Late last year, Te Papa got an exciting new acquisition for its international art collection: Henry Tonks’ After the bath (1910-11). This sweet Edwardian painting depicts a woman in a red dress holding a freshly-bathed baby on her lap, surrounded by three little girls. The painting is full of wonderful little details, like the impish child putting on her nightclothes in the background and the toy sheep on the left. I particularly love the woman’s unruffled expression as the baby pushes against her face, and the way the little girl tenderly touches the baby’s leg.
This chalk study was purchased by the National Art Gallery (Te Papa’s predecessor) at the Centennial Exhibition in 1940, so it has taken nearly 75 years to reunite these two remarkable works. At that time, the gallery paid the substantial sum of £321 for the drawing (equivalent to about $30,000 today), which reflects the importance placed on Tonks’ work and the pride of place it was given in the NAG’s collection of British art. (You can even see the drawing in this film from 1949, around the 40-second mark.) Meanwhile, the painted version was in a private collection in the USA for most of the 20th century, then sold to another collector in the UK in the early 1990s. The NAG tried unsuccessfully to buy it then, so we were thrilled to get another opportunity when it came up for auction in London last year.
The artist, Henry Tonks (1862–1937), was an influential teacher at the Slade School of Art in London from 1892–1930, and he shaped a whole generation of modern British artists. Before becoming a full-time artist, Tonks had been a successful surgeon who taught anatomy at the London Hospital. He insisted upon extensive preparatory drawings and thorough anatomical knowledge to all his art students (which earned him a reputation as a bit of a tyrant), believing that these were the bones of every good painting. Rather than simply copying the human body, however, Tonks advocated using these tools to find the beauty of pose, gesture and drapery.
By viewing After the bath alongside the chalk study The baby’s bath, you can really see how Tonks put these artistic principles into action. Together, they reveal the development of a single artwork, showing how Tonks planned out colour, line and composition.The drawing was made to roughly the same scale as the painting, just over a metre tall. While the finished painting is quite refined and conservative, Tonks’ drawing uses energetic lines and loose, sketchy colours that give it a more expressive feel. Yet, if you look closely at the painting, he hasn’t completely left that bold application of colour behind – in fact, the baby kind of looks like it is wearing clown makeup. These subtle inclusions of vivid colour are what gives the painting its overall brilliance.
Finally, by looking at the works together, we learn one more interesting fact about the baby in the painting…it’s a boy!