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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Tuke, Henry Scott (1858-1929)

Two men in rowing boat c.1923

RCIN 927433

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This small watercolour of two men in a rowing boat on calm water was created for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House by Henry Tuke. Tuke is best known today for his Impressionist paintings of nude young men fishing, sailing and swimming. Tuke spent the majority of his life in Falmouth, where he produced his paintings en plein air, using local youths as his models.

His work is remarkable for its sensual depictions of male bodies and he was embraced by a group of contemporary writers, such as John Addington Symonds and Fredrick Rolfe, who called themselves Uranians. This term was used in the nineteenth century to describe homosexuality – it was the belief that male same-sex desire was caused by a person having a female psyche in a male body. The Uranian writers adopted the term and used it more specifically to express the idea of love between an older man and a younger – an idea connected to Classical and Hellenic conventions, and highlighted in the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. It’s unclear whether Tuke identified as Uranian, but he maintained close friendships with Uranian writers and was involved in their world, writing for their journals. A poem attributed to Tuke mourns the loss of freedoms permitted in the classical world and encourages a ‘youth, standing sweet, triumphant by the sea’ to ‘take again thy rightful crown, in lovers hearts to reign!’

After his death Tuke’s work fell from favour, but was rediscovered in the 1970s by gay artists and collectors.