Project Canterbury

Tucker of Uganda, Artist and Apostle 1849-1914

By Arthur P. Shepherd

London: Student Christian Movement, 1929.

Chapter II. Early Days

UNTIL he was fifteen Alfred Tucker's childhood was a broken one, probably therefore all the more interesting to himself and his four brothers. Their parents were both landscape artists, and in the pursuit of a living moved from place to place. One result of this was that friends were not easy to make, and children and parents were thrown very much together in a close family intimacy. School education too was almost hopeless, unless the boys were to be sent from home. To find a new school and get them settled, and then almost at once to uproot them, was a profitless proceeding, and Alfred finished with school at thirteen. It was not the disaster it might have been for another boy, for in the artistic atmosphere of his home he received an education unusual but perhaps all the more valuable. Like his brothers he soon displayed his parents' artistic talent, and progressed so rapidly that at fourteen he painted the first picture that he sold.

A year later, in 1865, his parents determined to settle down, and finally chose as their home a house in the beautiful Westmorland valley of Langdale. It was an ideal home for the Tuckers. The boys worked all together in one large studio under the criticism of their parents and the frank comments of one another, and their artistic talents developed rapidly. Besides painting there were the endless pursuits that the country offers to boys. Alfred's first enthusiasm was to keep pets. Hens and ducks he had, even turkeys and geese, and a pet donkey. Already at fifteen he was sturdily built and showed promise of the great physical strength and endurance of his manhood; also of that rarer endurance, patience and determination of character. He looked after his live stock himself, spending hours of his leisure making and mending and cleaning coops, feeding the birds and rearing their chicks. More than once one of the dalesmen stopped to watch admiringly "that fine-built lad of the artist gentleman" hard at work cutting the autumn bracken on the steep brow of Daw Bank for winter bedding for his donkey.

As they grew older he and his brothers took an active part in the games of the dale. They had almost no acquaintances of their own social standing, but their strength and vigour were welcomed in the dale teams, both at football and cricket. Alfred was a great favourite. Here too he put all he knew into his play, and was a generous but difficult opponent, never beaten till the game was over. In later years the Ambleside football team, worthy opponent of some of the best Lancashire clubs, was never considered complete without the stalwart young artist.

Alfred was a real artist. Westmorland spoke to him; its sunlit dales, the hush and loneliness of the higher mountain valleys, the majesty of the hills, the beauty of dawn and sunset: these were voices known and loved by him, as by them all. But in Alfred's heart there was also another voice that constantly spoke--why, or how, it would have been hard for hiip to say. It was the voice of religion. His father was a Churchman, but was not particularly interested at any rate in the outward observances of religion. Certainly the evangelical fervour of that day had not affected him. There was not much in common then between serious art and evangelicalism, a misfortune not entirely due to art. But even as a little boy in Brighton Alfred had several times slipped off all by himself to a church service, in answer to the voice. Through all his life it never left him.

Very soon after they settled in Langdale he began to teach in the little Sunday School, and he influenced the brother next in age to go with him. As with everything else, Alfred threw himself into the work, and when, in 1868, the family moved to Grasrnere Rectory while their new home in Langdale was being built, the two brothers walked three miles each way over the hills Sunday by Sunday to take their classes.

As he grew older his influence over the young men of the dale became extraordinary, and the fact that he was not only their teacher but a "star" man in their cricket and football teams doubled his popularity. In and out of school he was always the centre of an admiring, happy crowd of youths. Perhaps the most marked evidence of his popularity was the fact that in those days, when temperance work was regarded as the fad of cranks and spoilsports, he was able to establish and maintain a strong temperance branch amongst the sturdy, sporting men of the dale.

Artist though he was, Alfred Tucker's religious instincts found their natural expression not in mysticism, but in the service of his fellow-men. Then, as always in his later life, the great motive of his service was human need. Not unnaturally this deeply rooted instinct coloured his artistic self-expression. While his father and brothers were more especially painters of nature, he soon showed a particular enjoyment and ability in depicting scenes of human interest, buildings and street-scenes. Even in Westmorland he always loved to bring the life of its picturesque farmsteads into his pictures. This bent in his art not infrequently took him away on sketching tours in other parts of the country, where he could find picturesque architecture and human activity.

In 1874 at the age of twenty-five he sent his first picture, "Homeless," to the Royal Academy, under the name of "A. Maile." It represented a mother and child, poor and ill-clothed, standing in the darkness of a desolate street, and was, perhaps quite unconsciously, the artistic expression of his deepest emotion. It was sent up with the usual forebodings and anxieties of a first attempt, and the young artist was not a little elated to find that it had been hung on the line and sold on the first day.

Two years later an event occurred as interesting to the dale and as important to Alfred Tucker's own life as his family's arrival eleven years before. Mr Sim, a retired London merchant, settled at Elter-water Hall in Langdale with his wife and seven daughters.

Mr Sim, a Quaker, had brought up his daughters in a very broad-minded way, and they were far more vivacious and quite as adventurous as the Tucker boys. The intimacy between "The Monastery" and "The Nunnery"--as their homes were inevitably called--ripened very fast, and the somewhat quiet life of the Tuckers was enlivened by picnics, mountain-climbing expeditions, and, in the winter, moonlight skating on Elterwater Tarn in the company of the newly arrived "nuns" of the dale.

The Sims too were keenly interested in art, and Mr Sim discovered that he already had in his possession a picture by the eldest of the brothers, while his second daughter Josephine somewhat shyly showed to Alfred her Royal Academy catalogue for 1874, with a pencil mark for the picture of her choice against 808. A Midnight Scene in Leicester--Homeless, by A. Maile.

Perhaps this discovery may have had something to do with it; anyhow in May 1877 Alfred and Josephine became engaged. This added a new incentive to work, and for the next eighteen months Tucker was busily engaged in adding to his already established reputation, spending weeks at a time in sketching tours in different parts of the country.

Two incidents occurred during this period, both of which showed the qualities of courage and determination that were characteristic of his whole life.

Walking one day on the hills with his brother's dog he interfered in a fight provoked by a quarrelsome sheep dog and drove the assailant off. The next day he was walking in the same direction when the sheep dog suddenly and unexpectedly rushed at him and bit him severely in the calf. The fear of hydrophobia was much more present in those days than it is to-day, but no chemist's shop or caustic was at hand. Within sight was a cottage. Painfully he hobbled there and explained to the woman who came out what had happened. She was ironing and an iron was on the fire. Tucker waited till it was nearly red hot and then, setting his teeth, he deliberately burnt the wound through from side to side. The other incident was a fell-climbing record in which Tucker took part with his four brothers and Mr Bell of Ambleside. In estimating this feat it must be remembered that there were none of the careful preparations in training and the supply of proper refreshment that are features of modern climbing records. It was a suddenly-resolved-on test of endurance, undertaken without special preparation. For refreshment they depended upon what they carried or could obtain in the normal way on the road. The incident is best described by Mr W. T. Palmer in his book, In Lakeland Dales and Fells: "The brothers Tucker left Elterwater one morning in June 1877 at 4.20 a.m., and reached the summit of Bow Fell in the remarkable time of one hour and forty minutes. Passing over the rough crags of Esk Hause they scaled Scawfell Pike by 8 a.m. and then began the long descent into Borrowdale and Keswick. The day now developed extreme heat, the thermometer reaching 80° in the shade. At 2 o'clock they were standing on the top of Skiddaw--& very fast performance, averaging four and a half miles per hour on the road, and just two on the fell. This speed was too good to last, and Helvellyn, some fifteen miles away over fairly even ground, took six hours to reach--but this period included refreshments. Getting their second strength, the long descent to Grasmere was soon reached--whence a couple of miles over Red Bank would have finished the route. But they elected to walk home by way of Rydal and Ambleside, and the record route received an addition of ten miles, Elterwater not being reached till 11.58 p.m. The total time was nineteen hours, thirty-eight minutes." The distance was sixty-five miles, and they had climbed the four highest peaks in England.

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