Punk with a paintbrush: how Turner sunk the Empire

Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum
Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

The sea broils with war. Sails hover like veils above the dead and dying. Is this the Victory or defeat?

JMW Turner’s painting The Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805 is well worth looking at on Trafalgar Day, 210 years after Nelson’s stunning defeat of the French and Spanish fleets that changed the course of the Napoleonic wars and established a British naval supremacy that lasted into modern times.

This great battle painting, which rightly has a room to itself in the National Maritime Museum, has some strange things about it. The survivors of Trafalgar who saw it when it was completed in 1824 were not happy at all. Turner’s sublime array of interwoven French and British ships gathered round the shining wooden wall of HMS Victory did not look like their memories. But most troubling of all – and most striking today – is Turner’s portrayal of human suffering at the centre of his painting.

Men whose ships have sunk or who have been thrown overboard by cannon blasts (men on both sides) are clinging to boats and wreckage in the wild sea, with a huge union jack floating, like a shroud, over the grisly waters.

The human suffering at the centre of Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum
The human suffering at the centre of Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

Turner is doing something even more daring here than first meets the eye. This focus on the dead, the dying and the wounded seems subversive in a picture of a great British victory. But it is all the darker when you recognise his pictorial source. In 1820, two years before Turner got commissioned by George IV to paint his Trafalgar epic, a shocking work of art was shown at the Egyptian Hall in London. It was The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault – a terrifying scene of starving, perhaps cannibal, victims of an ocean disaster struggling to survive on a raft on the open sea.

When you realise Turner must have seen The Raft of the Medusa in 1820 it is easy to see how he quotes it visually in his painting of Trafalgar. The swarm of men in the water resemble the poor people on Géricault’s bereft raft. A near-naked body slung over the side of a boat in the foreground of Turner’s picture, trailing in the water, closely replicates a very similar figure that is one of the most harrowing details in The Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa is a vision of utter despair. To quote it in a painting of a famous victory is spectacularly subversive. But Turner had unpatriotic form.

 The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In a previous painting of Trafalgar, done just after the battle itself and today in Tate Britain, Turner imagines how the battle looked from the Mizen Starboard shrouds of the Victory. It looks like hell. A terrible smoky entanglement of masts and rigging looms over ships fighting at close quarters. Men lie dead and dying everywhere, hit by bullets as cannon blast into the invisible lower decks. Among the fallen is Nelson – but the heroic admiral who died at the moment of his greatest triumph is just one of the victims of a battle both fair and foul.

War is chaos, it is a nightmare. That is Turner’s take on military heroism. He shows another scene of devastation, where friend and enemy are equal in death, in his painting The Field of Waterloo.

We must remember battles. We must remember what they are really like. Great art helps us to see that, on Trafalgar Day and every day.

by Jonathan Jones

Source: The Guardian

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