Gluck: Her Biography

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Gluck: Her Biography

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780044405450
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1989
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 340
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.75 (d)

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Her Biography

By Diana Souhami


Copyright © 1989 Diana Souhami
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8335-8



On the backs of photographic prints of her paintings, sent out for publicity purposes, she always wrote in her elegant handwriting: 'Please return in good condition to Gluck, no prefix, suffix, or quotes.' She pronounced her chosen name with a short vowel sound to rhyme with, say, cluck, or duck. She was born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895, into the family that founded the J. Lyons & Co. catering empire, but seldom wanted her wealthy family connections or hated patronymic known.

To Nesta Obermer, her blonde alter ego in 'Medallion', a painting of their merged profiles, she was 'Darling Tim', or 'My bestest darling Timothy Alf', or 'My Black Brat'. Romaine Brooks, twenty years her senior, did a portrait of her in 1924 called 'Peter – a Young English Girl'. To one at least of her admirers she was 'Dearest Rabbitskinsnootchbunsnoo'. To Edith Shackleton Heald, the journalist with whom she lived for close on forty years, she was 'Dearest Grub'. To her family she was 'Hig'. To her servants and the tradespeople she was Miss Gluck and to the art world and in her heart she was simply Gluck.

The reason she gave for choosing to be known by this austere monosyllable was that the paintings mattered, not the sex of the painter. She said she thought it sensible to follow the example of artists like Whistler and use a symbol by way of identification. More fundamentally, she had no inclination to conform to society's expectations of womanly behaviour and she wanted to sever herself, but not entirely, from her family.

Gluck she was, and could and did become high-handed and litigious in so being. Many were confused and bewildered as to how to address her with courtesy. She had an irritated exchange with her bank when an unwitting clerk fed her name into the computer as Miss H. Gluck. A graphic designer, faced with the uncomfortable visual dilemma of trying to make GLUCK look comprehensible on the letterhead of stationery for an art society which featured her, along with the Bishop of Chichester and Duncan Grant as its Vice Presidents, stuck in an ameliorating Miss. Gluck resigned and insisted on the inking out of her name. When Weidenfeld & Nicolson published a minor novel which featured an eccentric fictional vagabond called Glück with an umlaut, who lived in a lodging house and painted pictures of defunct clocks and bus tickets, they found themselves besieged with solicitor's letters.1 Gluck regarded any encroachment on her chosen name as trespass liable for prosecution.

Throughout her adult life she dressed in men's clothes, pulled the wine corks and held the door for true ladies to pass first. An acquaintance, seeing her dining alone, remarked that she looked like the ninth Earl, a description which she liked. She had a last for her shoes at John Lobb's the Royal bootmakers, got her shirts from Jermyn Street, had her hair cut at Truefitt gentlemen's hairdressers in Old Bond Street, and blew her nose on large linen handkerchiefs monogrammed with a G. In the early decades of this century, when men alone wore the trousers, her appearance made heads turn. Her father, a conservative and conventional man, was utterly dismayed by her 'outré clobber', her mother referred to a 'kink in the brain' which she hoped would pass, and both were uneasy at going to the theatre in 1918 with Gluck wearing a wide Homburg hat and long blue coat, her hair cut short and a dagger hanging at her belt.

In 1916 when Gluck was breaking from her family home and staying with the Newlyn School of painters in Lamorna, Cornwall, Alfred Munnings sketched her smoking her pipe and dressed as a gypsy. The society photographer E. O. Hoppé, who encouraged her to stage her first exhibition in 1924, featured a series of photographs of her, along with Mussolini, Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw, in The Royal Magazine in December 1926:

I am often asked what I see in the face of my sitters. My answer is: 'I see what I seek – beauty.' Gluck's facial contour indicates the qualities expressed in her paintings, combining force and decision with the sensitiveness of the visionary. To look at her face is to understand both her success as an artist and the fact that she dresses as a man. Originality, determination, strength of character and artistic insight are expressed in every line.

He seemed to imply that such qualities are quintessentially masculine. And Gluck regarded peacefulness and mystery as female attributes and strength and genius as male.

In company her appearance and manner were riveting. She was authoritative, had a quality of stillness, a clear voice and no social embarrassment. She liked the discomfort her cross-dressing caused and enjoyed recounting examples of it, like the occasion in the 1930s when she arrived with a theatre party at the Trocadero Restaurant, owned by J. Lyons & Co., to be told no table was free. She pulled rank and gave her family name. "Ere,' the doorman said,' "e say's she's Miss Gluckstein.' Influenced by Constance Spry, with whom she had a close relationship from 1932–6, she for a time turned androgyny into high fashion. Constance took her to the couturiers Elsa Schiaparelli, Victor Stiebel and Madame Karinska in Paris. They dressed her in pleated culotte, long velvet tunics and Edwardian suits. On holidays with Constance in Tunisia Gluck dressed in a burnous with a geranium behind her ear. In later years, when disappointed in love and at odds with the world, she lost her sartorial flair, bought her pyjamas and jumpers at Marks & Spencer and wore a duffel coat. She was always fastidious though. If she found a crease in her laundered linen painting-smock she sent it back to the kitchen for a maid to iron again.

She did several self-portraits, all of them mannish. There was a jaunty and defiant one in beret and braces – stolen in 1981 – and another, now in the National Portrait Gallery, which shows her as arrogant and disdainful. She painted it when suffering acutely from the tribulations of love. A couple of others she destroyed when depressed about her life.

She dressed as she did not simply to make her sexual orientation public, though that of course she achieved. By her appearance she set herself apart from society, alone with what she called the 'ghost' of her artistic ambition. And at a stroke she distanced herself from her family's expectations, which were that she should be educated and cultured but pledged to hearth and home. They would have liked her to marry well, which meant a man from a similar Jewish background to hers – preferably one of her cousins – and to live, as wife and mother, a normal, happy life. By her 'outré clobber' Gluck said 'no' to all that, for who in his right mind would court a woman in a man's suit? Her rebelliousness cut her father to the quick and he thought it a pose. But however provocative her behaviour there was no way he would cease to provide for her, his concept of family loyalty and obligation was too strong.

Courtesy of her private income, she lived in style with staff – a housekeeper, cook and maids – to look after her. She always kept a studio in Cornwall. In the 1920s and 30s she lived in Bolton House, a large Georgian house in Hampstead village. After the war she settled in Sussex in the Chantry House, Steyning, with Edith Shackleton Heald, journalist, essayist and lover of the poet W. B. Yeats in his twilight years. Both residences had elegantly designed detached studios.

In her painting, as in her name, appearance and manner of life, Gluck was unique. She was scornful of art school teaching and of trends and fashions in art, but appreciative of all talent she thought true. 'I cannot' she wrote, 'imagine enjoying life at all unless one's responses were catholic, embracing the first primitives of all races to the latest genuinely spiritually motivated creation.' She resolved early on to show her work only in solo exhibitions, for she felt unallied to any movement, group or school. 'It used to annoy me when I was younger to be told continually how "original" I was. What is there so original in just being oneself and speaking one's mind?'

The 'heart' of her paintings is an intense and private response to her subject. Though they seem like straightforward versions of reality they have a strong inward meaning. In what she called her Credo she referred to the true artist as

... a conduit open to any unexpected experience, a lightning conductor.... The Vision dictates everything in the flash of reception. The entire composition is received as a whole in scale and in content.... The Vision once received remains a tyrant. The process of distillation is arduous, the temptations numerous and the discipline needed sometimes hard to endure ...

Gluck held five exhibitions of her work: in 1924, 1926, 1932, 1937 and then, after a gap of thirty-six years, in 1973. All of them were met with excitement and praise. 'The private view to see the "Diverse Paintings" by Gluck', wrote The Star Man's Diary, 3 November 1932, in a review typical of all she received:

attracted a crowd of celebrities all day. One need not be surprised, for Gluck, as this Eton-cropped artist, who is a delightful law unto herself, insists on being called, is a remarkable genius and her pictures and their setting are arresting in the extreme.

Queen Mary, Lady Mount Temple – stepmother to Edwina, who married Lord Mountbatten, Sir Francis Oppenheimer the owner of South African diamond mines, Cecil Beaton, Syrie Maugham and the theatre impresario C. B. Cochran were among the famous and rich who called at 'The Gluck Room' of The Fine Art Society to see her paintings and acquire them for their walls.

At the time of the Second World War and at the height of her career she faded from sight. A conflation of troubles, the acutest of which was disappointment in love, made her wilt as a person and painter. But though buried she was not dead. When nearing eighty she unearthed herself and held a final exhibition which generated as much buzz and enthusiasm as when she had been young. 'What is the link?' she asked in a letter to The Fine Art Society (14 August 1976) two years before she died. 'By what content would one recognise a picture was mine? I, of course, am the last person to be able to answer such a question. So? It will be too late for me when posterity decides.'

Gluck regarded herself as an essentially British painter and chose subjects intrinsic to her life: bleached, spare, light-filled landscapes done when she was in Cornwall, formal flower groups when with Constance Spry, genre pieces of events of the day, portraits of her family, friends and lovers and of the elegant society women with whom she socialized. She used the visual vocabulary of the decades through which she lived in an unselfconscious and personal way: like the 'Odeon' style of her painting, done in the twenties, of 'The Three Nifty Nats' doing a song and dance routine; or the thirties craze for all-white interiors reflected in her flower paintings 'Chromatic' and 'Lilies'. Her paintings linked to her inner feelings and to events, people and places in her life. In a sense she painted her life, from which her work was indivisible. But she was also rooted to the spirit of her time and in the best of her work to all time.

She had exacting standards of form and technique. Her musicality – she wavered between singing or painting as a career – is reflected in her strong visual sense of harmony and composition. She was literary which shows in her sense of implication of meaning – of more than meets the eye. And she was a perfectionist who took extraordinary care in matching colour and texture; she would spend days painting the underside of a petal of a flower with a brush with one or two hairs in it, until she got it right.

Her portraits of women are among her best work. The national art galleries house an abundance of reclining nudes but not many portraits of women by women. Gluck's women wear their hats, jewellery and clothes, to show their self-assurance, assertiveness, status and style. Her portrait of Molly Mount Temple, at one of whose glittering party weekends at Broadlands Gluck met the love of her life, is a study in arrogance and disdain: arms akimbo, wearing clothes by Schiaparelli, her hat and aquamarines badges of status and power, her lips and nails bright red and an M for Molly and Mount Temple engraved on the buckle of her belt.

In the 1920s when the world was dancing mad, when every restaurant in town had a floorshow and C. B. Cochran's reviews were a showcase for theatrical talent, Gluck went again and again to the London Pavilion, advertised as 'The Centre of the World', to paint scenes from the most popular of his shows, On with the Dance. In the thirties, much influenced by Constance Spry, she painted formal arrangements of flowers in ornate vases. Fashionable interior designers, Oliver Hill, Syrie Maugham, Norman Wilkinson, hung her paintings in rooms they designed. In the war years Gluck captured the spirit of the home front in pictures of soldiers playing snooker, or the firewarden's office at one in the morning. In her last years, when she was beached, lost and lonely, that was what her painting showed: a lone bird flying into the sunset, waves washing in on a deserted shore, an iridescent fish head washed up by the tide.

Like Mondrian she tried to see paintings as part of an architectural setting. She designed and patented a frame which bears her name. It consisted of three symmetrically-stepped panels painted the same colour as the wall on which it was hung, or covered in the same paper. The effect was to incorporate the picture into the wall. She patented it in 1932 and used it in all subsequent exhibitions to create what became known as 'The Gluck Room', the total architectural effect of paintings and their setting.

Her private income meant she was not driven to earn her living from work. She painted only what she chose. She disliked commercialism, easy production and the second-rate in art: 'I made a vow that I would never prostitute my work and I never have.... Never, never, have I attempted to earn my bread at the cost of my work.' She had, too, grand ideas of Time and Vision and her own genius. She was capable of spending three years on a picture then destroying it if she felt it to be no good:

Your thoughts span the heavens and the earth, why should your achievements be limited to the days. Think of each day as a part of Time and the 'waste' of this day will have no more meaning for you. You cannot waste time unless what you do is unworthy of your spirit. How surely will your tortoise run to someone else's hare.

She admitted to a sense of timelessness which in later life cost her dear:

As life went on I spent it prodigally, unwisely. The sense of timelessness deceived me into thinking my time was limitless for creation. Only within the last tormented years have I seen how ambivalent this sense of timelessness has been. It gave eternal qualities to my work, perhaps, but it also limited its output.

When young she felt her life was charmed. Aged forty-one she fell in love and thought it would last for ever. In essence she was a romantic optimist and when Love 'to all Eternity' failed her, as in the 1940s Love did because it had no pragmatic base, she locked into sorrow with the tenacity she brought to work or pleasure. The failure of love crippled her self-regard, made her deny herself the consolation of work and behave in a destructive way toward those who sought to help her.

Obsession was her Aristotelian fatal flaw of character. At its best it supported her perfectionism – an absolute dedication and commitment to each of her paintings. At its most wasteful it caused her to 'campaign' on issues which she always regarded as important, but which consumed her time, energy and focus.

The great battle which kept her from her easel, was over the quality of artists' materials. It became known as her 'paint war'. She fought it with the paint manufacturers, the British Standards Institution and, it seemed, the world at large, for more than a decade – from 1953 to 1967. It began because she ran into difficulties when painting. Her materials started to behave unpredictably:

All industrially made oil paints throughout the world exhibit a greasy turbidity which I have named 'the suede effect' manifested by a change of tone and colour according to the direction taken by the brush. This disgusting effect is caused by pigments being too finely ground, linseed oil being hot pressed instead of cold pressed, as also by lead soaps and other deleterious additives.

She eventually got the British Standards Institution to formulate a standard for artists' oils which provided a recognized specification, and she got the manufacturers, Rowneys, to produce specialist paints, made with hand-ground pigments and cold-pressed linseed oil that were perfect for her. But she wasted years of creative time in her paint war. She fought it because she wanted her work to last for ever; yet she seemed unconscious of the irony that not to produce paintings is the surest way to artistic oblivion.


Excerpted from Gluck by Diana Souhami. Copyright © 1989 Diana Souhami. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. 'Gluck, no prefix, no quotes',
2. 'The Family',
3. Stage and country,
4. Bolton House,
5. White flowers,
6. The Gluck Frame,
PART TWO: LOVE 1936–1944,
7. 'YouWe',
8. Roots and brambles,
9. Blaze with a fire,
10. The Queen wore peacock blue,
11. 'The brind and the wheeze',
12. The war effort,
13. The war within,
14. The eternal triangle,
15. Yeats's bones,
16. Cosmic injustice,
17. The paint war,
18. Lacuna,
19. A retrospective view,
20. The dying of the light,
Image gallery,
Works illustrated,
About the Author,

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