Women Artist in Focus: Gluck (13 August 1895, London - 10 January 1978, Steyning)
Born Hannah Gluckstein, Gluck grew up in a wealthy Jewish family. Two of her uncles founded the Lyons catering empire. Her mother, Francesca Halle, was an American opera singer. Although her family didn't encourage her desire to become an artist, she started her training at the St John's Wood School of Art (1913-16) although she had wanted to go to the Slade. When she came of age at 21, she gained access to her trust fund and was able to pursue an independent life.
She travelled to Lamorna, a fishing village and cove in west Cornwall near Penzance where the Newlyn School artists' colony was based, and bought her own studio, which she retained until 1947. In 1953 she acquired a cottage in the nearby village of St. Buryan. Newlyn, like nearby St Ives, appealed to artists for the affordable living and the availability of models, in addition to the remarkable scenery, light quality, and attractively simple life.
It was the first time she had been away from London and her loving, but stifling, parents. She painted with three fellow students from St John's Wood School of Art and enjoyed living in the open-minded community of artists at Lamorna which included Laura and Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings, Dod and Ernest Procter. She emerged as one of the most subversive artists of the early 20th century. As her biographer, Diana Souhami, said it was "...the making of her, as a painter and a rebel. She could be who and how she wanted..." to be.
By 1918, she had begun to call herself Gluck ("no prefix, suffix, or quotes"), had adopted men's clothing, cropped her hair, and begun to smoke a pipe. She was defying fashion norms and was gender-nonconforming. The seriousness with which Gluck insisted on others addressing her only by her contracted surname was such that when an art society of which she was vice-president listed her as 'Miss Gluck' on the letterhead, she resigned.
Gluck herself never identified with any particular school or movement, but her talent and distinctive voice had come to the attention of London galleries. She only showed her work in solo exhibitions and her first one-man show was at the Dorien Leigh Galleries in South Kensington in October 1924. All the pictures, over 50, were sold, and she received rave reviews. Two years later in 1926 a solo exhibition of her work titled "Stage and Country" opened at The Fine Art Society on Bond Street. Reviews drew attention to the artist's Eton crop and her male attire, but the Cornish landscapes and theatre scenes received praise and it was another sell out show. The Fine Art Society was keen to produce another exhibition as soon as she had produced enough new works and in 1932 Gluck had another solo exhibition, Diverse Paintings. Gluck was only just in her early thirties.
She gained particular recognition for portraits and flower paintings during the 1920s and 1930s. Her best-known work is of stylized flower pieces inspired by the floral creations of Constance Spry, an early companion and lover. She also created the 'Gluck Frame' which was exhibited at British Art in Industry exhibitions and hailed as a new design of picture-frame which became an integral part of Modernist and Art Deco interiors of the 1930s and which she patented in 1932. Each one arises from the wall in three tiers, painted or papered to match the wall where it is hung, to give the illusion that the painting is part of the architecture of the room. When, in 1932, Spry decorated the Fine Art Society galleries for Gluck's third exhibition, the walls were panelled in white, modern furniture was added, and each room featured Spry's floral arrangements. All the paintings were hung in a 'Gluck frame'. In 1937 Gluck had a third solo show at the Fine Art Society and the exhibition of 33 paintings was attended by the Queen.
The Fine Art Society and Gluck have a long history together. After having redirected her energy in the 1950s to spearhead a campaign to increase the quality of artist's paints available, Gluck returned to painting in her seventies, using the special handmade paints supplied by a manufacturer who had taken Gluck's standards as a challenge. In 1973, in her first exhibition since 1944 (which had been held at Steyning Grammar School), she showed 52 paintings t the Fine Art Society from across her career which was very well received but turned out to be her last. In 1977 Gluck donated 57 items, including clothing, accessories and pieces relating to the time she had spent in Tunisia to the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. She died in 1978 in Steyning, Sussex at the age of 82. The Fine Art Society held a memorial retrospective exhibition of Gluck's work in December 1980. In recent years, she was featured prominently in 'Queer British Art' at the Tate in 2017 and her works have seen a strong revival including a solo exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, which looked at her life and art, "Gluck: Art & Identity", and another exhibition at The Fine Art Society also in 2017.
Gluck enjoyed intense lesbian relationships and she moved to Cornwall with a fellow art student and partner, E M Craig (1893-1968), who was known by her surname Craig. Little is now known about Craig but their relationship was significant to Gluck, who often spoke in later life of how the two had run away together. By 1918 they were living together in London, originally in a flat on the Finchley Road, then in a studio in Earls Court and of course in Lamorna.
In 1926 Gluck's father bought Bolton House in West Hampstead where Gluck, with a housekeeper, a cook and a maid, would live until 1939. By 1928 Gluck was sharing Bolton House with the author and socialite Sybil Cookson. In 1934 Gluck and Spry spent some time at Hammamet in Tunisia. In May 1936 Gluck spent a weekend with Nesta Obermer at the Obermer family home, Mill House at Plumpton in east Sussex, and would later declare 25 May as their wedding day. Gluck ended the relationship with Spry and subsequently held a bonfire of personal letters, diaries and paintings at Bolton House.
One of Gluck's best-known paintings, Medallion, is a dual portrait of Gluck and Nesta Obermer inspired by a night in 1936 when they attended a Fritz Busch production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. According to Gluck's biographer Diana Souhami, "They sat together in the third row and felt the intensity of the music fused them both into one person and matched their love." Gluck referred to it as the "YouWe" picture. It was later used as the cover of a 1982 Virago Press edition of The Well of Loneliness. Virago reprinted the book eight times in as many years making Medallion perhaps one of the most famous depictions of a lesbian relationship.
In September 1939 Gluck closed Bolton House, which was then requisitioned by the Auxiliary Fire Service for war-time service, and moved to a cottage close to the Obermer home in Plumpton. As the painter's romantic relationship with Nesta came to an end, so too did Gluck's artistic career: a thirty-year period of artist's block ensued, until Gluck experienced a final burst of renewed creative energy at the end of the 1960s. In 1943 Gluck met Edith Shackleton Heald and in 1944 she moved to Chantry House in Steyning, Sussex to live with Heald. The couple shared the house with Shackleton Heald's sister, Nora, and would remain there until Edith's death in 1976.
Currently, two London Art Week dealers are showing works by Gluck and of course, The Fine Art Society has such a long-established connection with her. The two paintings currently available are interestingly both landscapes. It was in her early years as an artist at Lamorna in Cornwall that Gluck first developed an abiding love of landscape. Her compositions were almost always characterized by a large expanse of sky above a very low horizon. In some unpublished 'Notes on Landscape Painting', written in 1940, she recalled of the work she produced in Cornwall: "My landscapes were the first that truthfully showed the immediate impression one gets there - that of very little land and great expanses of sky...The sky is a bowl, not a flat backcloth and its colour and light reflect in every blade of grass, every twig...the colour of the sky permeates the landscape under that sky...Wind and weather change continuously, a landscape is chameleon to the light."
Although it is often difficult to date the artist's landscapes, or to identify their exact location, the present sheet is very closely related to a small Cornish landscape painting of 1964, today in a private collection, in which an identical church tower - probably the late 15th century parish church of St. Buryan - appears on the horizon.