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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Painting of a pebble beach with a crashing wave dominating the scene with white foam on crest

Gluck in Sussex

Diana Souhami

[ Artist in Focus, Stories )

Diana Souhami, author of Gluck: Her Biography, explores Gluck, a remarkable artist and a pioneer of gender non-conformity.

Gluck painted The Wave, on show in the Sussex Landscape exhibition, in 1966. She was aged 71, melancholy about the prospect of death and frustrated about her work. In the painting a single wave breaks before it will reach a stony shore. The setting was a cold day on Worthing Beach.

The Wave was one of a series of small paintings she called `Intimations’. They were oil on board, all about 13 by 18 centimetres and she took the title from Wordsworth’s long metaphysical poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Another in the series, Homeward, was of a lone bird flying into the sunset. Transience was of a blackbird that briefly alights on the ridge of a tiled roof with empty sky above. Cold Grey Stones was again of the incoming tide at Worthing Beach.

Painting of a pebble beach with a crashing wave dominating the scene with white foam on crest

Gluck, The Wave, 1966, Oil on board, Private Collection.

Painting of a pebble beach with a crashing wave dominating the scene with white foam on crest in a stepped white frame

Gluck, The Wave, 1966, Oil on board, Private Collection.

Gluck was born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895 in London to the family that founded the J. Lyons and Co. catering empire. Disdainful of convention, she chose her own monosyllabic, gender-neutral name, had her hair barbered, dressed in men’s clothes and was open about her love affairs with society women. At a time when visual or written representation of lesbianism was deemed inadmissible and was censored, Gluck turned androgyny into high style.

Her creative life divided into two periods. In her heyday, in the 1920s and 30s, when she was rebellious, confident and prolific, she achieved fame for her portraits, her art deco theatre scenes, the flower paintings she did when in a relationship with Constance Spry – flower arranger to the aristocracy – and for her cross-dressing. She lived in Bolton House, a Georgian house in Hampstead and held frequent solo exhibitions at The Fine Art Society in Bond Street. From 1932 she exhibited her paintings in the frame she designed and patented. It consisted of three symmetrically stepped panels, painted the same colour as the wall on which it was hung so as to incorporate the picture into the wall.

These two periods were divided by the upheavals of love and war. In 1936 Gluck fell in love with Nesta Obermer, a glittering socialite. She was so convinced of their shared future together that she burned past letters, photographs and even some canvases that made reference to former lovers.

Painting of head and shoulders of two figures with short hair standing side by side on the right of the painting looking left. One at back is blonde and one at the front has brown hair.

Medallion (YouWe) (1937), Gluck. Private Collection.

She and Nesta exchanged rings and to celebrate their union Gluck painted, in 1937, a double portrait of their merged profiles. She called this the ‘YouWe’ picture. It is an iconic image of love and desire between women.

 

‘Now it is out. We are not an affair are we. We are husband and wife,’ she wrote to Nesta. ‘And to the rest of the universe I say Beware, Beware. We are not to be trifled with.’

But Nesta already had a husband – Seymour Obermer, who was thirty years her senior and exceedingly wealthy. They wintered on the Swiss ski slopes, summered in Hawaii and travelled the world.

Nesta owned the Mill House in Plumpton and she introduced Gluck to Sussex. In 1937 Gluck painted them nestling together in a punt on the Mill House lake, the punt stretching across the water like a bright path. The director of The Fine Art Society called the painting suggestive and would not include it in Gluck’s hugely successful exhibition that year. Other records of Gluck’s times with Nesta in Sussex were shown: Falmer Church was painted while she stayed at the Mill House; Sulky Spring, Southease depicted a favoured picnic spot.

Painting of a long wooden boat or punt with two figures huddled together at the bottom end in a sea of blackness moving towards a lighter area at the top of the painting

The Punt (c. 1937), Gluck. Private collection

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Gluck’s Hampstead home, Bolton House, was commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service. To be close to Nesta in Plumpton she rented Millers Mead, near the Mill House. But Nesta showed no intention of leaving her husband or committing to Gluck whose diary entries became a litany of grievance and pain. She chronicled the times she and Nesta did, or did not spend together.

Gluck went on working – meticulous flower paintings, landscapes like The View from Blackdown the highest point in Sussex, a women’s institute meeting in the Plumpton village hall, portraits of local dignitaries – but she was heartbroken.

In October 1944 she moved to the Chantry House, Steyning at the invitation of the journalist Edith Heald. Edith had bought and renovated the house ten years previously with her sister Nora who was editor of The Lady. Gluck’s arrival struck a wedge between the sisters. After four tense years Nora moved out.

Nesta, as soon as the war’s travel restrictions were lifted, left for Hawaii.

For decades after the war Gluck lost her way as an artist. The times were austere and the trend was toward abstraction. She went out of fashion, produced very little and did not exhibit. From the early 1950s she turned against her paints, said they were slimy and porous and, in prolonged displacement activity, put her energy into a fight with the colourmen, Winsor & Newton and Rowneys, about her problems with machine-made paints.

Her Intimations, painted between 1961 and 1966, had a tentative quality but not the panache and vigour of her prewar work. ‘I do try to keep my eye on the ball’ she wrote in a diary note at the time, ‘which is to get back to work, to my vision. But vision comes from a basic certainty and I am far too easily wobbled’.

Painting of a fish skeleton lying on some sand

Credo (Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light) (1970–73), Gluck. Private collection.

Then, in 1968, after seventeen years of wrangling and a library of correspondence, Rowneys provided Gluck, free of charge and until her death some ten years later, with specialist paints, the pigments ground by hand. It would have been economically impossible to produce them in a commercial range.

With these handmade paints Gluck’s self-belief revived. Worthing beach was again the inspiration for an outstanding painting of her old age. As with Intimations the theme was mortality. She and Edith used take weekend breaks at the Beach Hotel in Worthing. Walking alone along the beach one cold evening in 1969 Gluck came across a fish’s head. It was lying at the edge of the sea, with the tide coming in. Gluck painted the worm casts, scales, torn tendons of the fish and froth of water with the same detail, delicacy of texture and technical excellence as in her flower paintings. She called this last work Credo (Rage, rage against the dying of the light) after the poem by Dylan Thomas.

She included it in her swan song exhibition held at The Fine Art Society in 1972 after a gap of forty years. Fifty two of her pictures were on show. They encapsulated her life and work. Her thirty-year relationship to Sussex was represented. There was the YouWe double portrait of her and Nesta, the punt on the lake at the Mill House, the village hall at Plumpton, Edith Heald as a wartime firewarden in Steyning, a bird flying into the sunset, the wave breaking on a stony beach. These paintings went beyond representation to reflect the landscape of Gluck’s heart and mind. Reviewers were as full of praise for this last exhibition as in Gluck’s prewar heyday.

 

Diana Souhami is the award-winning author of Gluck: Her Biography and other non-fiction and fiction books. She is a Rainbow List National Treasure and she lives in Cornwall.

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