A different view of history through art

The Fighting Temeraire by JMW TurnerThe Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner

The Fighting Temeraire (1839) by JMW Turner stirs extraordinary passions (Thunderer, November 9; Letters, November 11 and 13), showing the final voyage of the 98-gun sailing warship that played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is being towed upriver in the Thames by a steam-driven tug in a scene often interpreted as a sense of loss, the nostalgic sunset representing the end of the age of sail.

However, this may be wrong. Although the sky in the picture has often been assumed to show a sunset, it is more likely to have been a sunrise, which might symbolise the dawn of the exciting new age of steam.

From a meteorological point of view the spectacular colour of the sky is fascinating. During the day, sunlight is scattered by gas molecules in the atmosphere, resulting in a blue sky. During sunrise or sunset, the sun’s rays have to pass through a much larger chunk of the atmosphere and most of the blue light is scattered, leaving amber and red light.

The colours of sunset or sunrise can be more complex. If the air contains pollutants and small dust particles of the right size, the sun and the sky can turn intensely orange, red and purple.

These pollutants and particles
can come from wildfires and dust storms, which is what we saw with the bizarre sight of a red sun during the day in October, when ex-Hurricane Ophelia swept up Saharan dust and smoke from wildfires in Portugal.

During Turner’s artistic career there was coal smoke polluting the atmosphere and a great deal of volcanic activity in the world, when the atmosphere was filled with the dust of violent eruptions. That pollution and dust helped to create some lurid and surreal-coloured sunrises and sunsets. As one woman commented to Turner: “I never see your skies in nature, Mr Turner.” To which Turner replied: “Then God help you, ma’am.”


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