Published: 12:00, 08 May 2016
The artist of The Fighting Temeraire, voted Britain’s favourite painting and whose face will soon appear on the new £20 note, has strong links with Gravesend.
The steam tug boat in J.M.W. Turner’s oil painting, towing the 98-gun warship which won fame in the Battle of Trafalgar, was from a Gravesend company.
The sad, evocative scene as it made the 53-mile journey up the River Thames on its final voyage to the scrapyard, was captured by the artist almost by accident.
The lead tug Monarch belonged to the William Watkins family-owned business, located near Gravesend Town Pier, which eventually built up a fleet of 17.
The Royal Navy hired two tug boats for some £50 to take the three-decker Temeraire on its voyage to destruction in 1838.
It won honours at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, going immediately astern of Nelson’s flagship Victory to rescue the beleaguered first ship of the line.
In an act of almost suicidal valour, the Temeraire’s captain chose to draw enemy fire away from the Victory in which Nelson was dying. It fought and captured two French ships.
Turner’s painting contrasts the beauty of the old warship against the dirty, blackened, steam tug with its smokestack, as it led the fighting ship on its last journey.
Mayor of Gravesend Mick Wenban spent a lifetime as a tugman on the Thames and hails from a family of Watermen going back to 1666.
He said: “That tug was called the Monarch. Turner just happened to be visiting the former Rosherville Gardens at Northfleet when he later came across the scene of the Fighting Temeraire being towed on the river.
“He took out his sketch book and set about doing the famous painting at home.”
Cllr Wenban recently arranged a copy of Turner’s painting to hang in the Mayor’s parlour.
The Turner note was announced recently by Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney and will be issued by 2020.