Woon King Chai reflects on moving on at the start of 2014.

J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" (1839)

With my time here in London drawing to a close, and 2014 just beginning, the past few weeks have been full of reflection and contemplation for the future. Following this, I have also decided to make use of my last month here to catch as many shows on the West End that my pocket will allow and to visit as many exhibitions and galleries as my mind can take.

First of all, I must admit that I am not an art writer (hell, I don’t think I am much of a writer at all!) — and I humbly beg of your indulgence.

The above is a painting by the British artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA (1775-1851), commonly known as “The Fighting Temeraire”. It depicts the 98-gun warship, HMS Temeraire being tugged by a paddle wheel steam tug towards its final berth in Rotherhithe, south of England, in 1838 to be broken up for scrap. The painting was thought to represent the decline of British naval power at that time, but Turner’s main concern was to evoke a sense of loss, and the spectacularly colourful setting of the sun on the right draws parallel with the passing of an old warship.

To give you a bit of context, HMS Temeraire played a crucial role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where Britain was bracing itself against the invasion of Napoleon’s French navy fleet. Outnumbered, the possibility of victory looked grim for the British naval fleet.

Without going into too much detail of that particular battle, the HMS Temeraire saved Viscount Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, which was also the lead ship in the battle, from being boarded by two other French ships. HMS Temeraire successfully outmanoeuvred the French ships and boarded them in surprise, thus saving HMS Victory. If Nelson’s ship had been boarded, it just might have turned the tide of war and changed the outcome at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Simply put, the HMS Temeraire was a heroic and much celebrated warship in British naval warfare.

Even though some details of the painting may not be historically accurate, Turner wanted to evoke a sense of loss by getting the viewers to think about how the HMS Temeraire had served her country in the past and how Britain later seemed to have turned its back on her. When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839, Turner further emphasized the point by including the following excerpt in the painting’s description: “The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, No Longer owns her“.

With the advent of steam power and the Industrial Revolution that followed, the heroic achievements of the  HMS Temeraire was quickly forgotten and warships of the era were quickly decommissioned, sold and broken down for scraps. In the picture, the HMS Temeraire no longer flies the Union Jack, but instead a white flag flutters on the mast of the steam tug to show that the ship was in commercial hands and not military. However, it almost looks as if the ship had been brought in under a flag of surrender, thus a further insult to her memory.

I think several parallels can be drawn from today to the painting’s depiction of loss and the passing of the old for the new. The HMS Temerairerepresents a great generation that had accomplished much to pave the way for the rise of the new generation, in this case the steam tug, giving in to the inevitability of turnover and the trials of life. For instance, in politics, parallels can be drawn with the passing of the political elders of previous generations who had paved the way for the coming of the new political class, armed with fresh idealism and youthful enthusiasm. Often, the success and contributions of the old are quickly forgotten by the young in its bid to establish control over the entire political system. With the inevitability of turnover from old to new, what is it that one can look forward to as meaningful pursuits?

From my discussion with a fellow Political Theorist and now-PhD candidate, Hector, he pointed out that the beauty of Turner’s painting, which transcends time and space, is a sign that the inevitable turnover is secondary to the eternal. Similarly, politics, in which the present will always be replaced by the future, is secondary. The point of it all, according to him, is that this beauty of both generations (and their interactions with one another) is only visible to the person outside of the turnover, the rat race and the trials of life. “You can only see what is eternally beautiful from outside“.

As I sit here and write this, I am still thinking, reflecting and contemplating on what any of this means for the future. With the passing of 2013, we now welcome 2014, in all its glory — brimming with hopes and dreams, waiting to be fulfilled. Bring on 2014, and have a happy new year!

Further references:

King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion...

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