A centerpiece of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film, Mr Turner, is the artist’s painting of a once proud Royal Navy ship of the line, the HMS Temeraire, being towed up the Thames on its last voyage. It is heading for a breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe where it will be stripped of its oak and other timbers and sold off to make snuff boxes, householder furniture and a variety of domestic items. The end of the Temeraire is especially poignant as it was credited with saving Nelson’s ship HMS Victory when it beat off an attack from Spanish and French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It has been suggested that for Turner, fascinated by ships and the sea, the demise of the Temeraire reflected in some profound ways his own life. He was a young man at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson’s victory mirrored his own success as a painter: Turner was a prodigy who became wealthy early on his canvasses sought after by rich patrons. At the time of the breaking up of the Temeraire Turner was entering the last and increasingly eccentric phase in his life. He had a sense of the beginnings of his own journey to the breaker’s yard.
There was an account in the first biography of Turner of him taking a trip on the Thames with friends at the time the Temeraire was heading for Rotherhithe and this was the inspiration for the painting. This is now generally discounted. But if Turner had clapped eyes on the doomed ship it would have borne absolutely no resemblance to the hulk he subsequently painted. Whereas his Temeraire still has her masts, the real ship had been stripped of them and much else that could be salvaged by the Navy. Whereas Turner sets the scene at sunset, the delivery of the ship to the breaker’s yard was in daylight. Turners ship is towed by a single paddlewheel tug, the real ship was towed by two tugs.
Turner’s Fighting Temeraire is not a record of something he had witnessed but a wonderfully romantic creation of the painter’s vivid imagination. Though he spent long hours observing colour and light in his excursions and walks, when he put brush to canvas the scenes he painted were imaginary. In Mike Leigh’s film surely a telling episode would have been to illustrate, with the Fighting Temeraire as an example, how Mr Turner transformed a mundane reality–the actuality of the demise of the once proud ship–into a bathetic vision.
Unaccountably, Leigh fails to do this. It is clearly not because he was unaware of the circumstances of the creation of the painting: an article in the Guardian by the lead researcher on the film makes this clear. They knew Turner was not painting something he had witnessed. Yet they went to tremendous trouble and expense in the film to recreate the scene as if it was what Turner had seen. The cameraman, Dick Pope, gave this account of the filming of the episode:
"We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp on sunset. We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted, bringing the Temeraire up the Thames to be broken up. Then these magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable because I did. We provided everything else!"
What they had re-created was something Turner had imagined not something he had seen. Leigh wants to emphasise that he was not making a documentary: Mr Turner is fiction, a drama. But why re-create, cinematically, an image from Turner’s imagination? How much more telling to film a recreation of the reality of the towing of the Temeraire and use it to illustrate the way in which Turner transformed the mundane into the magnificent. My guess is this: Leigh has Turner as a working class champion, poor boy made good. The painting is patently nationalistic, nostalgic about a British triumph. If Turner actually saw the Temeraire at sunset, its hull and masts a ghostly vision hauled by a blackened steam tug then he was merely recording what he had witnessed. But by romanticizing the scene Turner was revealing himself as a working class patriot, the kind of “salt of the earth” character embraced by wealthy patrons. What other explanation might there be for the absurd enterprise of recreating a painting that could have been quite faithfully reproduced as an image of the original shot on a rostrum camera?