Having trained at the Slade School in the 1870s, Henry Scott Tuke completed his education with further study in Paris, visits to the Salon and important encounters with his mentor, Jules Bastien-Lepage.1The first three months of 1883 were spent in the French capital, where he worked under Jean-Paul Laurens at the atelier Julian. He returned to the family home in Bournemouth before the end of the session because his brother, Willy Tuke, was ill with tuberculosis. In August, he visited the Scots painter, James Paterson, sailed on the Clyde, and then spent a short time in Falmouth before setting off for Newlyn where he remained until November - at this point the fishing port near Penzance which was acquiring a reputation as a painter's haunt. It is likely therefore that the present study of schooners was painted in September 1883.2
Although it represents a particular configuration of ships, served by tiny rowing boats and moored in the busy port, Schooners at Falmouth has a timeless quality. While most of the vessels are coasters, the one close to shore on the right may be the old warship, HMS Ganges, at that time a training ship.3 Having sampled Newlyn, Tuke returned to settle in Falmouth in 1885 and its wide natural harbour would provide the setting for celebrated canvases such as The Fisherman, 1888.4 He was to acquire his own rowing vessel, the Julie of Nantes, which served as a base for other shipboard genre paintings.
In Schooners at Falmouth Tuke has instinctively divided the rectangle by golden section, placing most of the interest in the lower left hand quarter. His palette is muted and the warm grey of the distant hills suggests that this is an overcast autumn afternoon. The fluent handling and sense of abstract design recalls the tiny panel paintings of James McNeill Whistler, painted at St Ives in the same year - works which Whistler considered a break-through and which he showed with Tuke's London dealer, Walter Dowdeswell.5
Whilst it is popularly believed that Tuke, Whistler and other artists used rosewood cigar box lids for small oil sketches such as Schooners at Falmouth, by the 1880s these were being manufactured by paint suppliers. Indeed at the period, it was possible to purchase what were known as 'pochade' boxes, containing up to five panels, designed in such a way that they could be stored in slots when wet. Such panels were favoured because they were portable and, unprimed, provided a warm 'sienna' ground.
Tuke washed the wood with a Whistlerian 'sauce' of the subtlest grey-blues, on which his schooners and cutters are deftly placed. Long refections indicate that the sea is calm. These vessels would be replaced in a few years by iron-clad ships with smoke-stacks and Falmouth's natural advantages would soon fade before those of the deeper industrial ports and docklands. At this moment in 1883 however, Tuke's image of a peaceful autumn afternoon on the Cornish coast stretches out to infinity.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 David Wainwright and Catherine Dinn, Henry Scott Tuke, 1858-1929, Under Canvas, 1989, (Sarema Press), pp. 23-31.
2 BD Price [annotations], The Registers of Henry Scott Tuke, 1858-1929, 1983 (second ed., Royal Cornwall Polytechinc Society), n.p.
3 Wainwright and Dinn, 1989, p. 88.
4 Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre, Painting in Newlyn, 1880-1930, 1985, (exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery), p. 54.
5 Kenneth John Myers, Mr Whistler's Gallery, Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition, 2003 (Exhibition catalogue, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC).