A Bloody Big Ship

Posted on January 26, 2013


James Bond is to meet his new Quartermaster in the National Gallery, located at Trafalgar Square , London. The theme of old versus new is always present in ”Skyfall” as well as in this scene. Bond sits, awaiting Q in Room 34 of the National Gallery, looking at the 1838 painting by J.M.W. Turner ”The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up.” When Q turns up, there is a small piece of dialogue regarding the painting before they go on with the secret agent business with quips and banter.
The Fighting Temeraire

Q: It always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
James Bond: A bloody big ship.

Again, there has been a lot of web sites and blogs addressing this scene and the art included with attempts of analysis and interpretations (1, 2). Well, before we do that…
Bond Q National GalleryIn 2005 ”The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up” was voted through the BBC the greatest painting in a British gallery. The artist is a British national treasure. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s (1775-1851) romanticized paintings of landscapes and sea motifs are a part of the Brits’ national identity. British school children learn him and write essays about him, and in the auction houses they don’t come much more expensive than a Turner painting.

Biography from the National Gallery Web:
”Turner is perhaps the best-loved English Romantic artist. He became known as ‘the painter of light’, because of his increasing interest in brilliant colours as the main constituent in his landscapes and seascapes. His works include water colours, oils and engravings. Turner was born near Covent Garden in London and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789. His earliest works form part of the 18th-century topographical tradition. He was soon inspired by 17th-century Dutch artists such as Willem van der Velde, and by the Italianate landscapes of Claude and Richard Wilson. He exhibited watercolours at the Royal Academy from 1790, and oils from 1796. In 1840 he met the critic John Ruskin, who became the great champion of his work. Turner became interested in contemporary technology, as can be seen from ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. At the time his free, expressive treatment of these subjects was criticised, but it is now widely appreciated. Turner bequeathed much of his work to the nation. The great majority of the paintings are now at Tate Britain.”

About the Fighting Temeraire, from the National Gallery Web:
”The 98-gun ship ‘Temeraire’ played a distinguished role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, after which she was known as the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. The ship remained in service until 1838 when she was decommissioned and towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up.

The painting was thought to represent the decline of Britain’s naval power. The ‘Temeraire’ is shown travelling east, away from the sunset, even though Rotherhithe is west of Sheerness, but Turner’s main concern was to evoke a sense of loss, rather than to give an exact recording of the event. The spectacularly colourful setting of the sun draws a parallel with the passing of the old warship. By contrast the new steam-powered tug is smaller and more prosaic.

Turner was in his sixties when he painted ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. It shows his mastery of painting techniques to suggest sea and sky. Paint laid on thickly is used to render the sun’s rays striking the clouds. By contrast, the ship’s rigging is meticulously painted.” (More information here)

As for the analysis of the ”Fighting Temeraire” in “Skyfall” there are countless sites online that address the issue. I mentioned the theme of old versus new and the illustration of a greatness in decline or even deterioration is suitable as it ties in with the critique of M’s SIS being obsolete. It plays rather finely with the poem of Lord Tennyson later in the film, that also addresses this theme although with a sense of firm determination despite decline.

But it is also a way of introducing the new relationship between Q and 007, the next minutes of dialogue between the two is simply marvellous and the exchange of lines regarding the painting sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. Bond comes across a the ‘blunt instrument’ (as labelled by M in “Casino Royale”), not being able or willing to see the depth or interpretations of the ”Fighting Temeraire”. Frankly he looks rather bored being in an art museum and perhaps this is staged to help a large group of the James Bond audience to identify with the Bond character? Well, perhaps not. Just a thought.

There is no coincidence that this particular Turner painting is featured in “Skyfall”. Next to it in the gallery hangs another naval Turner painting, larger in size: “Ulysses deriding Polyphemus- Homer’s Odyssey” (1829). The way the paintings are displayed the latter Turner painting would make a better shot but as we aren’t shown the full gallery wall, the audience isn’t graphically disturbed by this.An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Behind Bond and Q hangs two other paintings also in the shot. Some attempts on all those thorough websites have tried to include them as well in their analysis. They are however precisely in the same spot in the National Gallery for real as in the film. They have not been placed there to add meaning to the scene. It is the natural look of the room.
The paintings are “Mr and Mrs William Hallett (‘The Morning Walk’, 1785)” by Thomas Gainsborough, (1727 – 1788) and the “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)” by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797).
Another Gainsborough painting is partly visible behind Bond, “The Watering Place”
In some shots of Q we can see a large portraits from the next room, Room 33. That is the “Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame (1764)” by François-Hubert Drouais.

Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs William Hallett The Morning WalkWhat has been altered in the film from the actual look of the gallery is the bench where Bond and Q sits. In reality Room 34 has a line of leather chairs in the middle for visitors.

Why not take the excellent virtual tour of Room 34?

In another gallery a few rooms away hangs the famous Duke of Wellington portrait by Goya, known from Dr No as it was stolen from the National Gallery. But that’s another story and another post, yet to be written.

All images are owned by the National Gallery. No infringement intended. To purchase a print, click the links to access the National Gallery web.

More about the actual ship or this book by Sam Willis might be of interest (descriptive title): “The Fighting Temeraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship that Inspired J. M. W. Turner’s Most Beloved Painting”

And click here for the rose named after the ship

Another artwork in “Skyfall” is “Woman with Fan” by Amadeo Modigliani from the scene in Shanghai. Read about that painting here.

Posted in: Skyfall