Friday, October 28, 2016

The Battle of Trafalgar, JMW Turner, 1824

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805
JMW Turner, England, 1824.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London,
Greenwich Hospital Collection
For the previous two installments in this series on Turner and Trafalgar please see Part 1: The Battle of Trafalgar, 1806, and Part 2: Sketches of Sailors from Victory, 1805.

Today we return for a third time to artist JMW Turner and his works relating to the Battle of Trafalgar. Today we look at Turner's 1824 treatment of the subject, his only work by royal command as well as his largest and most controversial painting. 

Turner received the commission from George IV in 1822 and delivered the finished painting in 1824, where it was displayed in the State Rooms at St James’s Palace to form a pair with Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg’s 1795 painting "The Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794". 

The painting combines a number of incidents from different times in the battle into a work that is more symbolic than historically accurate, which garnered Turner a considerable amount of criticism from the Admiralty men who saw it while it was exhibited. Audiences who expected a more classical treatment of the subject found Turner's sweeping portrayal of the battle, with Nelson's death lost in the chaos of the massive battle and confusion of sails and masts, and naval men sneered at its technical inaccuracies. To quote the National Maritime Museum's online description, " In late 1829 [the King] presented it, with the de Loutherbourg, as his final gifts to the Naval Gallery at Greenwich Hospital. It has been at Greenwich ever since, and remains to some extent a focus of recurring division between ‘sea dogs’ and art historians, admirers of Nelson and of Turner."

Despite the criticism levied against it, Turner's work is a technical masterpiece and stunning example of patriotic symbolism. In addition to the earlier sketches and watercolors he had made in 1805 Turner borrowed a plan of Victory from the Admiralty and had the marine artist J. C. Schetky make further sketches of her in Portsmouth Harbor. In person the painting's sweeping scale and detail draw the viewer in to the massive scale of the battle, leaving the eye to wander over the painting and find more to discover.

Turner's painting combines several events from the battle into one painting, namely:
  • Lord Nelson's signal flown at 11:50 ("England expects that every man will do his duty") flies from Victory.
  • Victory's top-foremast falls (1:00 pm).
  • In the background the Achille is on fire (late afternoon).
  • In the foreground the Redoutable sinks (following day, during a storm).
Critically, Nelson's death is merely alluded to by the crowd around Victory's mainmast, while a dead seaman arches out backwards at what would have been eye level at the original display height in ST James' Palace - reminding the viewer that the cost of the battle is equal for the common sailor as much as the admiral.

Detail of sailors' in the boats - click to enlarge
The sailors in the boats are dressed differently from Turner's sailors in his 1806 painting: while Turner's 1806 sailors wear the familiar checked shirts and jackets sailors had been wearing for decades, these men overwhelmingly sport blue and white striped Guernsey frocks. A number of men sport short (or rolled up?) sleeves, are shirtless, or are wearing their waistcoats open, and almost none wear jackets. Their hats are still a combination of straw and round black felt, though many man are bare-headed. One standing sailor wears striped trousers. 

As this painting was done almost 20 years after the battle and is more allegorical than historic I would caution against using it as a source for sailor's clothing for the Battle of Trafalgar. Nonetheless, it is a brilliant - and striking - piece of art, and showcases Turner as a master of the nautical scene, a subject he revisited again and again throughout his long career.

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