Henry Scott Tuke is best known today for his paintings of nude boys and young men, usually in a seaside or outdoor setting. His reputation faded after his death but interest was revived in the 1970s when he was rediscovered by a new generation, becoming a cult figure in gay circles.
Tuke was probably gay and developed close and possibly sexual relationships with some of his models, many of whom remained lifelong friends. Tuke’s evocative paintings of male nudity won him the reputation of a pioneer of gay male culture. Art critic Joseph Kestner described Tuke as ‘the greatest painter of the male nude in Victorian painting’. Tuke was also a noted marine and portrait artist, and a keen sport enthusiast (particularly cricket) and painted two portraits of the famous Bristol-born cricketer, W G Grace, in 1905 and 1908.
Born in York in 1858 into a prominent Quaker family, Tuke’s great great grandfather, William Tuke, founded The Retreat in 1796, one of the earliest asylums for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. Henry’s father, Daniel Tuke, continued the tradition of caring for psychiatric patients.
In 1859 Dr Tuke showed symptoms of tuberculosis and was advised to move to a milder climate. The family moved to Clevedon near Bristol, then the following year settled in Falmouth when Dr Tuke became close friends with another Quaker medical family, the Fox’s. Dr Edward Long Fox founded Brislington House asylum in 1804.
From 1870-74 Henry and his brother William attended Irwin Sharp’s Quaker School (photograph) on South Road, Weston-super-Mare (“Woodside”, Atlantic Terrace East, end house on corner with Highbury Road) which later became St Faith’s school. Henry enjoyed nude bathing and did so his whole life so it seems likely he swam naked whilst living in Weston as a teenager. Whilst at school he met fellow pupil Bristol-born artist Arthur Tanner (1857-1916) and they remained lifelong friends. Tanner’s sexual orientation is unknown but, like Tuke, he never married. An Orchid and Pansies (1872) are both early examples of Tuke’s work painted while at school in Weston.
Aged 18 in 1876 Henry and his brother William went on a West Country walking tour which included Clevedon. In the summer of 1881 Tuke and his sister Maria stayed with their now widowed mother and Tuke’s brother, William, in Clifton, Bristol.
Tuke studied at the Slade School of Art and after travelling settled in Falmouth in 1885, but also retained a London house. Tuke had a deep love for model Edward “Johnny” Jackett (1878-1935) and they remained lifelong friends, even after Jackett’s marriage. Whether Tuke and Jackett’s relationship was ever sexual is not proven. Jackett later played rugby for Cornwall and England, and competed for Great Britain in the 1908 Olympic Games. Other models included Donald Rolph (1907-1993) who was possibly gay as an adult, and Jack Hone (1895-1978) who was almost certainly homosexual.
Tuke did however develop friendships with openly gay men of his time including Scottish, Clifton College educated historian Horatio Forbes Brown (1854-1926). Brown lived most of his adult life in Italy and Tuke stayed with him in Venice in 1891 and painted his portrait in 1899. A ‘fair haired, breezy, out of doors person with a crisp Highlands Scottish speech’, Brown enjoyed the more relaxed sexual mores of Italy and enjoyed the company of handsome muscular gondoliers.
Tuke always asked permission from parents when painting young boys in the nude, plus he paid his models over the average rate of the day. Nude bathing for men was in fact quite common until well into the 20th century even though it had technically been banned in 1860. Many working class youths just couldn’t afford bathing costumes so swimming naked was completely natural to them.
The Bristol-born writer and gay pioneer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) was also a friend of Tuke. Their fathers who were both doctors had also been friends. Because of ill health Symonds spent many years in Switzerland but on a return visit to England he met Tuke in Falmouth. Symonds was an admirer of Tuke’s work and wrote to him ‘I want to tell you how much I admire … your “Perseus” (1890) … the feeling for the nude in it seems to me as delicate as it is vigorous. I wish you would send me some photographs of your various pictures and studio’.
Tuke’s male nude subjects had previously been taken from classical sources and it was Symonds who urged him to paint models in the present and out of doors, the genre Tuke was later to become famous for. Symonds wrote to Tuke on 10 January 1893 ‘I should say you ought to develop studies in the nude without pretending to make them “subject pictures”… Your own inspiration is derived from natural beauty. Classical or Romantic mythologies are not your starting point’. Symonds’s words had an invigorating and inspiring effect on Tuke resulting in his paintings having ‘all the truth and beauty of flesh in sunlight by the sea’.
Jonathan Rowe, 2023
Thanks to Andrew Foyle and Pat Hase for help with research.
Wikipedia: Henry Scott Tuke
Henry Scott Tuke: Paintings from Cornwall, Catherine Wallace (2008)
The Life and Work of Henry Scott Tuke, Emmanuel Cooper(1987)