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1912 Henry Scott Tuke and the Erotics of Display

In this short film, Clare Barlow, the curator of Queer British Art (an exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2017), discusses the contexts surrounding the making and reception of Low Tide and Sunbather, two works that Henry Scott Tuke displayed at the Summer Exhibition in 1912. Looking closely at these submissions, and drawing on archival material, Barlow examines the ways in which Tuke’s paintings of naked young men from fishing communities in Cornwall, where he lived and worked, were received in the grand galleries of Burlington House and how we can interpret them now.

Barlow places these paintings and their subject matter of youthful male bodies within the wider group of “Uranian” writers, poets, and artists in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The Uranians drew on an idealised version of Ancient Greece to shape a vision of the infatuation of older men with adolescent boys. Tuke was exhibiting this subject matter at the Royal Academy from 1889 onwards, encouraged by supporters such as Charles Kains Jackson, who was the Editor of the queer monthly The Artist and Journal of Home Culture (1888–1894), so these paintings would not likely have come as a surprise to early twentieth-century audiences. However, the cultural context had certainly shifted between 1889 and 1912, particularly given the widespread and sensational coverage of Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895 for “indecency” related to his homosexual activities which were then illegal (and remained so until 1967 in the UK). This gave a very different tone to discussions about the visual representation of youthful male bodies, especially nude ones. The moral climate had changed dramatically and the debate about the erotics of looking was a matter of public debate.

Figure 1

Jonathan Law, 1912: Henry Scott Tuke and the Erotics of Display, film, 14 minutes 48 seconds. Courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Creative Commons CC BY-NC International 4.0)

Explore the 1912 catalogue

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Explore the 1912 catalogue