Photograph taken at Falmouth from the fish quay looking towards St Mawes
Photograph taken at Falmouth from the fish quay looking towards St Mawes (date unknown)

The author finds an intriguing nineteenth-century photograph in the Tate Archive

I’m in the Tate archive, but I’m not sure what I’m looking for. For some reason I’ve asked to see a box of photographs connected to the papers and diaries of the painter Henry Scott Tuke. I know nothing about Tuke, but my eye’s been caught by the description in the online records of a photograph, which is simply labelled “a photograph taken at Falmouth Fish Quay looking towards St Mawes”. There’s something about this description that intrigues me. I suppose I’m hoping that the picture will show more than the prosaic, ever-soprecise title promises. I’m wondering why I would feel this as I open the folder and begin to peruse a dozen or more postcards and photographs of boats and harbour scenes. 

Here’s the Renwick, laid up on a coast of rock, the Triton, the Foudroyant and the Cutty Sark. My suspicion is that these pictures were source material, and that the ships – all carefully named in ink letters – have been the subjects of someone’s meticulous interest. And now I come upon the photograph I was looking for – “a photograph taken at Falmouth Fish Quay”. It’s a small, yellow-grey rectangle, about the size of two matchboxes put together lengthways, showing two-thirds sky – a yellow-grey ceiling of cloud. From weeks I’ve spent beside the sea, I think I recognise the kind of conditions shown as “flat-calm”; the sea looks heavy as oil, breakable only with great effort, and the largest vessels, of which there are several, are at anchor, though a yacht is captured moving right to left, its three white sails unfurled. In the right-hand corner of the picture is a corner of the stone quay, including four iron railings, eyed like empty needles, which might suggest that a bar is missing, and a cruciform lamp post. There are slight speckles of overexposure here and there, suggesting both water-dazzle and unidentified flying lights. The picture doesn’t seem detailed enough to be ship-painting source material, but its original resonance, presuming it ever had any, is now dissipated and eludes me completely.

Of course, I’m performing a trick as you read this – writing my account in the present tense, hoping that you will feel you are searching and discovering with me, and keeping from my account the things I subsequently learned about Henry Scott Tuke. While I was searching the archive, I dipped into Tuke’s diaries from the late 1890s: they are as unrevealing as the “photograph taken at Falmouth Fish Quay”. The entries are brief, and mostly consist of Tuke cycling, beginning a boat painting, going to dinner, watching a cricket match, making a note of the wind speed and direction. There’s no gossip, no “inner life”. And yet Tuke’s large oil paintings from the 1890s – such as Tate’s August Blue 1893–4 – are famously naturalistic, glowing depictions of young men and boys in boats, swimming and larking about. Water and light and flesh and sea-faring detail animate these pictures, and we modern viewers wonder what the nature of the intense and meticulous interest was that we now experience manifested in the paint. But this is the mystery of looking, isn’t it? I’m never quite sure what I’m looking for, and when I look, what I’m looking at looks back at and into me. To somehow anchor the nature of Tuke’s looking – a nature that is hidden, despite all these archived papers and pictures – would be to limit the power of his art to provoke us to search