The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken:

The Time and Date, and the Position of the Sun and Moon


One of the most popular paintings in the history of British art is "The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken" by J. M. W. Turner, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839, just two years after Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne.  It is the begining of the Victorian age, and this painting speaks of an age of transition, a time when the old gives way to the new. HMS Temeraire, a huge timber warship of the age of sail and hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, is towed to its graveyard at Rotherhithe by a steam powered tug, belching smoke and flame, symbol of the new industrial age.


Apart from the symbolism of the event, it was at the time the largest ship to have been tugged so far up the Thames. Moreover, Turner's use of the word tugged as a verb is the first known use of the word in the english language. Tug boats existed, but to be tugged was new.


The Fighting Temeraire

"The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken" by J. M. W. Turner, 1839. National Gallery, London.



The destination was Beatson's Yard at Rotherhithe, a place that became well known for ship breaking during the nineteenth century when the life of the old timber-built hulks was coming to an end.


HMS Temeraire was moved from Sherness to Rotherhithe between the 5th and 6th September 1838, the year before Turner displayed his painting at the Royal Academy.


The timeline for the moving of the ship from Sherness to its final berth in Rotherhithe is well known.  It set off at 7.30am on 5 September 1838. At 1.30pm arrived at Greenhithe, where it anchored overnight. Then, at 8.30 on the morning of 6 September it set off from Greenhithe, arriving at Greenwich at noon. By 2.00pm on 6 September the ship arrived at Beatson's Yard at Rotherhithe.


It has long been accepted that Turner's painting is an imaginative interpretation of the actual event. Indeed, there is no evidence at all that he witnessed the ship being tugged to its last berth at Rotherhithe, or that he stood anywhere on the banks of the Thames to draw the scene from life.  In particular, it has been pointed out that the sun sets in the west but the ship in the painting is clearly moving east, away from the sunset. The journey up the Thames taken by HMS Temeraire is a westward journey, apart from the meanders of the river around the Isle Of Dogs, meaning that the ship should be moving towards the sunset, not away from it as depicted in the painting.


This analysis of the ship's movement is basically correct, but it does ignore one practical problem.  Existing illustrations of the ship beached at Rotherhithe show it pointing east, which means it would have to have been turned around from its westward journey and beached at Rotherhithe pointing back towards the east.  Turner's painting could well depict the ship in the process of being turned.


Here is an illustration of the ship beached at Rotherhithe.  This view is from the north side of the Thames, looking south, so the front of the ship is clearly pointing east.


The Fighting Temeraire beached at Rotherhithe

Temeraire laid up at Beatson's Yard, Rotherhithe, by artist J. J. Williams, 1838–39



A more detailed drawing by William Beatson confirms the way the ship was beached pointing east.


HMS Temeraire at Rotherhithe

HMS Temeraire beached in front of Surrey Canal Wharf in 1838 by John Beatson's younger brother William  (National Maritime Museum. Greenwich)



Turner's depiction of a sunset is excellent, as would be expected from an artist who spent a lifetime studying the moods of the sky and the movements of the sun and moon over wide views of land, rivers and sea.  The relationship between the sun and moon he depicts in this painting is accurate in that as the sun sets in the west it would often be  followed by a waxing crescent moon, seen at the top left of the painting. Both bodies, sun and moon, would appear to be moving slowly downwards and to the right at an angle determined by the tilt of the earth on its axis (23.45 degrees) and by the latitude of the location (london) and by the time of year as the earth moves around the sun.


However, this does not match the time and date of the event.  When HMS Temaraire was towed towards Rotherhithe on 6th September 1838 the sun set at 18.35pm.  The setting sun in the painting is approximately twenty minutes before actual sunset, which is defined as the moment when the trailing edge of the sun disappears below the horizon.  The time therefore can be estimated as 18.05pm.


Although we are told that the ship arrived at Rotherhithe at about 2.00pm, the low setting sun in the painting suggests a later time of about 6.05pm, which in turn suggests Turner is using artistic licence for the sake of mood, the melancoly end of day mood. 


Just before sunset on 6 September 1838, as depicted by Turner, the sun was at an angle of 276° West, which is close to due West (290°). Using this as a starting point, we can estimate that the viewer of the painting, looking towards the centre of the painting, is looking almost directly South-West and would, therefore, have to be on the north bank of the Thames.


Although it is not possible to exactly derive three dimensional geometry from a two dimensional painting, the diagram below, based on the position of the sun at 276° West, gives a sense of the orientation of the view Turner depicts.


Orientation of Painting

Diagram illustrating the orientation of Turner's painting



Notice that the ship is being tugged almost directly North and is aiming towards a mooring buoy off the North shore.  The buoy is a dark, ugly, gloomy thing, not a happy destination.  I feel the symbolism of it as a dark, weak, miserable end is more important than the literal direction of the ship.


Also, if the sunset is related to the phase of the Moon, then another problem arises.  Turner shows the Moon high in the sky and at approximately 220° South-West.  But at this date and time, 18:05 on 6th September 1838, the moon was not a waxing crescent moon as depicted in the painting, but was a waning gibbous moon, almost a full moon, and was below the North-East horizon and not visible in the sky.  In fact, it was at an angle of 61° North-East and at an altitude of -12°, that is, it was almost directly behind the viewer and 12° below the horizon.




Deatail of the Moon

Detail of the waxing crescent moon in Turner's painting



Waxing Crescent Moon

Modern photograph of a waxing crescent moon. The greater tilt to the right suggests it was taken a little later in the evening than as depicted by Turner and after the sun has set.



The diagrams below show the position of the sun and moon at the date and approximate time the sunset in the painting suggests. 


In each diagram the straight line through the center marked 0° represents the horizon, and the curved line shows the course of each body during the course of the day as it moves from below to above the horizon.


The first diagram shows the position of the sun as it appears in the painting. It would have been approximately 18.05 in the evening, half an hour before sunset, which happened at 18.35 on 6th September 1838.





Position of the Sun at 18.05 on 6th September 1838.


Diagram courtesy of


The second diagram shows where the moon would have been at 18.05 on 6th September 1838. At that time and date the moon would have been below the horizon and so not visible in the sky. It did not rise till 19.22, almost an hour after sunset.




Position of the Moon at 18.05 on 6th September 1838.


Diagram courtesy of

It would appear, therefore, that on 6th September 1838 the moon was in a different phase and in a different position in the sky - it would have been a waning gibbous moon, as shown in the photo below, and would not have been visible in the sky until an hour after sunset.


Waning Gibbous Moon

Waning Gibbous Moon



This confirms that Turner's painting is an imaginative interpretation of reality. While it gives a true picture of the relationship between the sun and the moon over the Thames, and captures the mood and context of an historical event, it does not try to recreate the exact conditions on the day the event happened.



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