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Glimpses of Desire: The Queer Artistry and Controversial Legacy of Henry Scott Tuke

Vaishnavi Srivastava

“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. Because however much you may work indoors afterwards, whatever you add is with the outdoor impression upon you.”

– Henry Scott Tuke

Known for his notable contributions to queer art history, Henry Scott Tuke was born on this day, June 12th, 1858. Hanging out with the likes of Oscar Wilde at the peak of anti-sodomy when the conservative government went for the lives of queer folks, Tuke depicted portraits and paintings displaying the sexualities of young men. The paintings by Tuke gained particular fame in the 70s in the queer circles of artists. He is known for his impressionist style of painting. Featured in Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art”, the artist was the founding member of the 1886 New English Art Club wherein the display of his paintings even caused one of the investors to withdraw their deposit.  However, in the present day and age, the viewing of his paintings has been part of the debate about portraying adolescent boys in the nude.

Noonday Heat by Tuke.
Courtesy: Art UK

Studied from the Slade School under the influence of Alphonse Legros and Edward Pynter, Henry Scott Tuke has had his artworks displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts after building close relations with the Newlyn School of painters including the likes of Walter Langly, Harold Harvey and Norman Garstin. Being a part of the Newlyn School of Painters, in the town of Newlyn which is a fishing village, naturally, Tuke drew inspiration from the atmosphere. This environment led him to predominantly paint young men in the setting of fisherman. The brightening hues of the skin of the men capture the softness of the skin. It was Jules Bastein-Lepage who encouraged the painter to “en plein air” or “paint outside”, which had an enormous effect on the techniques of Tuke as a painter and in his depictions of natural lighting.

Later in his life, in the 1880s, Tuke developed relations with the likes of Oscar Wilde and several other eminent writers who later classified themselves as Uranians. The term ‘Uranians’ refers to a man who believes himself to have a female psyche, the definition of which eventually merged with homosexuality. They believed in re-introducing the man-manly love of the Hellenic tradition. This tradition allowed the Uranians to explore homosexuality along with the classical imagery for instance in his work, “Ruby, Gold and Malachite”, Tuke symbolically depicted the Greek god Hermes. Even in his other works, Tuke was known to replace the faces of his models with that of Greek gods.

Ruby, Gold, and Malachite by Tuke.
Courtesy Art UK

Tuke’s works are even said to generate voyeuristic pleasure which in hindsight is looked upon as a perverted lens to view the paintings. This is why in the present setting and ideologies, the paintings by Tuke generate a divided opinion especially pertaining to that of the gay male gaze. Tuke passed away in 1929, at the age of 70, and his artworks faded up until the 70s when his very evident homoerotic themes made him into a cult figure of the period. Admired by the likes of Freddy Mercury and Elton John, Tuke’s painting made a significant impact on the queer art history of Great Britain. 




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