Falmouth Art Gallery shows an exhibition of work by Henry Scott TukeImages courtesy of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Tuke Collection.

Henry Scott Tuke: The Fisherman; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-fisherman-46757

In 1894, the first Falmouth Art Gallery opened in Grove Place under the directorship of artists Henry Scott Tuke and William Ayerst Ingram. Now based in the Municipal Buildings, the gallery in its present form pays tribute to one of its founding fathers.

An exhibition of work by Henry Scott Tuke explores the complexities that surround the life and art of the British painter, famed for his depictions of sun, sea, bathing and especially for his prolific depiction of nude boys and youths bathing on Cornish seashores.

Henry Scott Tuke, a touring exhibition from Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, explores how, both as an artist and an individual, Tuke navigated the shifting social, artistic and sexual dynamics of lateVictorian and Edwardian Britain. Tuke and his art simultaneously raise questions about how we might depict, view and discuss the body in the 21st century.

The exhibition features key works from the artist’s early years, which were spent studying at the Slade School of Art before travelling in Italy and France. It was during this seminal phase of Tuke’s early career that he first encountered the practice of painting en plein air. The critic Abraham Cooper would later write: “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.”

On his return to Britain in the 1880s, like many of his generation, Tuke was drawn to Cornwall. He initially worked at Newlyn while the emerging artists’ colony was still in its infancy, building a reputation with sombre-coloured, increasingly large-scale scenes of Cornish seafaring life. Finding the increasingly competitive atmosphere at Newlyn claustrophobic, in 1885 Tuke moved to Falmouth. An avid sailor, he acquired an ever-expanding fleet of small boats, which he used for leisure, racing, fishing and painting. Tuke even converted an old French brigantine, Julie of Nantes, into a colossal 60-foot floating studio; it was aboard this ship that he painted his most ambitious seafaring scenes, including All Hands to the Pumps! This was hailed as the artist’s ‘strongest work’ when exhibited at the Royal Academy’s 1889 exhibition.

Nude Study by Henry Scott Tuke

From the 1890s onwards,Tuke devoted much of his time to the study of the male nude, driven by a desire to capture the chromatic effects of sunlight on skin. Today – as in his lifetime – Tuke is best known for these idiosyncratic depictions of nude male youths swimming, messing about in boats and sunbathing on Cornish beaches. The exhibition explores the significant role that Tuke played in the resurgence of the male nude in British art of the period, while also considering the ways in which his paintings have prompted a complex range of responses and interpretations, from the pastoral to the erotic.

As a close associate of Uranian poets and writers such as Charles Kains-Jackson, Tuke and his nudes were simultaneously embedded within the group’s homoerotic interests, distinguished by a preference for youthful male beauty that remains troubling today. The exhibition and its accompanying programme invite visitors to consider how these works provoke challenging questions about how we look at and display the body –particularly the young body – today.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Cicely Robinson, editor of a new collection of essays on the artist. “Tuke was, and continues to be, an intriguing artistic anomaly,” she says. “In drawing together a unique synthesis of establishment and avant-garde influences, he infused his paintings with a distinctive aesthetic that continues to make them instantly recognisable today. Featuring a varied collection of rarely exhibited art and archival content, this exhibition explores the full breadth of Tuke’s career in order to begin to unpick the complexities that surround the life, art and reputation of the so-called ‘sunshine painter’.”

Falmouth Art Gallery holds a collection over 3,000 artworks that belong to the town, the core of which dates from 1923, with gifts made by the South African art benefactor Alfred Aaron de Pass (1861-1952) that include Study for The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse and other names many people are surprised to find in Falmouth. The gallery is a service of Falmouth Town Council and in 2016 became part of its Falmouth CulturalServices.The Fal Culture Team works together to run the council’s cultural venues and uses them to share knowledge, celebrate heritage and promote creativity and wellbeing through activities and events for the community.

Henry Scott Tuke, showing now until November 20 at Falmouth Art Gallery. Open Monday to Friday,10am to 4pm, and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Free entry. www.falmouthartgallery.com