Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Fighting Temeraire by Sam Willis

I'm a sucker for the majestic, elegant but deadly ships of the Great Age of Fighting Sail and HMS Temeraire, a British 98-gun ship of the line is, as author Sam Willis points out in this spendid new book, an iconic ship of the era. Unlike HMS Victory, alongside which she fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, Temeraire ended her life as a prison hulk and receiving ship and was eventually broken up in 1838 in the unsentimentally expedient way of the Royal Navy. But JMW Turner immortalised her in his famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, reproduced on the cover of Sam Willis's book. The painting is not only Turner's best known, it was also voted the greatest painting in a British art gallery, having beaten Constable's Hay Wain and Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding in a 2005 poll organised by the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

The Fighting Temeraire, the first in a series published by Quercus called Hearts of Oak, is the story of not one ship but two. The earlier one of the name was a French 74-gun two-decker built in 1749 and captured in 1759 by HMS Warspite during the Seven Years' War. She was taken into the Royal Navy and sold in 1784. HMS Temeraire (without the accents) was built at Chatham and launched in 1798. At Trafalgar, under Captain Eliab Harvey, she fought astern of HMS Victory. Badly damaged relieving Nelson's flagship, she also captured the French ship Fougueux and helped force the surrender of the Redoutable, the ship from whose mizzen top a French sniper fired the shot that killed Admiral Nelson.

This book is driven by a fluid narrative, full of the authentic historical detail you'd expect from an Honorary Fellow in Maritime Historical Studies. And it's all informed by well-chosen illustrations and diagrams and the whole is made exceptionally vivid by the author's own experience: he spent 18 months as a Square-Rig Able Seaman, sailing the tall ships used in the Hornblower TV drama series and the TV film Shackleton.

The epilogue of The Fighting Temeraire is an essay on iconic warships and their continuing relevance down the ages. A sample:

...the biographies of warships are multi-layered and complex. Most obviously, the story of the Temeraire matters to our society because it was immortalized by one of the greatest artists ever to have lived, but Turner immortalized that story because it mattered to his society. In 1839 the Temeraire had already become icionic, and therein lies one of the peculiar values of iconic warships. They are potent historical objects because they transcend eras, and the ability to illuminate both our own times and those more distant offers an immediate and unmistakable example of the value of history. Moreover, the story of the Temeraire can be used to illuminate a whole range of historical topics, from the very broadest perspective of self-perception on an international stage - the question of how the navy serves to carry a nation's message around the world - to the tightest possible focus on day-to-day life in a warship.
Find out more on the author's website, including details of the forthcoming books in this Hearts of Oak series, Admiral Benbow and The Glorious First of June.

Another iconic ship of the era is HMS Bellerophon which also fought at Trafalgar (as well as the Glorious First of June and the Battle of the Nile) but which is perhaps best known as the ship that received Napoleon's surrender in 1815. She was affectionately known as Billy Ruff'n (Billy Ruffian) by her crew, hence the title of David Cordingly's fascinating biography of her.

1 comment:

Gayle Margherita said...

Lovely post, Sarah. I don't know much about ships, but I remember going through a period of fascination with the so-called "privateers" (government-sponsored pirates) during our Revolutionary War. That era, when tall ships represented adventure, conquest, and simple curiosity about the rest of the world is a compelling topic--particularly so in Britain, I imagine.