Henry Scott Tuke, RA RWS (12 June 1858 – 13 March 1929), was an English visual artist; primarily a painter, but also a photographer. His most notable work was in the Impressionist style, and he is probably best known for his paintings of nude boys and young men.
He was born into a Quaker family in Lawrence Street in York. He was the second son of Daniel Hack Tuke (1827–1895) and Maria Strickney (1826–1917). In 1859 the family moved to Falmouth, where Daniel Tuke, a physician, established a practice. Tuke’s sister and biographer, Maria Tuke Sainsbury (1861–1947), was born there. Tuke was encouraged to draw and paint from an early age and some of his earliest drawings—from when he was four or five years old—were published in 1895. In 1870, Tuke joined his brother William at Irwin Sharps’s Quaker school in Weston-super-Mare, and remained there until he was sixteen.
In 1875, Tuke enrolled in the Slade School of Art under Alphonse Legros and Sir Edward Poynter. Initially his father paid for his tuition but in 1877 Tuke won a scholarship, which allowed him to continue his training at the Slade and in Italy in 1880. From 1881 to 1883 he was in Paris where he met Jules Bastien-Lepage, who encouraged him to paint en plein air. While studying in France, Tuke decided to move to Newlyn Cornwallwhere many of his Slade and Parisian friends had already formed the Newlyn School of painters. He received several lucrative commissions there, after exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy of Art in London.
In 1885, Tuke returned to Falmouth where many of his major works were produced. Tuke became an established artist and was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in 1914. Tuke suffered a heart attack in 1928 and died in March, 1929. Towards the end of his life Tuke knew that his work was no longer fashionable. In his will he left generous amounts of money to some of the men who, as boys, had been his models. Today he is remembered mainly for his oil paintings of young men, but in addition to his achievements as a figurative painter, he was an established maritime artist and produced as many portraits of sailing ships as he did human figures. Tuke was a prolific artist—over 1,300 works are listed and more are still being discovered.
Tuke favoured rough, visible brush strokes, at a time when a smooth, polished finish was favoured by fashionable painters and critics. He had a strong sense of colour and excelled in the depiction of natural light, particularly the soft, fragile sunlight of the English summer. Although Tuke often finished paintings in the studio, photographic evidence shows that he worked mainly in the open air, which accounts for their freshness of colour and the realistic effects of sunlight reflected by the sea and on the naked flesh of his models.
In his early paintings, Tuke placed his male nudes in mythological contexts, but the critics found these works to be rather formal, lifeless and flaccid. From the 1890s, Tuke abandoned mythological themes and began to paint local boys fishing, sailing, swimming and diving, and also began to paint in a more naturalistic style. His handling of paint became freer, and he began using bold, fresh colour. One of his best known paintings from this period is August Blue (1893–1894), a study of four mostly nude youths bathing from a boat. The Looe artist, Lindsay Symington (1872–1942), modelled for the blonde boy holding onto the boat in the water; though not a regular model, Symington was a good friend of Tuke, the latter often visiting the Symington family home, Pixies’ Holt, at Dartmeet. Tuke painted some female nudes but these were not as successful as his male nude paintings.
Although Tuke’s paintings of nude youths undoubtedly appealed to his gay friends and art-buyers, they are never explicitly sexual. The models’ genitals are almost never shown, they are almost never in physical contact with each other, and there is never any suggestion of overt sexuality. Most of the paintings have the nude models standing or crouching on the beach facing out to sea, so only the back view is displayed.
Tuke is also regarded as an important maritime artist. Over the years, he painted many pictures of the majestic sailing ships, mainly in watercolour, that were common until the 1930s. Tuke was often fascinated with the beauty of a fully rigged ship, and since his childhood could draw them from memory. His decision to move to Falmouth in 1885 was, in part, influenced by the constant presence of the ships there.
Tuke enjoyed a considerable reputation, and he earned enough money from his paintings to enable him to travel abroad and he painted in France, Italy and the West Indies. In 1900 a banquet was held in his honour at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1914.
Major examples of his male nudes were purchased by major art galleries including The Bathers at Leeds Art Gallery in 1890 and August Blue at the Tate, London in 1894. But he was also well known as a portraitist, and maintained a London studio to work on his commissions. Among his best known portraits is that of soldier and writer T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”).
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 has since become something of a cult figure in gay cultural circles, with lavish editions of his paintings published and his works fetching high prices at auctions