This fresh, impressionistic painting of bathing boys executed on Newporth beach, near Falmouth, is a very typical example of work from Tuke’s late career in the 1920s. Continuing on the theme that had so pre-occupied him before the outbreak of the First World War, Tuke has captured the dazzling light of a Cornish summer's day reflecting on the surface of the sea and the skin of the nude boy scrambling over the rocks. Painting en plein air, Tuke would set up an easel on the beaches around Falmouth, or take a canvas out in a dinghy onto the water in order to capture the transient light and atmosphere of the scene before him.
The picture is simply listed in Tuke’s register of paintings as Small Bathing Picture underneath Picture of Gray, depicting a soldier on Newporth beach, in the process of removing his uniform in order to join his companion in the water. The register lists R.F.C. Scott as the purchaser of both works for 25 guineas, and in the margin notes 'When R.F.C. Scott died "Gray" bought these two at the sale of his effects for a fiver!' Scott is believed to be Sydney Lomer (1880-1926) a former soldier in the First Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who published poetry under the name Sydney Oswald, and who was one of Tuke's patrons. The reference to "Gray" is even more intriguing. The portrait of the cadet on the beach is thought to have originally been painted in 1921 as one of a series of sketches for Morning Splendour, 1921 (Private Collection). However the face of the soldier, seen in profile, appears to have been altered to that of T. E. Lawrence, 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1888-1935) in June 1922, supposedly to represent Lawrence's youthful fantasy of running away from home to join the Royal Garrison Artillery. After Lomer's death in 1926 the two pictures were either given to or purchased by Lawrence.
Portrait of Gray now hangs in Clouds Hill, the former home of T. E. Lawrence. However, he later gave Boys Bathing to Clare Sydney Smith, the wife of his commanding officer while he served in the Seaward Division of R.A.F. Mountbatten in Plymouth from 1925 to 1931 under the assumed name of T. E. Shaw. During this period Lawrence and Clare Sydney Smith spent a lot of time together exploring the Tamar estuary in her small power boat, and Smith later went on to write a memoir 'The Golden Reign’ – The Story of my friendship with ‘Lawrence of Arabia', London, 1940.
T. E. Lawrence wrote to his biographers on 2 July 1922 that he had ‘just come back from Cornwall'. It must have been on this visit that Tuke painted Lawrence's head on Portrait of Gray and perhaps Lawrence also posed for the standing nude in Boys bathing. Although difficult to prove for certain, intriguingly the painting is reproduced in Smith’s memoir with the caption A Painting of T. E. S. by H. S. Tuke R.A.
We are grateful to Catherine Wallace for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.