The Promise

WAG 675


‘The Promise’ was painted ‘en plein air’ (or outdoors) at an orchard in Penmere, near Falmouth, where Tuke lived. The awkward composition of the work, which cuts the two figures off at their waist, may reveal the influence of Impressionist ideas on Tuke. The subject is unusual for the artist. The sentimental scene is traditionally read as a celebration of young love. Tuke, a founding member of the New English Art Club, typically resisted populist subjects such as this one. Whatever inspired Tuke to make this work, he was very fond of it, later recalling; ‘‘there is one painting here, however, that interests me more than many I have done. I have called it "The Promise". It is a very simple little scene, and I have left the sea behind me, for a wonder, and gone inland.” Tuke trained at the Slade School of Art in London but later lived in Italy and Paris. He was influenced there by the work of the Impressionists. He moved to Newlyn, Cornwall in 1883 when he returned to England. His paintings recorded the day-to-day life of local fishing villages from then on. His work began to focus more on the local fishermen from 1885 and they were frequently shown partially dressed or nude. Tuke’s work has traditionally been considered part of the broader history of ‘marine painting’, with a particular focus on working class life by the sea. The nude works, acknowledged to be homoerotic, have typically been considered separately. Professor Jongwoo Jeremy Kim has argued for a re-examination of all Tuke’s paintings based on his association with the Uranian poets. The Uranian poets were a group of male writers united by their sexuality and specifically their admiration for the adolescent male form. They wrote approvingly of the Ancient Greek practice of pederasty (a socially accepted erotic relationship between an adult male and adolescent male) and about their desires in their work. The movement was short-lived and forced underground by the prosecution and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for sodomy. Tuke is acknowledged as the author of several Uranian poems. In one he wrote, ‘Youth, make one conquest more; and take again / Thy rightful crown, in lovers’ hearts to reign!’ Kim argues that ‘paintings of fishermen, postal workers and other workers were central to Tuke’s efforts to bring Greek homoeroticism to his modern time…[through his paintings] Tuke was able to reintroduce the lost tradition of homoerotic adoration of youths in to the fabric of working-class reality.’ The male model for ‘The Promise’ is Jack Rollings, a local fisherman, who was Tuke’s most frequently used model at this time. He appears in a series of paintings including conventional portraits and studies of him at work. The affectionately titled ‘Our Jack’ (made in 1886, in the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society collection) suggests intimacy between the pair. He appears here with a female companion, clasping her hand and looking toward her. It is unclear what has been promised and by whom in the painting but Jack is the focus of the composition. The painting is a celebration of his youthful beauty, his uncertain and ambiguous expression placed at the centre of the painting.