By the turn of the twentieth century the period of heroic naturalism was over, and artists formerly associated with the Newlyn School had established new aesthetic priorities. Thomas Cooper Gotch, for instance had taken up Italianate subject matter, while Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes had immersed herself in medieval romance. The leader of the school, Stanhope Forbes, remained true to its original ideals, but his style had become rhetorical and his depiction of the Cornish fisherman now carried other subtle messages relating to national pride and maritime prowess. Henry Scott Tuke, of the original Newlyn adherents, had always preserved his distance from Forbes. After moving to Falmouth he had the good fortune to have two works purchased for the national collection under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. The first of these, All Hands to the Pumps, 1889 (Tate Britain) is a vividly naturalistic rendering of a ship's crew in a storm-tossed vessel. The second, August Blue, 1893 (Tate Britain), a picture of naked boys bathing, led Tuke in the direction of further experiments with classicism which were not regarded as successful as the indolent, hedonism of The Sun Worshipper, 1904 (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin), a celebration of the healthy young male body.
As he was fêted by the Uranian sect, Tuke was anxious not to be typecast. In Return from Fishing, for instance, he revisits the subject matter of his youth, without its naturalist overtones. The picture depicts Isa Watson, described by Wainwright and Dinn as 'his only successful female model', a professional from Shepherd's Bush who spent two months in Cornwall in the summer of 1905, posing for The Pearl, (unlocated), Tuke's main Academy exhibit of the following year. He persuaded her back for a second summer, in 1906, when Return from Fishing was painted. The young men are Harold Robinson, sitting on the edge of the boat, and Charlie Mitchell, carrying the sail. Mitchell was one of Tuke's favourite models, who appeared in most of the major works of the period, including Midsummer Morning, 1907 (R.A. 1908, sold Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 23, private collection). He accompanied the painter when he was invited to Shillinglee Park, Sussex, the temporary home of Ranjitsinghi, Jam Sahib of Jawanagar, whose full-length ceremonial portrait, Tuke was commissioned to paint. Ranji, an Anglophile cricket enthusiast, was a poor model and Mitchell was obliged to pose for the body section of the portrait, which was later shown at the Academy of 1909. At the same time, Ranji acquired four pictures by Tuke, including the present work.
Return from Fishing marks Tuke's reappraisal of 'unloading the catch', a popular subject for earlier generations. In this regard it is interesting to compare the painting with Forbes' thesis picture, A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach, 1885 (fig. 1; Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery). A beached rowing boat appears in the foreground of both pictures and the catch is laid out on the shore. In both, the fleet is moored offshore and is being unloaded by rowing boats. A number of watercolour studies of anchored fishing fleets, their sails lowered, were painted around this time, of which Fishing Boats at Anchor, 1901 (formerly Pyms Gallery, London) is a typical example. The differences are, however, as important as the similarities. In Forbes' picture the central group comprises a grey-bearded fisherman and two women who discuss the catch within ear-shot of the fish-sale. In this case, the few fish are ignored, while a lad engages the attention of a fishergirl as his companion carries away two masts and a sail. The grey tonalities and 'square' brush work of the Forbes, consonant with Tuke's own early work, have given way to a richer palette and a more spontaneous touch.
This was in accord with the new approach to plein air painting after the absorption of French Impressionism. Discussing his work in 1905, the year of the great Durand-Ruel Impressionist exhibition in London, Marion Hepworth Dixon equated Tuke's 'gospel of plein air' with 'the gospel of joyous well-being'. 'The healthy mind in the healthy body is a motto which is writ large on every canvas to which the artist has put his hand', she wrote (M. Hepworth Dixon, 'A Painter of Summer', Ladies' Realm, 18, May-October 1905, p. 591). In this context, Return from Fishing may contain other important messages. Tuke had, in works like Idyll of the Sea, (R.A. 1898, untraced) depicted a boy and girl in drab peasant clothes, line-fishing from a rowing boat in Falmouth Harbour. Other canvases showed two boys similarly engaged. At the same time, in The Run Home, 1901-02, (Royal Institution of Cornwall, Museum and Art Gallery, Truro) and Sailors Yarning (The Mid-Day Rest), 1905 (private collection) he had painted boys in newly-fashionable yachting clothes of blue and white. The contrast of costumes in Return from Fishing, is as noteworthy as the fact that Mitchell carries a white sail - not one the drab red ochre canvases used by the fleet. Falmouth's economy was changing and its fishermen might earn a day's wage crewing for holiday-makers. Here the two activities are conflated and it may indeed be the case that Charlie, carrying his sail, indicates the modernity which was impinging increasingly upon the life of coastal communities in Cornwall.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.