Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Beginnings of Beefcake

Or, The Origins of the Male Nude in Photography

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Gay men have often had a penchant for self-justification, because we so often have found ourselves confronting a society that stirs up our self-doubt, so I shall only briefly pause to list the reasons why I like beefcake:

  1. Beefcake is ideologically important for gay liberation, because it exposes the sexist myth that only the female body merits artistic appreciation.
  2. Beefcake enlightens the human imagination, because it demonstrates that, in purely objective terms, the male torso (etc.) is aesthetically superior to the female torso (etc.) because of the greater incidence of angles (etc.) and hence the greater interplay of light and dark (etc.).
  3. Beefcake refines one's autoerotic perceptions.
  4. Beefcake is a unique art that needs no justification.
  5. Beefcake is fun.

'Nuff said. Being a scholar as well as a masturbatory philosopher, with my deep down antiquarian conviction that nothing ever "just happens" and that everything originates in something earlier, I assumed that S&H Publications didn't just pop onto the scene, so I decided to do a little research.

Beefcake in Cornwall

Not surprisingly, I discovered that it all began (with a few exceptions in Pompeian bedrooms) during the late Victorian era, along with other equally colorful developments in gay culture. To be precise, it began in Falmouth, Cornwall. There we find Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), sitting on his quay-punt and busily attempting, as he said in an 1895 interview, "to capture the truth and beauty of flesh in sunlight by the sea." To be strictly precise, he liked to paint naked boys bathing. Tuke settled in Falmouth in 1885, after a period abroad in Florence in the company of Arthur Lemon, with whom he studied the art of capturing on canvas the effect of sunlight upon uncovered boyflesh. Tuke was not particularly lonely on the Cornish coast when he returned, and while there, he produced a substantial quantity of paintings of local youth, bathing boys, fisherboys, bathing boys, schoolboys, bathing boys, and more bathing boys — all against a romantic background of rocky coastline and picturesque sailing vessels.

By the time the First World War arrived, when people began to lose their taste for art, Tuke had acquired a reputation for himself as a painter of picturesque youth somewhat analogous to the reputation of Norman Rockwell in America. His paintings had such charm that often the Cornish coast would be enlivened by the visits of such notable personages as Oscar Wilde. A great many of Tuke's friends were homosexuals, and he himself developed an especial affection for several favourite models. Henry Scott Tuke occupies a special place in the mythology of sentimental middle-class values, especially concerning the British love of hearty boyhood, and his definitive biography has yet to be written.

If we need a precise date for the beginnings of beefcake, it would be 1888. In that year Tuke's finest and most deservedly famous painting The Bathers was exhibited in the New English Art Club. The exhibition prompted a lovely poem on Hyacinthus by Charles Kains Jackson in the Artist and Journal of Home Culture, a magazine edited by Jackson. The Artist had a popularity somewhat similar to the American Saturday Evening Post (the vehicle for Rockwell's illustrations), except that while it was disseminating "home culture" it was also a major vehicle for the propagation of carefully veiled homosexual verse and short fiction — and eventually for discreet studies of the male nude. Jackson was a friend of Tuke, and often visited him, and there is good reason to believe that one of the figures in The Bathers is Jackson's fourteen-year-old boyfriend Cecil Castle (the other figures are Willy Rowling and Albert Pidwell; the painting is in the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln). I cannot quite trace Tuke's interest in such goings-on, but the tale becomes progressively intriguing.

Jackson lived with Cecil in Tyneham House, London, in the infamous company of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled "Baron Corvo." Corvo was not at all averse to the delights of the male nude in art (and life), and he took a photograph of Cecil Castle, nude, lying on his stomach, which was printed in the Studio, another mainstream art journal with a gay subtext edited by the bisexual Gleeson White — also a friend of Tuke. It was at White's home that Corvo met Tuke, and Tuke had given him some drawings of boys to stimulate Corvo's artistic interests. Corvo wrote to Tuke's most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox, that Tuke's talents would be best served if he went to Venice:

One thing this world wants is some Tuke pictures of the Venetian lagoon and some Tuke pictures of mediaeval gondoglieri poised on poppe in Venetian Canals. But "Tuke has all he wants at Falmouth." Hum! Arnold of Rugby held that no man ought to be a school-master longer than 15 years at a stretch!

A visit to the museum at Falmouth will reveal that Tuke's models included especially Jack Rolling or Rowling, of whom he took numerous photographs; William J. Martin, born 1870, a messenger boy with the Post Office, who appears in The Messenger, The Swimmer's Pool, The Lamp Cleaners and A Woodland Bathe (he and Tuke were both stamp collectors). Colin Goodwyn appears in The Coming of Day. Dolin Kennedy, 1893-1962, appears in June Morning, The Morning Catch, and others. He was Tuke's constant companion, whom he met through Sydney Lomer (1880-1926). Kennedy was a junior officer, and nearly a paid secretary to Tuke but really a voluntary general assistant and companion.

The Metamorphosis of Cecil

Corvo himself had extracted all he needed from his many gay adventures in Italy, and when he was hired to create the fresco for the church of St Joseph's in Christchurch, he had on hand a good supply of nude photographs of his Italian boyfriends. He would project these upon the wet plaster (with a "magic lantern") in order to draw the outlines for his religious figures. Jackson recalls watching in wonderment as Corvo projected upon the wall a photo of a nude boy "of seventeen years, yellow haired and blue eyed and of the most exquisite physical development ... instantaneously photographed in mid- air, when leaping into the Lake of Nemi." This became the mural "Ascension of Christ." Among the Nine Orders of Corvo's Celestial Hierarchy in this very fine fresco can be discerned the Archangel Michael, created by projecting upon the wall the nude photograph of Cecil on his stomach, upon the print of which Corvo had carefully drawn a spear, a shield, and a pair of wings.

That Blend of Blue

Part of this metamorphosis of beefcake was controlled by the aesthetic dictum that male nudes looked their finest on a background of blue (the most celestial color, though Wilde preferred yellow). John Addington Symonds (distributor of his friends' photographs) in a book of essays titled In the Key of Blue, wrote: "Whether the flesh tints of the man be pale or sun-burned, his complexion dark or fair, blue is equally in sympathy with the model." For this study he made impressionistic photo studies of the Venetian porter Augusto Zanon dressed in various shades of blue against different coloured backgrounds. He wrote to Arthur Symons in 1892, "Of things like this, I have always been doing plenty, and then putting them away in a box. The public think them immoral." Symonds's lifetime companion was the Venetian gondolier Angelo Fusato, whom he often gazed upon against the background of the blue Mediterranean.

Symonds regularly sent photos of young men to his friends, including photos of his boyfriend Angelo, often by a very good amateur photographer in Davos, Switzerland, where Symonds lived. For example, he sent Mary Robinson a photo "of a naked young man with a sword between his legs" and he hired models to assume Michelangelo's poses for his biography of the sculptor. The literary critic Edmund Gosse wrote to Symonds on 31 December 1889 about his attendance at the funeral service for Robert Browning in Westminster Abbey. A packet had just arrived from Symonds containing a "beautiful photograph, which is full of poetry":

As I sat in the Choir, with George Meredith at my side, I peeped at it again and again, and at last, while waiting in the deep silence for the ceremonial to begin, with many thoughts of love and life and genius and decay, moving in my mind, this sextain formed itself — I hardly know how — and I send it to you as the onlie begetter of all that sehnsucht [yearning]:

Dark-stamen'd flower, across thy beauty
Sighing, I cast the veil.
In Youth's high spring-tide Love's a duty
And rose-crowned hopes prevail;
But autumn comes, and brings I see
No rose, but rosemary for me.

One wonders what Mrs Humphry Ward, sitting behind Gosse, and Burne- Jones, sitting just opposite him, made of all this.

Corvo says in relation to his special boyfriend Toto (a nude photo of whom can be found in Brian Reade's Sexual Heretics), "That kind of blue, with Toto's kind of brown, is fine. I learned the blend of him." And in his letter to Fox about why Tuke should have gone to Venice, Corvo speaks of "young Venetians poised on lofty poops out on the wide lagoon, at high noon, when all the world which is not brilliant is blue, glowing young litheness with its sumptuous breast poised in air like showers of aquamarines on a sapphire sea with shadows of lapis-lazuli under a monstrous dome of turquoise, glowing magnificent strength." That is a bit over-gemmed, and to understand what Corvo was rhapsodizing about you must examine Tuke's other very fine painting (in the Tate Gallery in London), of four nude youths in a boat on the sea, appropriately titled August Blue.
Painting by Tuke

Enough for aesthetics, and back to the mundane. Tuke's Bathing Boys was so instantaneously famous that hundreds of amateur painters and photographers gambolled about trying to capture similar flesh tints, so much so that a mere two years later, in 1890, the Amateur Swimming Association ruled that henceforth bathing drawers must be worn for all racing events. Boys (more so than girls) regularly continued to swim in the nude up through the 1930s. Of course one needn't always stay on the beach. There was a very nasty scandal in Tuke's beloved port of Falmouth when the owner of a boys' training ship stationed there engaged in orgies on deck, and meanwhile took photos that apparently still circulate in certain quarters. Part of the scandal was that the boys of Cornwall were so easily enticed into engaging in such activities.

Baronial Beefcake in Taormina

Enough of my foul-minded suspicions about Tuke's wholesome models, and on to a Sicilian line of inquiry. Corvo's photo of Cecil Castle appeared in the context of Gleeson White's essay on the male nude in art in Studio, and other illustrations that he used to prove his points were several photographs of nude boys by Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose studio was located in Taormina, Sicily. It was rumored that during the wicked 1890s, none other than Kaiser Wilhelm himself was wont to voyage to Sicily, where he would anchor the Imperial Yacht in the picturesque bay or Taormina, perforce to sleep with one or the other of the Baron's boys.

Wilhelm von Gloeden, Baron of the Court of the Hohenzollerns, born in Schloss Volkshagen, near Wiemar, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg, on September 16, 1856, has some small claim to fame as a student of the male nude whose artistic achievement has not yet been surpassed by promulgators of beefcake.

The Baron claimed to have been an illegitimate child in the family line of the Kaiser, because of which he was persuaded to become an exile from his native land, and for which exile he received a regular stipend from Berlin — on condition that he never return. Being a Bohemian at heart, the Baron took up quarters in a modest villa at Taormina in 1876, Photo by Gloedenwith a lovely secluded garden-terrace where he would feed his birds and photograph his models. This terrace often appears in his photos, sometimes with a spring of a fennel tree propped in one corner (or in a Greek urn) for its picturesque effect, often with an animal skin draped over the bench upon which would be seated an artistic nude. It is said that whenever a new model appeared uneasy at being photographed, the Baron would strip off his own clothes, don the leopard-skin, and together they would gambol about like young animal pups until the model lost his shyness.

Soon after the Baron arrived in the city that his fame would later transform into a major tourist attraction, he engaged the services of a fourteen-year-old boy (the Baron, being only twenty himself at the time, cannot at this stage be called a proper pederast). This servant was Pancrazio Bucini, nicknamed "Il Moro" because of the Arabic strains in his blood. Von Gloeden and Bucini were in a sense monogamous lovers, for Il Moro was still with the Baron when the latter died in 1931, and he inherited most of his master's photographs. Unfortunately most of these plates (several thousand) were destroyed by Mussolini's Fascist authorities towards the end of the Second World War, although several hundred are still preserved by Bucini's own heirs in Taormina today. It is difficult to determine if these plates were really pornographic, as the Fascists claimed, but a few surviving photographs depict youths boasting prominent erections.

Sunshine and Health

By the late 1890s von Gloeden had established himself as the master of the male nude in photography. Tuke's paintings were still influencing numerous imitators (especially Thomas Eakins in America), and every other poet wrote a pederastic verse or two on boys bathing or "Playmates," the title of another of Tuke's paintings (exhibited at the Royal Academy). But Tuke could not keep up with Gloeden's output, and the vogue for painting was steadily superseded by the vogue for photography. Nearly every one of the Baron's photographs is a tour de force when we realize that most of them were produced from 1895 to 1910, at a time when even a single photograph required him to set up a cumbrous contraption known as the wide-view camera, to evenly coat a thin piece of glass with a chemical solution (amateur English photographers were always dying of poisoning) before placing it in the camera, and to somehow persuade his model to pose for up to a full minute while the negative was developing. He nevertheless was able to produce perhaps 4000 to 5000 photographs for wide distribution.

Von Gloeden's photographs (about 80 percent of which were of lightly- clad or unclad boylimbs) were circulated not merely among the extensive coterie of the "Uranian School" of homosexual poets, but in many of the "physique and health" magazines spawned by the German Korperkulture (physical health/naturalism/nudism) and Wandervogel (boy scouts/hiking) movements. His more carefully draped studies were regularly reprinted in hundreds of travel magazines and brochures advertising the joys of a Mediterranean holiday. The British concept of what constitutes "the romantic Mediterranean" was invented by von Gloeden. Mr and Mrs Alexander Graham Bell visited von Gloeden in 1898, and came away the proud possessors of several of his photos of native Sicilians, which they graciously presented o the National Geographic Society for its magazine (which thence contained two or three shots of semi-clad boys, up through recent times). Other of the Baron's renowned guests are said to include Rudyard Kipling, Anatol France, Marconi, and Richard Strauss. Oscar Wilde dropped by for a chat (and a look) upon his release from prison, and humbly presented the master with a signed copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Von Gloeden's work was especially popularized through the medium of various magazines edited by Gleeson White: Art and Artist, Studio, Parade, Pageant, and especially through White's essays on the male nude in Photogram. White developed at some length his not very perceptive ideas "On Photographing the Nude," usually reproducing two or three of von Gloeden's photos to illustrate his points. In the March 1894 part of the continuing series we find von Gloeden's "The White Pillar" (a boy standing against a white pillar). The first word of White's text was "Giving," and the first letter of this word was enlarged and superimposed upon the photograph in order to conceal the model's genitals with its lower curve. We thus see a naked boy behind the letter G, which certainly deserves to be circulated as a Gay Liberation icon. Other photos included "At the Portal," "On the Terrace," "At the Sea," "On the Beach," "On the Rock,", etc.: not very imaginatively titled.

White underlined the basic defect of male nude photography, then as now: that professional models have "the rooted tendency to pose ... they fall into their poses with a peculiarly ungraceful rigidity." This lack of rigidity in most of von Gloeden's photographs is one of their finest testaments to his genius. However, some of his photographs were in the self-consciously posed "Classic" manner, which were somewhat the equivalent of the glamour pics in fashion magazines, which today have chrome and glass in the background instead of sarcophagi. Much of the time von Gloeden's models would be holding Greek urns, sitting atop ruined pillars, and wearing crowns of laurel leaves. Most of the togas were home-made (the Baron was also handy at needle and thread) and not particularly serviceable. He made some very sensuous studies of boys lightly concealed with a diaphanous gauze, sometimes wearing a barbaric jewelled necklace beneath the gauze. The archaic settings are one of von Gloeden's major flaws, but Gleeson White disagrees:

A series of great service to designers could be obtained from models posed in niches, spandrils, pediments, and other architectural spaces. I remember at a New York swimming bath seeing two lads who had climbed into the spandril of a wooden verandah, and sat there unconsciously mimicking some of the most beautiful figures the art of the Renaissance has left us.

Alas, the sauna-school of gay art by the later twentieth century had become one of unmitigated kitsch.

Beefcake in Conflict

White's series of essays were taken up by Robert H. Hobart Cust in 1897, in Photogram, who argued vehemently that English boys were better models than Italian boys because the latter's "lazy life and their food, principally macaroni, produces a grossness which soon spoils them entirely for artistic purposes." He also disliked Italian shortness. To prove his point, he presents his own studies, such as "A Lancashire Foundry Lad."

James A. Rooth continued the controversy in the 1898 issue of Photogram, and kept on in the 1903 issue of Boy's Own Paper, a supposedly boy-scout magazine filled with interesting diversions by a good many homosexuals. His argument was merely that Sicilian boys charged less for their services and therefore were the better models. Rooth, incidentally, was Inspecting Officer of St Catherine's Light Infantry Cadet Corps.

Rooth and Cust also used photographs by Gugleilmo Pluschow, the Baron's major rival in Rome. Photo by PluschowPluschow's studies are perhaps more sharply delineated, which is really an indication that he handled light less effectively and less subtly than von Gloeden, and his boys are somehow "harder" than the Baron's. His photos are also much more stilted, particularly a famous one of two boys standing on a pediment who are virtually indistinguishable from the sculpture itself (Photogram, May 1897). He also tended to photograph boys with large genitals, and it would have been less easy for collectors to claim these as specimens of the antique pastoral. Pluschow, incidentally, was the Baron's cousin. He was finally arrested for the corruption of minors.

Other of von Gloeden's rivals were D'Agata, his neighbor in Taormina who paid his models more money; Vincensio Galdi in Rome; and, more admirer than rival, Count Jacques d'Adelsward Fersen (hero of Roger Peyrefitte's Exile of Capri), who fled to Capri following a scandal about his use of Parisian schoolboys for a poses plastiques exhibition, but who eventually returned, to edit Akademos with full-page illustrations.

Beefcake in Full Bloom

By the mid-1970s, directly as a result of this combined influence of Tuke and von Gloeden through the medium of White's magazines, beefcake was fully born. The German homosexual magazine Der Eigene was founded in 1899 and continued until 1929, and by the late 1920s The Fortune Press and The Cayme Press had been founded, both of whose early publications were often illustrated with photographs of boys. In 1929 The Ladslore Series Press published Lads O' The Sun, with 35 illustrations, and, to make a long story of tenuous connections short, in 1961 the Grecian Guild Pictorial was founded. In ensuing years appeared such items as The Boy: A Photographic Essay (1964), Boys Will Be Boys (1966), Boyhood Magazine (1967), and in due course we see numerous publications by such firms as The Athletic Model Guild, The Overstock Book Company (Richard Model Xclusives), S[unshine] & H[ealth] Publications, Colt Publications, DSI, XXX Incorporated, etc.

But von Gloeden is still with us, though his popularity is limited to gay circles now that his pastoral cover has been blown. In 1968 Brian Patten's book of poetry Atomic Age used one of von Gloeden's photos as its frontispiece (slightly airbrushed), and in the early 1970s Vulcan Studios of New York offered for sale a set of six of the Baron's photos — at an outrageous price. In the 1980s and 1990s book-length selections of von Gloeden's photographs were published, some at low prices, including a book of postcards and a book of posters. Today of course male nude photography (the phrase is really too grandiose nowadays) is big business, and we can lament the passing away of von Gloeden's eye for quality. The biggest sellers up to the early 1970s were still the boystudies, but from the late 1970s photographs of the fully adult (and hirsute) male nude have dominated.

I frankly do not know much about what goes on in the studios of photographers of nude males, particularly of young nude males, and I would rather not make any generalizations about the matter. In the late 1960s there was an extravagant villa near San Francisco out of which came thousands of photographs, in many of which the models, mostly over eighteen, looked as though they had been picked up off the street, given a little bread and a little heroin, and told to take their clothes off. On the other hand, there was a wholesome ranch near Burbank, California, where models, mostly under the age of eighteen and many under the age of fifteen, seem to have quite thoroughly enjoyed a well-paid game, even though that game involved spreading their arse cheeks for a close-up shot. Many of the models for the Athletic Model Guild were as rough in reality as they looked, and worked as boxers if they were in full-time employment at all, or hung around the streets or on the beaches waiting to be film extras. In respect of copulation photos, we have come a long way from von Gloeden, not entirely for the worse, though not very convincingly for the better.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Beginnings of Beefcake", Copyright © 1974, 1998, 3 January 2001, updated 17 June 2008 <>.

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