Turner’s Dichotomous Truth

The walk along the Thames river path in London from Rotherhithe Street, stretching two miles westward towards Tower Bridge, defines the kind of urban palimpsest typical of the city. Its restored waterside warehouses, each duly concierged and key-fobbed, deliver the not-so-secret comforts of gentrification; its council houses – sitting directly opposite – restore the collective conscience of richer tenants with just the right amount of grit.

The Fighting Temeraire (1838), J.M.W Turner’s most famous painting showing a great warship being tugged to berth by a paddle-wheel steam tug, is also known as an emblem of British duality. It represents two types of hero – the champion of the empire and the warrior of the workforce. On its last journey, the HMS Temeraire came to final rest in Rotherhithe, somewhere along the aforementioned route that still tells a tale of two cities.  

I know the route well. I lived in Rotherhithe for almost four years. I moved there in 2013, three years before another dichotomous gulf – leave versus remain – would newly define the UK. Pre-Brexit, the nationalism embodied by Turner’s Temeraire was still coloured by my own British colonial Stockholm Syndrome. Beguiling in its heroism. Magnetic in its war-wounded fortitude.

Turner painted The Slave Ship in 1840, potentially after reading about a ship known as Zong in Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade, published in 1839. This second painting depicts a frothing deluge of human carnage – a vicious storm where treacherous weather meets gross immorality. Many believe it to have been based on the account of the actual slave ship as it travelled inbound to Jamaica, its captain hurling over a hundred slaves overboard in a bid to claim insurance against their lives. Turner’s blood stained, white hot waters gush and coalesce frantically inwards and outwards, playing host to pathetically waving arms and legs. Flying fish and swooping birds peck at the hopeless figures, each taut with desperation and the final breaths of life.

The Fighting Temeraire and The Slave Ship are separated in time by only a couple of years, but in attitude and sentiment exist lightyears apart. Taken side-by-side, they demonstrate two very different sides to one coin. The coin is Britain, the sides are honour and virtue versus evil and inhumanity.

In 2019, almost two hundred years after Turner’s slave ship was first exhibited, Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus became the nineteenth Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern. Her work – a towering fountain inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace – provided sardonic reflection on the horrors of empire and colonialism. Layered with allegory and allusions, Walker presented ailing figures that recall Turner’s discarded slaves.

Pre-Covid, as Tate visitors stood on and around the installation talking jovially against the sound of splashing water, or posing for selfies alongside its staggering verticality, art once again exposed duality. On the one hand, the reintroduction of historic evils so pervasive that they still hold water after centuries of progress. On the other, a collective vanity and apathy so omnipresent that it can stand side by side with those evils, rendering them normal.

In summer of 2020, I purchased tickets to Turner’s Modern World, an exhibition opening at Tate Britain at the end of that year’s October. The show’s informational blurb described Turner as a figure who captured the revolutionary changes of his time, describing him as an artist who “faced up to these new challenges”, transforming the way he painted to “better capture this new world”.

Predictably, I never got to see the exhibition. The UK entered its second lockdown two days after its official opening. In doing so, it highlighted polarities still prevalent within the nation. The unjust inequality between rich and poor, between white and black and ethnic minorities – each still metaphorically living on opposite sides of the road. The latter of both groups have been excessively affected by the economic, social and fatality fallout of the virus. On many levels, the powers that be had again failed to protect their people with parity, figuratively throwing overboard those deemed more expendable.

The modernity of Turner does not only lie in his willingness to portray new and urgent subject-matter. Nor does it solely rest on his courage to depict subjects that expose uncomfortable realities. Turner’s modernity exists in his ability to present the faceted versions of truth as swelling, morphing, competing dimensions of one whole. Turner’s work forgives us for categorically defining singular aspects or episodes of our personal histories as either brave or brutal; reminding us that, very often, they are both.

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