Henry Scott Tuke was born in 1858 in York, England,to Quaker parents. From 1860-1874, until he was 16 years old, the family lived in Woodlane in Falmouth, where his father practised as a doctor. It was then that Tuke would have first seen ships going in and out of Falmouth Bay, which he drew frequently. In 1874 Tuke moved with his parents to London.
He was educated at the Slade School of Art, London, in 1875, under Alphonse Legros and Sir Edward Poynter. In 1877 he won a Slade scholarship and in 1880 travelled to Italy. He went on to study in Florence, where he made his first nude life drawings, an important revelation to him of light, colour and the human form. From 1881 to 1883 he was in Paris, where he studied with the French history painter Paul Laurens and met the American painter John Singer Sargent. He also met Jules Bastien-Lepage, who encouraged his studies en plein air. Admiring Bastien-Lepage’s practice of focusing different areas of a painting by degrees of finish, Tuke adopted this in his own mature work.
In 1883 Tuke returned to Cornwall to live in Newlyn, where he associated with artists such as T. C. Gotch and Stanhope Forbes, and was a founder-member of the Newlyn school. But it was Falmouth that he was to make his real home, and in 1885 he settled in a cottage on Pennance Point overlooking Falmouth Bay, because there he could combine his two great passions, painting and sailing, and he spent the rest of his life based there. His fascination with ships never left him and after completing his studies at the Slade in London and travelling abroad to France and Italy to study painting, it was inevitable that Tuke would return to both the subject and the place.
In 1886, Tuke purchased an old French brigantine, the Julie of Nantes, which was in a poor state and was in need of major renovation. He bought her for £41, approximately the price he got for a small painting at the time. He and his friends, Arthur Tanner, John Downing and Jim Diamond, stripped her lower decks and converted her into a floating studio for Tuke to paint from, and living quarters where he could pose his models and entertain his friends. It was to become the setting for many of his paintings including, Our Jack, 1886, Jack in the Rigging.
Early in his career, he produced narrative or anecdotal plein-air paintings of the life of the Cornish fishing community. In his most famous oil painting All Hands to the Pump! (1888-89), for example, seven figures aboard a sailboat on a violent, stormy sea exercise their strength and endurance to fight the elements. It is a typical example, showing his alertness to tensions and movements in the human body and his ability to combine classical compositional principles with naturalistic detail, while giving coherence by sensitive rendering of atmosphere.
In the late 1880s, Henry Scott Tuke became part of a circle of poets and writers who wrote about and discussed the beauty of male youth. Tuke’s paintings typically celebrate male beauty, as well as the artist’s lifelong love of the sea, swimming, and sailing. He also met Oscar Wilde in the 1880s and developed connections with the Uranian poets and writers who celebrated the adolescent male. He wrote a sonnet to youth that was published anonymously in the journal The Artist and also contributed an essay to The Studio, another journal that published Uranian verse and essays.
In 1892 Tuke travelled to Italy, Corfu and Albania; thereafter his palette lightened dramatically, and his technique gained a new Impressionistic freedom. The nude adolescent male emerged as his principal motif in such pictures as August Blue (1893-94). His admiration of James McNeill Whistler appears in the creation of mood at the expense of narrative and in his preference for evocative titles. An implicit homoerotic element caused some unease at the time. In several canvases from this period, Tuke attempts to situate his studies of male nudes within mythological contexts. Among them there is Cupid and Sea Nymphs (1898-99).
In 1886 Tuke was a founder-member of the New english art club and in 1900 he was elected an ARA. While attempting to discover in which settings to position his nudes, Tuke realized that he desired to examine the human form separate from any meaning-laden context. During the 1890s, he began to render nude figures without reference to mythological or narrative themes. This method particularly suited Tuke: his handling of paint became freer, and he began using bold, fresh color.
August Blue (1893-1894), one of the most famous paintings from this period, is a study of four nude youths bathing from a boat in crystal clear water under bright blue skies. The work conveys a sense of enjoyment, of the simple innocence of sunlight on flesh, sea, and sky. With August Blue, Tuke established a genre that celebrates male beauty and the seeming timelessness of youth. Tuke’s paintings of nude youths illustrate sensual, rather than sexual, feelings. They are not explicit either in the relationships they describe or in the details of the body.
He acquired a London studio where he spent the winters, usually working on portrait commissions. His work in this field was much admired, and he painted such notable figures as the cricketer W. G. Grace. Among his best known portraits is that of soldier and writer T. E. Lawrence. Although he was also an accomplished portraitist, most of his works depict young men who swim, dive, and lounge on a boat or on the beach.
The oil painting Noonday Heat (1903), for example, presents two youths who, relaxing on the beach, are completely engrossed in their own private world. They look at one another, perhaps engaged in conversation. Since neither of them addresses the viewer, their relationship seems intimate, exclusive, and ambiguous. Similarly, the watercolor Two Boys on a Beach (1909) captures a close, intense relationship. In this work, the absence of a horizon heightens the feeling of intimacy.
Tuke only rarely painted the genitals of his models, thereby de-emphasizing a sexual reading of his works. The artist generally arranged his models so that anatomical details are concealed. In frontal views, shadows or draped pieces of clothing obscure the genitals. Tuke’s de-emphasis of the sexual may explain why his work, and his close friendships with many of his models, created no scandals.
An accomplished watercolorists, in 1911 he became a member of the Royal Watercolor Society. He also worked in pastels and executed a single sculpture, The Watcher, of which five bronze casts were made.
Henry Scott Tuke worked outside the mainstream of his contemporaries. During a time when smooth, concealed brushstrokes were in vogue, Tuke favored rough, visible brushstrokes. He excelled at combining this type of brushstroke with color to produce unusual lighting effects that stall the viewer’s eye on the nude male body.
Tuke also moved away from the popular historical and mythological scenes, indeed from any type of narration, and studied everyday life as a worthy subject matter. He was well known for his society portraits and his paintings of the male nude but a major element in Tuke’s work was his devotion to the sailing ship. There is a poignancy in the fact that the working ship in sail just survived the length of his life.
He was made an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1900, and a full member in 1914. A special celebration dinner was held in the Society’s building to honour him. His painting style and subject-matter remained substantially unchanged: Aquamarine (1928), probably his last easel painting, closely resembles the earlier Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1901).
In later pictures, however, the models are no longer portraits, but interchange heads and bodies as vehicles of Tuke’s vision. Impersonality and detachment combined with sincere commitment to subject and atmosphere characterize his mature style and challenged artistic expectations of the time, broadening the parameters of British plein-air painting.
In 1923 Tuke visited Jamaica and Central America, producing some fine watercolours. Penetrating the interior of Belize, however, he became ill and was forced to return home. He never fully recovered his health, although his passion for travel remained undiminished. After a long illness, Tuke died at Falmouth in 1929, and is buried in Falmouth Cemetery. His work can be seen in public collections throughout Britain, including Falmouth, Plymouth, Truro, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham and London. Many Tuke originals are now owned by Sir Elton John.Google+