This was to be the only major battle the Temeraire ever saw. But, if it were to be the only one, it may as well by the ultimate one.
Though Nelson won the day, and scuttled Napoleon’s navy, he paid the ultimate price.
Lord Nelson gave his life in service to crown and country. His sacrifice, in a war against a tyrant, is still remembered to this day. If it were not for the Temeraire, and her can-do crew, history may have told a different story. Appropriately enough, the name “temeraire” means, “reckless” in French.
Though she became a legend, The Temeraire was eventually put out to pasture, so to speak. She became a prison ship, and was eventually decommissioned. The image we see in Turner’s painting is the Temeraire being taken to the scrapyard. The Fighting Temeraire is a both a tribute, and a requiem. It mourns the loss of such a national treasure for England, but also crystalizes the final moments of a nation’s forsaken hero.
The last time she fired her guns was not in war, but in celebration, at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Under the command of her former First-Lieutenant, now Captain Kennedy, she was to make her final voyage.
The Temeraire was sold at auction, and then taken up the Thames to be dismantled at Rotherhithe. Her wood was used to make souvenirs, and furniture. Some of her timbers can still be seen in various places in the U.K. Not the least of which is a gong stand in Balmoral Castle. It was a wedding present to George V, on his marriage to Mary of Teck.
Last year, I saw the Thames in person for the first time. It did not disappoint. As I tried to photograph that beautiful river, I tried to recreate the famous Thames Television logo. I found that was not only impossible, but also unnecessary. Nothing artificial could compare to the majesty of the Thames. Even the name itself carries strength.
As it was late afternoon, I tried to imagine the Temeraire. As I stood on Westminster Bridge, and took in a summer breeze, I believe I may have seen it. I knew where I was, and what I could have seen in Turner’s day. Though almost two centuries had passed, I still looked over the same river that inspired Turner. I saw the same sky, minus the coal fumes, but on the horizon…could it be a steamer? That golden vessel behind it looked spectral. As the sun set, it became transparent.
When I look at the painting, I not only see the Temeraire, I feel it. I feel that breeze again. I feel the receding warmth of an orange sunset. The salt air of the North Sea is in my nostrils. Finally, in my hand is the glass I raise to the crew of that golden vessel, and to J.M.W. Turner for doing what no adversary could ever do, he captured The Temeraire.
Text Copyright Riley Joyce 2017
Images: The Fighting Temeraire
The Battle of Trafalgar.
Both by J.M.W. Turner.
Photos of The Palace of Westminster, and The Thames, and HMS Victory copyright Riley Joyce 2016.