Health, sun worship, male nudity, the 'Greek' ideal and the sea were brought together as Henry Scott Tuke's most insistent pictorial themes in the early years of the twentieth century.
Tuke had made his name in the late 1880s with shipboard scenes, the most important of which, All Hands to the Pumps, 1889 (Tate Britain), was purchased for the nation by the Chantrey Bequest. Although he continued to produce such canvases, in comparison with the raw, storm-swept Conrad-esque dramas of Brangwyn and others, Tuke's sailors became increasingly effete. In this sense, his second Chantrey purchase of 1894, August Blue, (fig. 1, Tate Britain) was more consequential. Here he emphasised the strand of his work which ultimately was to become more important. Both types of picture were nevertheless dependant upon Tuke's ability to have daily contact with the sea, ships and young sailor models, and he stressed the importance of this in an interview with the Studio, in 1895,
My studio is 'out of doors', I paint all my pictures in the open air. Of course at times I repaint portions of them here, [in the studio] because the harmony that looks alright beside the sunlit model may look very different when inspected critically in the studio next day ... The sea is certainly the keynote of my pictures, but my object in living here is not to be a marine painter - I do not reckon myself one - but primarily to paint the nude in the open air; here there are quiet beaches, some of them hardly accessible except by boat, where one may print from the life model undisturbed. (EB[onney-]S[teyne], 'Afternoons in Studios: Henry Scott Tuke at Falmouth', Studio, 5, 1895, p. 93).
When questioned specifically about his allegiance to the nude in the open air, Tuke recounted,
At the time I first took up the subject, when Alexander Harrison was attacking the same problem in the orchards of France, it seemed to open up fresh vistas and certainly gave new interest to the study of the undraped figure, to depict it with pure daylight upon it. …I always return to my first opinion, that the truth and beauty of flesh in sunlight by the sea, is offered to you in a way impossible to secure in pictures built up from hasty sketches, at leisure, in one's studio' (p. 94).
As a painter, Tuke stressed the technical, over issues to do with content. The 'undraped' figure presents an interesting challenge. The method, working from sketches made in the open air, is the best way to ensure that the final picture is life-like and convincing. All of these issues remained relevant to Tuke's work up to and beyond the Great War and they are particularly concentrated in Midsummer Morning.
The picture was painted in the rocks at Newporth Beach near to Tuke's home in the summer and autumn of 1907. A watercolour, probably a study for Midsummer Morning, was in the Alfred De Pass collection (R618). Notes by the photograph in the second Picture Register, transcribed by B.D. Price, identify the figures as Tuke's favourite models of the period, Stanley or Tom Tiddy on the left, Charlie Mitchell, standing with the line, Jim Hearle, as the boy with the fish, Harry Coward as the boy in dark trousers and Frank Jackett as the boy bending down. Of the group, Tuke was closest to Mitchell, then aged 15, and most frequently employed as a model and studio assistant. The following summer (1908), for instance, Mitchell accompanied Tuke to Shillinglee Park, Sussex, when he painted the portrait of the visiting Indian Prince, Ranjitsinhji (unlocated). Mitchell posed in Ranji's clothes for the body section of the portrait.
Interviewed by Price in January 1965, Frank Jackett recalled Tuke's difficulty in getting the canvas down to the rocks, because of the high winds. The picture was therefore worked primarily from swift oil sketches. Price asked Jackett if there was ever an occasion when the whole group posed together on the rocks, but this, he was assured, had never occurred. He posed about a dozen times in the studio and on the rocks. 'We carried this great canvas with us'.
If we couldn't go down, it was blowing and rough, and we couldn't go down to Newporth beach, leading from his studio up to the cottage where he lived was a flight of steps, you see, and I had to pose there; he would say 'Well, Frank, you stay there', he would go in the studio door, and get me in the position that he wanted me, and I was stripped down with only my bathing drawers on' (B.D. Price (ed.), Tuke Reminiscences, Falmouth, 1983, pp. 21-2).
If the painter was insistent upon matters of technique and method, and coy on content, critics at the time, were not content to leave it there. One such, writing in 1905, commented that while Tuke was 'generous to all who have gone before, to the Impressionists who paved the way for modern naturalistic methods', in his hands 'the gospel of plein air is the gospel of joyous well-being. The healthy mind in the healthy body is a motto writ large on every canvas to which the artist has put his hand' (Marion Hepworth Dixon, 'A Painter of Summer', The Ladies Realm, 18, May-October 1905, p. 592). Tuke's pictures of healthy young men exercising on Cornish beaches take on a particular significance in the contemporary debates about health, natural selection and eugenics. These preoccupied middle class urban intellectuals in the early years of the century. In its rush to become the workshop of the world, Britain had created conditions of squalor in her industrial cities. There was consistent concern, as tragic losses were reported in the Boer War, that British manhood was no longer equal to the more primitive races. In the age of imperialism, Britons, looking back to Gladstone's speeches, had grown up with the belief in their racial superiority and their capacity to rule, and this was now under threat.
There was thus, as Joseph A. Kestner has pointed out, a frequent equation drawn between British youth and the ancient Greeks. For Kestner, Tuke was 'the greatest painter of the male nude in Victorian painting' (Joseph A. Kestner, Masculinities in Victorian Painting, 1995, p. 259). A significant strand of Victorian painting up to that point - in Lawrence Alma Tadema, Edward Poynter and Frederic Leighton, - exemplified this tendency towards the Greek ideal. By the time Tuke's pictures were being produced, however, the archaizing aspects of high Victorian art were in sharp decline and the newer considerations of the qualities of Greek culture, rather than its heroes, myths and conquests were current. Tuke's least satisfactory works were attempts to address mythical subjects like Perseus and Andromeda, 1890 (unlocated), and he was strongly advised by friends not to engage the language of high classicism. Cornish fisherfolk could, by contrast, be drawn into a comparison with the ancients. Stanhope Forbes, leader of the Newlyn School, had declared in 1889, 'Our rustics are not Greek gods, but their healthy sunburnt faces are often handsome'. The Greek view was nevertheless, that painting and sculpture were cogent ways of expressing and interpreting national life. The rhetorics of health, cleanliness, moral and spiritual probity were important in the race for Africa and the domination of the Indian sub-continent. At times these racial assertions moved perilously close to what was referred to at the time as sexual inversion.
Thus the relationship between Tuke's work and the Greek ideal was one which was primarily understood in two ways. Tuke's bathers were Greek in the sense that a good body, to the Edwardian viewer, signified a good soul. Writing on this matter, Lowes Dickinson declared,
With ourselves, in spite of our addiction to athletics, the body takes a secondary place; after a certain age, at least, there are few men who make its systematic cultivation an important factor of their life; and in our estimate of merit physical qualities are accorded either none or the very smallest weight. It was otherwise with the Greeks; to them a good body was the necessary correlative of a good soul' (G. Lowes Dickinson, M.A., The Greek View of Life, 1896 (Methuen 18th ed., 1938), p. 142-3).
As Marion Hepworth Dixon noted in 1905, however,
He is, if we consider him in the light of a plein-airist, curiously mellowed and chastened by classic ideals, for no one perhaps since Fred Walker has imparted more dignity to the human figure. It is probably this substratum of the Greek under the realist which has given the artist his zest for the male rather than the female outline ... it is clear that when Mr Tuke lets himself go, when he is most characteristic and original, he occupies himself exclusively with the studies of men' (p. 590).
The Greek ideal was therefore male, rather than female and Tuke's work was accessible to homo-erotic interpretation. Charles Kains-Jackson, ex-lawyer, editor of The Artist in 1888, and leader of a homosexual coterie, along with E. Bonney-Steyne and Joseph Gleeson White, was a consistent supporter of Tuke's. He must have known that this strand of Tuke's work was born in controversy. After seeing his Bathers (fig. 2, unlocated), destined for the first New English Art Club exhibition in 1886, its prospective financial backer, Martin Colnaghi, had withdrawn his support, almost scuttling the enterprise. Tuke's picture, showing three naked boys at a rock pool in Falmouth bay, was nevertheless included in the exhibition and he continued to show with the club until 1891, often choosing it as the venue for these daring subjects. They became the object of adulatory poems by Charles Kains-Jackson (The Artist, May 1889), Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo), (The Art Review, 1, no. 4, April 1890) and S.S. Saale, (The Artist, September 1890) and this tendency to associate Tuke's naked youths with poetry was encouraged by the painter himself when he used a phrase from Swinburne's Sundew as the title for his second Chantrey picture, August Blue. This latter picture evoked its own panegyric in Alan Stanley's 'The Dawn Nocturne' (from Love Lyrics, 1894). Each of these verses plays up the homo-erotic content of Tuke's work.
Although he maintained a friendship with Kains-Jackson, conducted at a distance, Tuke resisted the opportunities for a closer liaison with Rolfe, who he met at the home of Gleeson White, the editor of The Studio (Wainright and Dinn, p. 81). Kestner quotes a number of other friends and associates, like John Addington Symonds, who were attracted to Tuke's work. Deeply influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, Symonds' poetry also brought an erotic charge to the equation between the modern white male body and the art of the Greeks. Symonds was a regular visitor to Tuke's studio, a promoter of the poetry of Walt Whitman, and, like Lowes Dickinson, a writer devoted to the Greek ideal. It was he who steered Tuke away from attempts to paint Greek history and myth. Through Symonds and Dickinson, Tuke was to be allied to the current trend towards neo-paganism in which physical and aesthetic pleasure were equated with religious experience - a line of 'decadent' thinking which drew its authority from a volatile mixture of quasi-scientific observation in physiology, psychology and 'sexology', derived from the writings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. We know that Tuke was conversant with Ellis's theories (Sainsbury, p. 98). Ellis, who for many years lived near Tuke at Lelant, was the leading and most prolific 'sexologist' of his day. His Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, 1894 (Walter Scott Publishing Ltd.), laced with the social prejudices of the day, attempted to underscore women, not only as the weaker sex, but also the one inferior in matters aesthetic. More explicitly Sexual Inversion, 1897 (Wilson and MacMillan) written with Symonds, gives an indepth examination of homosexuality, underscored by the profound sense that male beauty is to be preferred over female beauty and that Rolfe's Uranisme presented an acceptable set of male values with which to underpin the exercise of social control. Tuke's boys catching fish, engaged in an apparently innocent activity in Midsummer Morning, which The Times regarded as his most ambitious work for several years - are not only the carriers of an imperialist vision in which the Briton rules the waves, they refer to a hidden but persistent passion for the male sex.
Charles Kains-Jackson, however, when he wrote about Tuke's work for the mainstream Magazine of Art, toned down its sexual nuances, preferring to play up the painter's reliance on the literal. He had not lost hold of reality: beauty resided in nature rather than in imagination. Tuke was 'not a loving student of form and figure only; he is a born colourist, feeling the subjective mystery of colour almost as intensely as the objective reality of form' ('H.S. Tuke A.R.A.', The Magazine of Art, 1902, pp. 337-343). The links to the Physical Culture movement, and the need for national regeneration through exercise in a healthy, pure, sunlit setting were clear. 'Form' and 'colour' in Tuke were as much synonyms for these values, as they were in Augustus John or even in Matisse. Laura Knight, in her extraordinary, Daughters of the Sun, 1910, (fig. 3, destroyed) recast Tuke's men as voluptuous young women, also transposed to a Cornish cove. And in Midsummer Morning, these concealed beliefs, values and tendencies are washed and purified at the foot of the cliffs. Lowes Dickinson quotes no less than Plato to give them voice,
Surely then to him who has an eye to see, there can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of moral beauty in his soul with outward beauty of form, corresponding and harmonising with the former because the same great pattern enters into both.
We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this entry.