Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1912: Henry Scott Tuke and the Erotics of Display

The 1912 year wasn’t actually considered
to be a vintage year for the Royal Academy. In fact, one commentator
said that the Royal Academy has nothing especially good
or strikingly bad to show this year. The pictures, as a whole, neither rising above nor sinking below the standard
presented by the phrase “fair average”. Nonetheless I think Tuke’s very
naturalistic depictions do stand out. There is a kind of liveness
to works like Low Tide. There is a kind of soft naturalism
that they bring amongst stiff portraits of men in wigs and formal historical scenes and I think it’s that kind of light and grace that really attracts
Tuke’s audience to his works. You can see these paintings
as just incredibly beautiful depictions of innocent adolescents
frolicking in the water and you can read it
as being no more than that but I think we can see it through another lens. That lens comes partly from Tuke’s circle
amongst the Uranian writers. The word Uranianism has moved from being used just to talk about same sex desire and all of its manifestations
to being very closely connected to this idea of a love between
an older man and a younger which is of course connected to Plato and the idea of guiding
younger men in its purest form but it does also have an erotic component. The Uranian writers go off
in lots of different directions in terms of how erotic their work is. Michael Hatt cites Reverend E. E. Bradford
whose poems seem quite suspicious today but which, at the time, were described as being cheery and wholesome in the time. There’s a huge disconnect in terms of how we might read them but how they might be read at the time. Within Uranianism, you’ve got people
like Charles Kains Jackson who’s advocating in the pages
of the artist the New Chivalry. Kains Jackson gives the memorable example that if you have a plain girl
and an attractive youth obviously you would prefer the youth. If you have a beautiful girl and a plain youth you’d prefer the girl. If a girl and the youth are of an equivalent beauty or plainness you’d prefer the boy because with a boy’s beauty comes the opportunity to shape a higher mind. There’s a real pedagogic element within that but also of course, an erotic element. Yet it’s most explicit. You’ve got people like
Fredrick Rolfe who’s writing back letters to his friends describing his erotic encounters and his sexual encounters with Venetian youths while he’s in Venice. There’s some quite concrete evidence that the eroticism of Uranianism did find sexual manifestation for at least, some members of the circle. Tuke is connected
with the Uranians, they are his patrons they are his friends,
he’s friends with Kains Jackson. Actually when
Fredrick Rolfe is writing back from Venice he says,
“Tuke should come to Venice” “because there’s absolutely
nobody out on the lagoon” “painting these beautiful
Venetian youths as they sail about.” He’s very connected in to the circle and I think that raises the question
about Tuke’s own sexuality and this is something which art historians have come at from lots of different angles. Some have said,
“Absolutely not, there’s no evidence.” “We don’t have any incriminating documents.” Others have drawn attention
to the eroticism of the work and I think that that’s the important thing. It’s incredibly rare to find a letter that says “You and me last night in the shrubbery” “this is what we did, this is how I feel about it
and this is how I now feel about myself.” We don’t get that kind of evidence
from same sex relationships. We don’t actually get that kind of evidence very much from heterosexual relationships. What we get instead
is lots of discussion about eroticism lots of discussion about beauty
lots of discussion about love. I think that regardless of whether or not Tuke
had sexual relations with his models we can certainly talk about
the erotic elements within his work the ways that works like August Blue for example, provoke poems from other
Uranians responding to the sunlight responding to the flesh
if a work is very much situated within these circles but even at the time
that’s not visible to everyone. It’s interesting
that Simeon Solomon who’s often taken to be the kind of err artist for same-sex desire
also exhibits the Royal Academy. The academy isn’t this closed off space it isn’t the space
in which these artists are excluded. What is it about the work that
is suggestive of this erotic context? This is most clearly seen
in works like Low Tide which is one of the works
from the 1912 exhibition. Here, we have a youth standing
with his back to us entirely naked on a boat. There is a boy in the water
who’s swimming towards us with his back to the boy on the boat and there is another boy hanging of the end
of the boat looking up at the oarsman. This is quite usual
in terms of Tuke’s compositions. What’s really striking
is that it’s a sociable scene. This is not just a single couple in the water but there is this exchange of gazes
between the different figures. The fact that the boy in the water
is swimming towards us with his back to the scene
just heightens the kind of privacy of that shared moment between the two youths
who are looking at each other. Also common in Tuke’s work is the fact
there is no touching going on. This is all about the pleasures of looking of glancing, of a sort of erotic gaze
there’s a real circle of looks sometimes, between the different
figures in his scenes. It’s that kind of balance between
the suggestion and the possibilities but also the lack of certainty. This is sexual tension
but it’s unresolved within the painting that I think, is what really appeal
to the Uranians. Uranian eroticism is really predicated
on the purity of the individuals. These are golden, wholesome, rustic youths. It’s really important
I think, that they are rustic. Tuke very famously talks
about how he uses his models the boys who he finds around Falmouth rather than using
professional models from London. There’s a real dichotomy here
between urban and rural between this kind of pure masculinity that can exist in this rural utopia
and on the other hand the kind of corrupting masculinity of a town. The corrupting masculinity of a town is something which has
come into the public gaze with things like
the Cleveland street scandal which involved a lot
of telegraph boys and brothels and really kind of
the seedy underbelly of urban life. Tuke’s scenes are
a million miles away from that. Instead it’s this kind
of Utopian netherwhere where you can imagine yourself as
one of the figures swimming with these boys exchanging these casual glances with them. It’s quite hard for us to grasp this idea that it is the purity of it
that is what makes it erotic. It’s very tempting for us to want
to separate out the pure and the unpure. To either see Tuke and his models as locked into
an incredibly uneven power relationship which may indeed have been the case or to see it as,
“Well, there’s absolutely nothing going on” “this is entirely innocent.” “It’s only a corrupt mind
that is going to read eroticism into this.” That is the hinge on
which Tuke’s paintings turn the hidden and the unhidden what you can imagine and what you can see. The erotic act is very much
taking place in the mind it’s not something which
is explicitly expressed in the painting. There’s aspects
of the painting that appeal very much to audiences of Tuke’s time
that sort of Victorian approach to the body where
yes, there’re acts and as soon as eroticism is expressed in acts
and you can legislate against it but outside the black
and white world of the law there’s a lot of different thoughts
and feelings that can be explored. You could see a parallel
where the photographs of Von Gloeden who is living in Sicily
with a lot of boys, adolescents. He pays them to model for him and drapes them
to recreate scenes of a classical nature. He also pays them for sex and it’s a very clearly
exploitative parallel relationship. What I find really interesting about Tuke is that whereas von Gloeden
falls into this very much the kind of full lips, sultry eyes
the sort of very sensualized Hellenism. It’s all like Greek eroticism
and an exoticism or Greco-Roman exoticism. Tuke is trying to present something
which is a lot more British. It’s a lot more tied up in this idea
of a free, and frank masculinity. It’s about sunlight, and fishing, and boating and I think that that gives
his paintings a very different dynamic. Even when Tuke is depicting solitary
figures like the Sun Bather which is also exhibited in the 1912 show
there’s still the note of sociability. The Bather is slightly turned towards us and there’s a lot of sort of play on his muscles. We can see that this is
a really strong and robust figure for somebody for whom these scenes
do not carry that erotic charge who hasn’t perhaps read
the artist or read Uranian poetry. You can see these youths
as the kind of strapping lads who are going to go forth
and build empire internationally. I think connected to that it’s really interesting the dynamics
of class and race in Tuke’s work. Michael Hatt’s written
very elegantly about this. These are youths
and they are working class youths but they are very much removed from labor. This is not the shrunken figures
associated with urban factory work. In terms of race, the play of light
on the whiteness of their skin is a common trope in the painting. There’s a strong message here
about what Tuke maybe perceives as being Britishness and I think that really
underpins some of these depictions. What’s striking for me is also the last
phase of this Uranian eroticism. It’s something which has really
flourished in the late 19th century but Tuke is, for me, one of the last voices in that. Of course, in 1912
it’s only another couple of years before the first world war
is going to come along and a lot of these golden youths
are going to meet an untimely death on the battlefields. I think that also colors
how we might see the painting and I think it also ties it
into that golden moment which really has
a very profound effect on British nostalgia for these first decades of the 20th century. July Sun depicts one of Tuke’s models. He was, in fact, killed
and Tuke gave the painting to the Royal Academy after his death. There is a poignancy
to some of these relationships. However, no matter how much we may want
to view these paintings nostalgically I think we actually
do Tuke a disservice by failing to appreciate the craftsmanship
that he puts into these erotic effects. The curve of the buttocks
the sunlight on the shoulders. These are all things which have
been carefully thought through in terms of the composition of his works. I think what is interesting for me, is the sense that there’s all sorts
of different audiences at any one time than different audiences are
reading different things in the paintings. I think most of the people
who attend the Royal Academy are not necessarily thinking in these terms. Audiences now are, of course
seeing different things in the paintings where audiences at the time picked up on. There’s this kind of reception history
that surrounds these works which is really interesting.

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