Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Tuke Spirit

"Our Jack" (1886), by Henry Scott Tuke

I don’t often find myself watching the Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday evening. Of course, like most other people in the country I know what it is and what happens on it, and its theme tune echoes in the memory along with the others of the trinity of Sunday evening television that you never watched but somehow were always aware of – Songs of Praise and Last of the Summer Wine.

It’s not generally for me, although it’s always rather nice to catch a few minutes of it every few years and be comforted to know that it’s still there. It still exists.

However, this past weekend I was back home in Sussex, for the wedding of my friend Lauren at St Nicholas Church in Brighton on Saturday. A good time was had by all, I caught up with several old friends and – as always, when I visit Sussex – I ended up with the nagging, gnawing feeling that I really ought to be living there. I often arrive back in Norwich feeling melancholy about life, until I remember that I am lucky enough to have one of the best jobs in the world. I intend to cling on to my work at the BBC for as long as I can, and there’s no point in moving down to Brighton or Worthing to spend every weekday doing a job I hate, clock-watching my life away for evenings and weekends.

There will be time enough to return to Sussex in the years and decades to come – when the BBC has had enough of me, perhaps.

Anyway, the Antiques Roadshow. I ended up watching a few minutes of it on Sunday evening while staying at mum and dad’s house (hard not to think of it still as “home”). They watch and enjoy the programme every week, and I joined them briefly while scoffing some apple pie and cream. This week’s had been recorded in Falmouth, and someone from the local university campus brought along three paintings the institution owns by locally-renowned artist Henry Scott Tuke.

I’d never previously heard of Tuke, but this is hardly surprising as I know next to nothing about art. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that an academic institution would almost certainly already know how much these paintings were worth given they would have had them valued for insurance purposes, and also leaving aside what suspicions we might have about a grown man doing so many paintings of naked teenagers, I was struck by one particular thing when they showed a close-up of Tuke’s painting “Our Jack”.

Do you think he knew it was good?

It seems a strange question. I have long been jealous of painters, and to a certain degree musicians too, because you know pretty much immediately how good they are. You can look at a picture, or hear a snatch of a song, and be struck by it – “wow”. It’s much more difficult to get any kind of immediate impression from a piece of prose. Nobody’s going to hang up a novel on a wall and expect others to be dazzled by it. With a painting, you create an immediate reaction, one easily shared – with a novel, it takes time to seep into someone’s soul.

If you can achieve it at all.

But did Tuke know when he’d painted something and it was great? Was he proud and pleased? You or I may look at a painting and be struck by the sheer marvel of someone being able to capture the human form with oil and canvas, but Tuke may have gazed on his paintings and seen only the ruination of an idea. Just as I can never write the novels I had in my head, are painters wracked with frustration at never being able to get out the perfect picture they imagined? Do songwriters despair of ever being able to release the inner melody?

Did Tuke look at this picture and curse himself for being a poor, inadequate painter, when you or I would have told him he was a fool to do so?

I don’t know. But in a way, I hope he did. I have a suspicion anybody who writes, or paints, or makes music or films, or engages in any attempt at a creative endeavour, is like this. And only the greatest – among whom I do not, of course, count myself – overcome it and keep on producing fine work again and again, by which they are forever destined to be always disappointed.

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