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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Henry Scott Tuke

The Midday Rest, 1906, Henry Scott Tuke
Boys Bathing, Henry Scott Tuke
Probably the surest axiom in the arts would be the two-word mantra, "tastes change." It's something of a chicken/egg question as to whether art changes tastes or tastes change art. Does art reflect social mores or is it a reflection of the society which pro-duces it? In today's interconnected digital world, it's certain that a dominant culture can and will change an older, more static one. It's one of the things that keep both Christian and Muslim clerics awake at night. In any society there has always existed what we've come to call the "culture war." If organized religion (for example) is unwilling or unable to change a society, then it will be changed by that society or those around it...perhaps slowly, undoubtedly kicking and screaming...but inexorably changed. Yet this rule is not an absolute. Usually the changes run both ways. Christianity changed the pagan world, yet, at the same time, that world changed Christianity. The same is true as to Muslim history. Nowhere are these forces of change more obvious than in areas having to do with sexual morality. Until 1967, homosexual acts of any kind were illegal in Great Britain. It's unknown whether the British artist, Henry Scott Tuke was a homosexual. However, by today's standards, it's safe to say he created homosexual art. Boys Bathing (above, left) is a non-nude example. August Blue (below) is more typical.

August Blue, 1893-94, Henry Scott Tuke
Henry Scott Tuke, Self-portrait, 1920
The largest body of Tuke's painting content involved nude images of teenaged boys and young men bathing (swimming) or lying about seductively posed on a beach. August Blue (above) painted in 1893 or 1894 is one of his earlier works along this line. The work conveys a sense of enjoyment, the simple innocence of sunlight on flesh, sea, and sky. With August Blue, Tuke established a type of content that celebrates male beauty and the seeming timelessness of youth. Tuke’s paintings of nude youths illustrate sensual, rather than sexual, feelings. Actually, taken individually, while the young men and boys are nude, the scene is not at all overtly sexual. It's only when this and the many other such images are seen as a whole body of work that they can be considered homosexual. Yet, never does Tuke paint his figures involved in any type of homosexual activity, and only on very rare occasions does he depict genital details. In a few cases, the most he can be accused of is suggesting a subtle form of visual lust, which may, in fact be more in the viewer's imagination than on canvas.

The Sun Bathers, Henry Scott Tuke
All Hands to the Pumps, 1888-89,
Henry Scott Tuke
Henry Scott Tuke was born into a Quaker family in 1858. Around 1859, his father, a practicing physician, and mental health pioneer moved the family from York (northeastern England) to Falmouth on the southern coast where the young Tuke picked up the lifelong love of nude sea bathing. As a boy, Tuke was also encouraged to draw and paint from an early age. Some of his earliest drawings, from around the age of four or five, were published in 1895. In 1870, Tuke joined his brother, William, at Irwin Sharps's Quaker School where he remained until he was sixteen. It was then that Tuke enrolled in the Slade School of Art. Initially his father paid for his tuition, but in 1877 Tuke won a scholarship, which allowed him to continue his training at Slade and in Italy in 1880. During the early 1880s, Tuke moved on to Paris where he met Jules Bastien-Lepage, who encouraged him to paint en plein air. While studying in France, Tuke decided to move to the artist colony of Newlyn in southwestern Cornwall where many of his friends had already formed the Newlyn School of painters. As he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art in London, Tuke began receiving numerous lucrative portrait commissions. His Sun Bathers (above), though undated, is thought to be from this early period. All Hands to the Pumps (above, left) has been definitively dated from 1888 or 1889.

The Steering Lesson, 1892, Henry Scott Tuke
Four Masted Barque, 1914,
Henry Scott Tuke
As might be noted at this point, not all of Tuke's work involved nude figures. His All Hands to the pumps (above, left) and especially his The Steering Lesson (above), from 1892 indicate a passionate love of the sea (he and his friends owned a small fishing boat). It does, however, suggest a man-boy, mentor-protégé relationship which we might deem suspect today, but which would have been quite socially acceptable in Tuke's era. Most of Tuke's income during his lifetime came from his work as an outstanding maritime painter. His Four Masted Barque (right) from 1914, is an example of this type of "bread and butter" work. As testament to the cultural differences then, as opposed to now, whether ships, portraits, or nude male figures, virtually all of Tuke's work was considered quite socially acceptable as to content, even though Tuke worked outside the mainstream of his contemporaries. During a time when smooth, concealed brushstrokes were in vogue in England, Tuke favored rough, visible brushstrokes of the French Impressionists. His Midday Rest (top), from 1906 demonstrates Tuke's excellence at combining impressionist brushstrokes and color to produce unusual lighting effects which, in the case of his bathing figures, serve to stall the viewer’s eye on the nude male body.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite, 1902, Henry Scott Tuke
The Bathers, 1888, Henry Scott Tuke
Tuke likely painted his first oil studies of young male nudes during a tour of Italy in his early twenties, but they did not become central to his work around 1885. That's when he had moved to Falmouth, which was then still a secluded part of Cornwall with a very mild climate quite agreeable for nude bathing. There Tuke focused on maritime scenes and portraits, which showed boys and young men bathing, fishing and sunbathing on sunny beaches. His Ruby, Gold, and Malachite (above) from 1902, is one of his best known works. He settled at a small fishing port, where he bought an old fishing boat for £40, then converted it into a floating studio and living quarters. The Bathers (right) from 1888, were painted on board his boat. During the winter, Tuke rented two rooms in a cottage, situated between Pennance Point and Swanpool Beach. The cottage remained Tuke's permanent base until his death, although he often lived aboard boats. Here he could indulge his passion for painting boys. His early models were brought down from London but he soon befriended some of the local fishermen and swimmers in Falmouth who became his close friends and models.

T. E. Lawrence as a cadet at Newport Beach, near Falmouth, 1921-22, Henry Scott Tuke
Tobacco Cay, British Honduras,
 1923-24, Henry Scott Tuke
Among Tuke's friends and models during the early 1920s was a high school cadet, T.E. Lawrence, later to become famous as the iconic Lawrence of Arabia. In the painting T.E. Lawrence as a Cadet (above) Tuke painted the young Lawrence getting dressed on the beach after what was likely a nude swim. Like Tuke, Lawrence's sexual orientation has long been questioned. Sometime in 1923 Tuke visited Jamaica and Central America. There he created several outstanding watercolor scenes such as Tobacco Cay, British Honduras (left), from 1923 or 1924. However, in penetrating the interior of Belize, Tuke became ill forcing him to return home. He never fully recovered his health. After a long illness, Tuke died at Falmouth in 1929. Henry Scott Tuke was quite popular in life, and it is never really known whether or not those during his lifetime recognized his homosexual themes. In any case, Tuke is thought of today as a gay artist icon, his standing as much the effect of a changing cultural outlook as the nature of his work. Tuke's paintings can presently be seen in public collections throughout Britain, including Falmouth, Plymouth, Truro, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham and London. Many Tuke originals are now owned by Sir Elton John.

The Message, 1890, Henry Scott Tuke

The Sailor Boy, 1924, Henry Scott Tuke.
Tuke often painted such portraits as gifts to
his nude models.


1 comment:

  1. Contrary to the caption, T E Lawrence surely didn't model for Tukein the early 1920's, after WWI. Lawrence, born in 1888, was a legendary hero of WWI and was in his early 30's in the early 1920's. Morever, he worked for the Foreign Office in post WWI Iraq until 1922. He was very far from being a "cadet" at that time. It's possible he posed for Tuke around 1905.