Boats, Boys and Biarritz

North Berwick is known as the Biarritz of the north. Having been to both, I can confirm that on a bright sunny day with the sea sparkling on Scotland’s east coast, there are similarities.

Luckily, good weather seemed to prevail when English artist Henry Scott Tuke RA RWS (1858-1929) took up an invitation from land owner Sir Walter Hamilton-Dalrymple to stay at the impressive Lodge in the town in 1891, when he painted local scenes and sights “en plein-air”, as well as portraits of the Hamilton-Dalrymple family.

Now the town’s Coastal Communities Museum, on School Road, is hosting a small, but perfectly formed exhibition of his works – some painted during his time in North Berwick, and others of the  boys and boats he favoured and which brought him great success as an artist during his lifetime.

A contemporary of John Singer Sargent and one of the founding members of the Newlyn School of painters in Cornwall, Tuke was a highly prolific artist producing over 1,300 works. One of his best known is “August Blue” which hangs in the Tate London and shows a group of boys nude bathing from a boat in Falmouth harbour.

The North Berwick series is now part of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Tuke Collection held at the Falmouth Art Gallery. This will be the first time in over 100 years the collection has been put on public display.

The watercolours on display capture well-known local sights such as the Bass Rock and Berwick Law beautifully, with a late-summer dreamy glow.

The oil paintings include portraits of Hamilton-Dalrymple’s  wife and daughter – both are particularly poignant and reflect surprisingly modern faces, despite the clothing.

The stand-out for me however is “Our Jack”, a portrait of a young lad on a boat – Tuke’s two favourite themes. He usually painted local Falmouth boys, often with their backs turned and nude, which met with raised eyebrows by some. “Our Jack” is different in that it is a close-up of one boy, face-on and fully clothed. There’s a real sense of the boy’s character – steely determination and adventure – and we learn that Jack later followed his dreams by training as a diver in London.

A self-portrait and a portrait of the artist by Tuke’s sister, herself a talented painter who was denied the chance of studying art like her brother, give a glimpse of Tuke’s own pensive character.

If you haven’t yet visited it, the Coastal Communities Museum is a gem and well worth seeking out. There is an interactive room for children – complete with dressing up clothes and activities – a cafe, and regularly changing exhibitions reflecting community life in Aberlady, Dirleton, Gullane, North Berwick, Whitekirk and surrounds. The volunteers are exceptionally helpful and will spend as much or as little time explaining what’s on as you need.

The exhibition is free and can be visited Wednesday-Sunday until 17 May. It is also open on Monday 4 May.

For more information go to

Henry Scott Tuke’s watercolour of the Bass Rock is reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Tuke Collection (copyright).



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