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September 03, 2010

Christie Davies wonders why Sargant reminds him of Henry Scott Tuke: Sargent and the Sea at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Sargent and the Sea
Royal Academy, London
10 July - 26 September 2010
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Sargent and the Sea is mainly concerned with the artist's work in 1874-9 when he was still learning his trade. It is the juvenilia of the man who went on to become among the greatest painters of the canals and lagoons of Venice, a man who in his maturity really knew now to handle water. Yet if it were not for his later skill and fame, no-one would ever have bothered to organise this assemblage of rather mediocre paintings at the Royal Academy. It is purely of historical interest, telling us of Sargent's early life and of the artists he admired, notably Whistler. There are only a few pictures on show that one would wish to go and see for their sheer aesthetic appeal.

In his early years Sargent travelled to the coasts of Normandy and Brittany and to the shores of the Mediterranean with his wandering parents and his work from this time shows a fascination with the sea, though no real mastery of how to depict it. He was learning but he had not yet learned. In 1876 he went to America for the first time across a turbulent Atlantic which made him realise that the sea has power and ferocity as well as the quiet charm of the seaside.

The curators speak of the influence of Turner on him but Turner he ain't. Sargent may well have admired Turner but he was quite unable to emulate him. The cellars of minor English provincial galleries probably contain many Victorian seascapes of equal quality to those in this exhibition but fortunately we are very rarely able to see them.

There are two splendid exceptions to such a condemnation.

On the Sands, 1877, and Wharf Scene, 1879, that already indicate the talent that would in time mature into genius. On the Sands is just that, a great expanse of shining white sand reaching out to distant bathing machines. It is broken only by a mere impression of two figures in the wind, a girl in white in the foreground and a brightly dressed and darkly parasoled woman in the distance. Sargent knew exactly where to place them; they are unimportant except to break up the bright flatness of the sand.

Wharf Scene, 1879, in grisaille indicates how black and white are merely the end of a very varied spectrum of greys and what can be achieved within that single dimension.

Sargent left the sea and became an assembly line portrait painter of the rich and fashionable and would be celebrated. In some respects he joined their ranks, for in a good year he could have cleared a million pounds (2010 money) and he always painted in a fine bespoke suit; presumably if it got smudged with a bit of flake white, he could afford to donate it to his valet or his butler.

Then in 1884 Sargent had the unpleasant experience of having to go to Sheffield, where unquiet flows the Don. He went there to paint the members of the Vickers family, entrepreneurs who had made a lot of brass out of steel and were to make a lot more from armaments. They were the British equivalent of Germany's Krupp. While at their home in Bloomer Hall, Sheffield Sargent painted his famous appalling portrait of three bright-eyed and bushy tailed sisters, The Misses Vickers , 1884, which the French called "pseudo-Velasquez" and which when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 was voted the "worst picture of the year". Not surprisingly it has remained in Sheffield where it belongs.

However, the kindly Mrs Vickers arranged for him to visit Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, the home of Dracula. As a result of this visit, Sargent produced one of the finest works in the exhibition Whitby Fishing Boats, 1885. We are led in a clear but subdued light from sand, to tide, to sea, to cloud between two exactly placed asymmetrical clusters of hard dark sails. He presented the picture to Mrs Vickers, the mother of the Misses, presumably as compensation for the failure of his ill-arranged, falsely pretty portrait of her three squirrels.

Whitby Fishing Boats is a clear precursor of Venice, Sailing Boat, 1903, in which our eye is guided through the gap between bulky dark quay and square sailed sailing boat in the foreground to a distant ethereal church across the water that floats almost in the air. Sargent had entered his great Venetian decade but that is another story.

In the exhibition Sargent's representations of naked boys on the beaches of Naples and Capri and his Two Nude Bathers Standing on a Wharf, 1879, remind us of the other reason he loved Venice. It was a place where gay men from England and Germany could go to pick up boys without fear of arrest or social disgrace.

You suddenly realise how much Sargent's perceptions have in common with those of Henry Scott Tuke, R.A. who painted naked, splashing Cornish lads for the gay market; Tukes are now once again selling well in that market and prices have risen. Gay readers looking for an art investment should consider a good Tuke.

Tuke was a friend of Sargent's and of the pederasts Charles Masson-Fox and Baron Corvo who had strong Venetian connections. It is difficult to believe that Sargent, who was also close to Oscar Wilde and to the man who was the original for Proust's Charlus, was not involved with this little Venetian coterie. Such a supposition helps to explain both the male nudes that Sargent did exhibit and the near-pornographic ones that he did not. Why does it matter you may ask? It matters because - like his fellow Capri artist, Christian Wilhelm Allers - Sargent has the gaze of the gays.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2006.


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The first thought that I get, reading this article and looking at the paintings, is how much we owe artists (and now photographers) in our general ability to see the world the way we do. I've just been watching The One Show, with an item on John Mackenzie Bacon, who brought aerial photography to Britain. But more to the point, I have in mind Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446), who brought perspective into art.

Moving on to the nude boys, this makes me shudder. Near the end of my years at primary school, we warned not to read Eric, or Little by Little. Now I have never read this book, but doing a bit of a web search, I find the following:

Certainly Farrar's concern for sexual morality seems to have arisen from the state of affairs --- in every sense of the word --- which he found at Harrow. A boy who was there in the 1850s, when Eric was being written, recorded in his memoirs 'Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow's bitch.' 'Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to a lover.' The whole situation was given a dubious legitimacy by the fact that the headmaster himself was having an affair with one of the boys.

(It is my opinion that the Sodomites were like those schoolboys, rather than genuine homosexuals.)

Now many people decry the Chimpanzees, and prefer the Bonobos, whose slogan seems to be "Make Love not War." But sexuality can be, methinks, a vehicle of aggression. Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist, said, in an interview with New Scientist, something like:

Female bonobos who do not participate in mutual genital rubbing may be excluded from the communal food sharing.

Now we don’t want that sort if thing in our playgrounds, do we? That is, unless we’re followers of Béla Kun.

Mind you, I'm not arguing for the chimps either. Within my lifetime, I have heard of mobs hunting down members of minorities to rape and kill, which reminds me of chimpanzees hunting colobus monkeys.

Posted by: The Irish Neanderthal at September 22, 2010 08:49 PM
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