Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What would today's 'Temeraire' be fighting?


"The fighting 'Temeraire' tugged to her last berth to be broken up" by William Turner (1839) has some great imagery that sums up timeless social acceptance issues. It shows the sailing ship 'Temeraire' at the end of her service. It is no co-incidence that she is being brought in by a 'modern' vessel: a coal-fired paddle tug. We are witnessing not just the end of one sailing ship, but the era of wind-powered ships, which is being drawn to a close by the advent of steam-powered vessels. The dramatic sunset (a sunrise would be most inappropriate; it is clearly the end of the day for the 'Temeraire') serves to emphasize the poignancy of this moment.

Contrasting the way that the old and new technology are depicted, we see that where the fighting 'Temeraire' is tall, graceful, and silent, the tug is squat, juddery, and making one hellava racket. The fair 'Temeraire' speaks of a glorious heroic past where Britannia ruled the waves. The foul tug speaks of the industrial revolution, where greed blights the land with dark factories.The light and dark colouring leave no doubt about which vessels embody good or evil. Tolkien's elves and orcs would need no deliberations in order to choose their respective vessels.

What is outdated about this imagery is the perception that the steam paddle tug is modern, threatening, or even ugly. In a naval museum, it would draw admiration and nostalgia. The enduring message in this painting is that new technology, particularly that which looks to permanently change our way of life and landscape, is intrinsically threatening. We are hardwired to view the novel as a threat and the existing as harmless.

So, if Turner was around today, how would he paint the modern version of this painting? I'd hazard a guess we would see scores of ugly, foreign-built, noisy, bird-splattering wind turbines signalling the decline of lofty, stoically sturdy, proudly British, quiet, and environmentally benign North Sea oil platforms.


Image credit:

http://www.wikiart.org/en/william-turner/the-fighting-temeraire-tugged-to-her-last-berth-to-be-broken-up

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