Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Hero of a Hundred Fights

c.1800–10, reworked and exhibited 1847

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 908 × 1213 mm
frame: 1275 × 1585 × 180 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This canvas was originally an exploration of industrial machinery, but it was reworked to show the moment when a bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington was removed from its mould. Using the intense light of the foundry to obscure the figure, Turner transforms Wellington into an ethereal presence. The image is in stark contrast to Turner’s carefully researched battle scenes. Here, tone and colour are employed to endow a national hero with elemental force.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

427. [N00551] The Hero of a Hundred Fights c. 1800–10;
reworked and exh. 1847


Canvas, 35 3/4 × 47 3/4 (91 × 121)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (83, ‘Tapping the Furnace’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1847 (180); Newcastle 1912 (53); Art and the Industrial Revolution Manchester City Art Gallery, May–July 1968 (65, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (527 repr.); on loan to the Wellington Museum 1975–7.

Lit. Ruskin, letter to Clarkson Stanfield 1847, and 1857 (1903–12, iv, p. 338 n.1; xiii, p. 167); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; William Hall, A Biography of David Cox, 1881, pp. 198–9; Bell 1901, p. 157 no. 262; Armstrong 1901, p. 223; MacColl 1920, p. 25; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 416– 17, 510 no. 580; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 72; Reynolds 1969, p. 204, pl. 175; Gage 1972, p. 36, pl. 18; Wilton 1979, p. 222; Gage 1980, p. 8; Ziff 1980, p. 190.

Exhibited in 1847 with the explanation:

‘An idea suggested by the German invocation upon casting the bell: in England called tapping the furnace.-MS Fallacies of Hope’.

The reference to the Fallacies of Hope suggests that some verses may have been omitted. Turner may also have been referring to Schiller's Song of the Bell. Jerrold Ziff has suggested that Turner may have been reflecting the mood shown in, for instance, the popular Penny Magazine, which called in 1844 for a contemporary artist to depict an iron-foundry and to ‘produce a picture in which the play of light and shade would be remarkable’ (xiii, p. 74). The scene is the breaking away of the mould at the casting of M.C. Wyatt's bronze equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington which had occurred in September 1845, but this was superimposed by Turner on a much earlier picture of an interior with large pieces of machinery, akin to, though not identical with, the drawing of the interior of a belfry in the ‘Swans’ sketchbook of c. 1798 (XLII– 60 and 61). The original painting must have been done c. 1800–10. When Turner came to rework it he left much of the original untouched, adding the great burst of light on the left and highlighting the still-life in the foreground. Much of the still-life seems to date from the earlier stage of the painting, but the strengthening of the colour is perhaps explained by William Hall, presumably retailing the views of David Cox: ‘Turner, not satisfied with the dazzling effect obtained by surrounding the blazing fire with broad masses of shadow on the walls and roof of the foundry, had determined to make the glow and glare still more effective by opposition of colour. He could conceive nothing that would naturally be seen in the place to answer the desired purpose; and so he introduced, in the immediate front of his picture, stretching from side to side, a row of cut cabbages of the greenest possible hue. These cabbages were a great puzzle to many visitors to the exhibition’. To a lady who ‘exclaimed aloud to her companion, “Whatever are they going to do with those cabbages?”’, Cox ‘made a polite bow, and gravely replied, “Boil them madam!”’

As a result of this reworking there is extensive drying crackle in the repainted areas as well as a number of small losses. The original painting, on a red ground, was relined, presumably by Turner, before the repainting but slightly askew; Turner extended the painted field over the cut edges of the original canvas.

One suspects that most of the work on The Hero of a Hundred Fights was done on the Varnishing Days. That Turner was there is known from his having touched in a portion of the rainbow of Maclise's Sacrifice of Noah which hung next to it, causing Ruskin to complain in a letter to Clarkson Stanfield, commiserating with him over the poor position of one of his exhibits, that ‘They have served Turner worse, however; there is nothing in his picture but even colour, and they must needs put Maclise's rainbow side by side with it-which takes part-and a very awkward and conclusive part too in its best melody’. The Literary Gazette for 8 May 1847 thought the opposite however, saying that the Turner was ‘painted up to such a blaze as to extinguish Noah's rainbow. It is a marvellous piece of colouring. If Turner had been Phaeton, he must have succeeded in driving the chariot of the sun.’ The critic of The Times, 1 May, after saying that it ‘strikes the eye at first as a simple burst of inexplicable brightness’, claimed to have guessed the subject before referring to the catalogue.

Other reviews were less favourable. ‘Fantastical absurdity’ and ‘dazzling obscurity’ wrote the Spectator on 8 May, adding, on 19 June, that ‘As a “vision”, it is a burlesque on poetic licence’. ‘Full of fine passages of chromatic arrangement’, said the Athenaeum for 8 May, ‘it has so little foundation in fact that the sense is merely bewildered at the unsparing hand with which the painter has spread forth the glories of his palette’. The Art Union for June suggested that ‘it pleases most when seen at various distances’. For the Morning Chronicle, 10 May, it was a ‘pictorial rhapsody. Let the reader suppose a capricious syringe filled with unmixed masses of red, white, yellow and green, and the contents discharged upon the canvass’. Cruellest of all was the Illustrated London News for 8 May: ‘This kind of painting is not the madness of genius-it is the folly and imbecility of old age.’ Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed the stylistic dichotomy between the original painting and the superimposed glow that so dazzled them.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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