June 12, 1858– Henry Scott Tuke was a great British painter and photographer. It is always a lovely jolt of energy when I rediscover an artist mostly forgotten by me. I found a Tuke painting while looking for 19th-early 20th century paintings of sailors for a lighthearted feature about Fleet Week here in Portland, Oregon, happening right now. No matter what you suspect, I was not Googling “Naked Male Bathers”. Yet, that is exactly what came up on my computer screen when I went looking.
He was born into a Quaker family in York, England. In 1859, the Tuke family moved to Falmouth, a pretty town on the coast of South Cornwall, where his father, a doctor, set up a practice. Tuke was encouraged to draw and paint from an early age. His earliest drawings, some from when he was just four-years-old, were published in magazines and newspapers.
Tuke studied at the Slade School Of Art on a scholarship which also provided the funds to study in Italy for a year. From 1881-1883, he lived in Paris where he was encouraged by Jean-Paul Laurens to paint “en plein air”, which doesn’t simply mean painting outdoors, but an entire style of painting formulated in France during Tuke’s era, characterized by the representation of the luminous effects of natural light and atmosphere contrasted with the artificial light associated with paintings produced in a studio.
While studying in France, Tuke decided to move back to Cornwall where the light was especially vivid and where many of his schoolmates and his Parisian friends had already formed The Newlyn School of artists. After exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy Of Art in London, Tuke began to receive commissions that brought him a nice income for a painter.
In 1885, Tuke went home to Falmouth where many of his major works were produced. The happy memories of a childhood spent on the beaches around Falmouth, watching the tall ships coming into the harbor from all over the world, helped his decision to return to Falmouth where he remained for the rest of his life.
In his early paintings, Tuke put male nudes in mythological settings, but critics found these pieces a bit too formal. Beginning in the 1890s, Tuke left the mythological themes behind and simply painted local boys fishing, sailing, swimming and diving, and also began to paint in a more naturalistic style. His technique became more free. He began using bold, fresh colors. Tuke painted some female nudes also, but for some reason, they were not as successful as his male nude paintings.
After a journey in 1892 to an island in the Mediterranean, Tuke returned with the desire to paint the naked outdoors in Falmouth. He tried painting nude bathers as early as 1885 using professional male models brought in from London, but this was expensive and the models were difficult, as models can be. Instead, he asked the local lads to pose nude for him. Tuke always paid them and treated them with courtesy and consideration, although he sometimes asked them to model outdoors as late as November, so there was a shrinkage issue. He also needed to use secluded, inaccessible beaches as he created his greatest artistic challenge: painting the nude human figure outdoors.
He became best known for his paintings of those boys, but he really was a very diverse and talented artist with a variety of subjects and using many media, including the new art of photography.
With his commission money, Tuke bought his first boat, The Ripple, which became a floating home and studio. The beaches of Falmouth were the perfect setting for painting because they faced south, bathed in sunshine. The beaches had interesting barnacle encrusted rocks and shallow tide pools for the models to stand around.
Although Tuke’s paintings of nude young men must have appealed to his gay friends and buyers, his work was never explicitly sexual. His models’ junk was almost never shown, and even in groups, the guys are rarely in physical contact with each other. Most of the paintings have the nude models on the beach facing out to sea, so only their back view is shown, which is fine by me.
Tuke used rough, visible brush strokes, at a time when smooth, polished finishes were favored by the fashionable painters and the critics. He had a strong sense of color and he was especially skilled in the depiction of the soft fragile sunlight of the English summer. Although Tuke often finished paintings in his studio, photographs of him show that he worked mainly in the open air, capturing that freshness of color and the realistic effects of sunlight reflected by the water and on the naked flesh of his models.
Unusual really for the late Victorian era, Tuke’s male nudes sold well with collectors and they were purchased by major art galleries in Europe and North America. He was also quite famous as a formal portraitist, and he maintained a London studio to work on those commissions. I knew his famous portrait of gay adventurer/writer T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) before I actually knew of the painter.
Tuke was an associate of Oscar Wilde and others in the gay circles of London. He was a friend of my favorite painter of the era, John Singer Sargent.
Tuke was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in 1914. He had a heart attack in 1928 and left this wretched world a year later. At the end of his life, Tuke knew that his paintings had gone out of favor. He left most of his fortune to the men who, as boys, had been his models. Tuke was prolific, with over 1,300 paintings in important collections and museums, and more are still being discovered in this 21st century.
After his death, Tuke’s reputation faded and he was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when he was rediscovered by the first generation of openly gay artists and art collectors. He is now a cult figure, especially in gay cultural circles, with lavish books featuring plates of his paintings. One of Tuke’s biggest collectors is Sir Elton John.
Catching The Light: The Art And Life Of Henry Scott Tuke (2008) by Catherine Wallace sits on the bookshelf with my other books about artists that I love.