The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner is among the artist’s most-recognised paintings. It’s been voted as England’s favourite painting, it’s held a prominent position in a James Bond movie, and it’s also got a spot on the £20 note. Now, Turner’s 1839 painting hangs at Tate Britain, on loan from London’s National Gallery, alongside a full-size sketch of the work for the first time in “Turner’s Modern World” presented by Tate.
The preparatory sketch has been a part of Tate’s collection for a long time, but, until now, the sketch was not fit to go on view. “It used to be a complete wreck … filthy dirty, full of holes, covered in fungus and thought to be completely un-exhibitable,” co-curator of the exhibition David Blayney Brown told The Guardian. In anticipation of its debut at Tate alongside its successor, the sketch underwent extensive conservation and cleaning.
Seeing the two next to one another, the connection isn’t instantaneous. While it’s still unmistakably the work of Turner, with its expressive strokes of paint evoking restless waters against a blue-gray midday sky, it’s a far cry from the masterpiece that would become The Fighting Temeraire. In the sketch, a steamer just barely takes form protruding from the waters with a second ghostly ship to the right of the canvas – the two biggest hints of what the artist will create in the end.
The study was produced sometime between 1838 and 1839 and it shows an intriguing glimpse into Turner’s process and how he developed his works. “You get a sense of how his art evolves,” continued Brown. “Turner was a very dynamic painter, his ideas are constantly evolving and the distance between the two paintings is of course huge but the germ of it is there.”
“Turner’s Modern World” brings together more than 150 works by the artist including Rail, Steam and Speed (1844) and Genoa, now renamed Naples, an 1851 painting thought to be Turner’s final work. The exhibition also highlights Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), an 1840 painting created by Turner that was unable to travel from Boston for the exhibition.
The painting depicts Turner’s imagined scene of the Zong, a 1781 slave ship whose captain jettisoned sick and dying African slaves en route to Jamaica in order to collect insurance money. The Zong massacre became a major turning point for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. The painting is a graphic and vivid interpretation of the tragedy, so much so that John Ruskin, who first owned the painting, was forced to sell it because it was too unbearable to look upon. Today, Slave Ship is held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and it was dubbed too fragile to make the 4,000-mile journey for the exhibition. Instead of excluding the work, a reproduction of the painting hangs in its stead at the heart of the exhibition, ensuring it, nor the events it memorialises, are forgotten.
“Turner’s Modern World” is on view at Tate Britain from October 28th through March 7th, 2021. Tickets must be purchased ahead of time.