Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sunset and sorrow

Long have I been intrigued by the near-ethereal quality of the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner, especially in his later, more abstract and experimental work. And in The Stowaway, when Captain Jas. Hook indulges Vivian Drew's wish to experience theater and art in London, they find their own fascinations with Turner's work at the National Gallery.

The piece that most draws their attention is The "Fighting Temeraire" Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up. Painted by Turner in 1839, it's his depiction of a ship from the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar being taken to be destroyed as the age of sail draws to an end to be replaced by the era of industry.

Vivian is captivated by the colors and evocation of light in the painting, while James responds to the emotion contained within it. I recall an anecdote about an old sea captain in Port Townsend, WA, who lamented the loss of the grand ships and complained about the presence in the harbor of the steamers and "greasy little tugs." This is akin to James's yearning for the Age of Sail, the only milieu in which he feels he still has a place, as a changing economy forces him ever more completely from the shores of his native land to the perilous environs of Never Neverland.

Daniel Craig as James Bond and Ben Wishaw as Q
 discuss the Fighting Tremeraire in Skyfall

The Fighting Temeraire is prominently featured in the 2012 movie Skyfall, making me hesitant to include it in The Stowaway--although I had written the scene before the film was released. (If you think that means I've been working on this book for a long time, you are correct.)

But I've since learned more about the continuing popularity of the Fighting Temeraire. In 2005 (the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar), it was voted "England's favorite painting" in a BBC Radio 4 poll. It's so popular, in fact, as to have inspired the cultivation of a Fighting Temeraire rose.

In 2014, the Tate Britain held a popular exhibition of Turner's paintings from the later years of his life, when this successful painter dared to take his vision in a direction that received ire from critics and the populace.

And now that the Mr. Turner movie continues to meet with critical and popular acclaim, surely I can be excused for including The Fighting Temeraire in the tale of James and Vivian in London.

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