Greatest Painting Result In Print

 by Martin Belam, 7 September 2005

The broadsheets and ex-broadsheets were writing plenty of column inches yesterday about the outcome of The Greatest Painting In Britain Vote.

Nigel Reynolds' article in The Telegraph was pleased at the Britishness of it all:

The competition was not confined to British paintings. Any work of any nationality in a British gallery open to the public was eligible. But it was satisfying that at the final count it came down to a fight between the two giants of English painting - with not a Titian, Rembrandt or Monet in sight.

Several articles point out the lack of authenticity about the scene Turner depicted. Reyolds writes:

Turner's picture of its final journey owes much to licence. The sunset is a poetic invention and Temeraire's masts and rigging are structural ones. It had been lying at Chatham as a hulk and its superstructure had been removed some months before.

The warship, known to its crew not as the Fighting Temeraire but the Saucy Temeraire, is shown travelling west up the Thames to Rotherhithe where it was broken up. Turner places his sunset in the east.

Louise Jury in The Independent reflects that:

The ship was one of the most famous of its time, the only British vessel singled out for special praise in Admiral Collingwood's famous dispatch with the news of victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Although Britain is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle this year, it has not been the country's passion for the sea that has catapulted the Temeraire back to national headlines, but art.

Manchester Online concentrated more on the public and media reaction to the contest:

Announcing the result, Today presenter James Naughtie said the competition had attracted more interest than any other Radio 4 poll.

He said the painting had been "an overwhelming winner".

Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Gallery, said he was delighted with the outcome of the survey. He said: "I have been incredibly impressed by the amount of public interest it has generated.

"The way it has been picked up by the radio has been wonderful and I think it has been extremely interesting the number of newspapers which have covered it."

The Herald in Scotland had launched a Greatest Painting in Scotland vote to counter the "expected English-dominated vote" (their words, not mine), and last week announced that the winner in Scotland was Salvador Dali's 'Christ of St John of the Cross'.

Martin Gayford wrote an interesting article for Bloomberg - "Turner's Surprise Win as U.K.'s Best Painting Offers Lessons". He drew from it some conclusions about the British character.

It is a martial picture in a way, and thus a suitable choice for a bellicose crowd such as the Britons (as a glance at Union Jack-clad football supporters will confirm). The Temeraire fought beside Nelson's Victory in the sea battle of Trafalgar in 1805, one of the most glorious of all British victories.


On the other hand, this is not really a picture about warfare, but about the passing of earthly glory. It is a valedictory image, the full title being "The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838."

The ghostly vessel is towed into the sunset by a little black steam ship, emblematic of the unglorious modern age. Turner himself was in his 64th year when he painted the Fighting Temeraire, at an age when a 19th century man's thoughts might well turn to death.

The painting is thus a suitable image for a people who remain chronically nostalgic about the greatness of their past, while also being pretty good at keeping up with the present. It calls to mind those shots of Chris Patten, the last governor, and the Prince of Wales leaving Hong Kong -- the end of Empire.

He found "More of a surprise was that Hockney's 'Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy' beat Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' for fourth place.". Maybe in election parlance the inclusion of so few recent works split the 'slightly more modern' vote amongst the paintings from the late 1800's and 1900's.

Gayford concludes with a contemporary story about the leading contenders.

Turner and Constable -- almost exact contemporaries -- were way out in front. Of course, they were rivals during their lives, and posthumously share the title of greatest British painter. An anecdote about them concerns Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, when in the early 19th century painters would add the finishing touches to their paintings for the summer exhibition.

In the morning, an almost entirely gray Turner seascape was hung next to Constable's latest rural scene. Yet when Constable came back from lunch he discovered that his wily opponent had added the brilliant orange disc of the sun to his work, completely distracting attention from everything in the vicinity. "Turner," said Constable, "has fired a gun." Goodness knows what he would have said this morning.

It's nice to know the vote played a part in keeping this old rivalry bang up to date.

Perhaps though the last word should go to one of the BBC's web users, who sent this comment in to the Have Your Say team about the vote:

I still can't believe that the dogs playing poker wasn't shortlisted!
Scott F, Lincoln

Keep up to date on my new blog