Object in Focus: Henry Scott Tuke’s Nude Study

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Posted 15th July 2021

Our Object in Focus blogs offer a detailed insight into specific artworks. In this post, we're focusing on Henry Scott Tuke's Nude Study (c. 1902s, Oil on Panel, Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Tuke Collection). 

Little is known about this small, nude study. Painted on a small wooden panel, this is the sort of rapid oil sketch that Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929) created on many occasions. As an artist committed to painting in the open air, Tuke worked quickly to capture the effects of sunlight on the exposed body of his nude male model. This study demonstrates the influence of French Impressionism on both his colour and technique, with the artist using confident, square brushstrokes to apply a vibrant mix of pigments. In the foreground, with just a few dots of pink and green paint, Tuke animates an otherwise monochrome rock face to suggest the presence of lichen and sea pinks.

Details of rocks

With long, slender limbs, the model’s body suggests not just a specific physical or racial type, but a regional one – a Falmouth body – that has been made lean by a life working on the boats in the bustling Cornish port. Throughout his career, Tuke preferred to source models from the people who lived and worked alongside him rather than professional models. Reddish pigment on the sitter’s face indicates a seafarer’s tan, suggesting that this model was perhaps one of the many local Cornish lads to join this avid artist-sailor not just as a model but as one of his crew. Tuke would often take his models out sailing in Falmouth harbour after a few hours of painting on the secluded beaches near his cliff-top Cornish home.

Detail of shoulder

A single dot of white paint on the model’s shoulder signals the warm touch of sunlight on skin. This is repeated lower down where a more drawn-out brushstroke it outlines the curve of the hip and top edge of the thigh. This sensory detail is key to identifying the otherwise unsigned study as the work of Henry Scott Tuke. As one journalist remarked, ‘Mr H S Tuke is a sunshine painter, one of the pioneers of that outdoor school which makes beach and boat, field and wood, its studio and its model’.

Tuke painted a much wider variety of subjects during the course of his career and yet today – as in his lifetime – he continues to be best known for these idiosyncratic studies of nude boys, male adolescents and young men boating, bathing and lounging about on Cornwall’s sunlit beaches.