Another forgotten hero for LGBT history month, another lesser known artist from the 20th Century, this time a woman.
Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein on 13 August 1895) was a British painter and lesbian who refused to conform to expectations: about her art, how she presented or who she loved.
She was the daughter of Joseph Gluckstein (brother to the founders of J. Lyons and Co., the coffee house and catering empire) and had a privileged London upbringing, after which she attended St John’s Wood School of Art (1913-1916). However, from here her life was to take anything but a conventional path. Instead of settling into London society to marry and paint watercolours, she ran away with her fellow art student and lover, E M Craig (known by her surname, ‘Craig’). Their destination was the Cornish artists community of Lamorna.
Once there, Gluck was finally free to be herself. She smoked a pipe and rejected the prefixes that would automatically identify a woman as married or single (Miss or Mrs). In common with some of her lesbian friends, she sometimes used a male name (in her case the names Peter and Hig). However, she always refused the label ‘Mr’.
Just like her life, no labels could contain Gluck’s art. As The Guardian described: “In keeping with her personality, however, she refused to identify with any particular school or painting movement”. Despite this, Gluck’s first solo exhibition in 1924, sold all fifty seven paintings.
Gluck wore her hair short and dressed in tailored menswear, a style popular with lesbians at the time. This was an era before women-only dating sites, magazines or bars and to be an open lesbian was a matter of social shame and exclusion, so lesbians in the 1920’s and 1930’s had to rely on such codes to identify one another.
Gluck was to go on to have a passionate romance with civil servant, food writer and florist Constance Spry, who is likely to have been the inspiration for many of Gluck’s floral paintings in the 1930’s. One particularly striking painting from 1936 depicts a plant known as ‘Lords and Ladies’. This curious plant is in fact carnivorous. Insects fall into the lily like tubes and drown and are dissolved in the pool of liquid in the base. A fiercely unconventional choice of bouquet for a lady.
Although Gluck successfully exhibited and sold her work throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was her portrait known as ‘Medallion’ (1937), perhaps her most famous, which was to cement her legacy.
This portrait emerged from Gluck’s relationship with Nesta Obermer, which began with a visit in May 1936 to Obermer’s family home in East Sussex. Following this meeting Gluck concluded her relationship with Spry (and, in a very gentlemanly gesture, apparently burning Spry’s love letters on a bonfire shortly afterwards). The relationship with Orbermer that followed was one of the most important of her life and the inspiration for Medallion. This dual portrait of Gluck and Obermer, was apparently inspired by a night out together attending Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Described in Diana Souhami’s biography to Gluck, “They sat together in the third row and felt the intensity of the music fused them both into one person and matched their love.”
Medallion has become an iconic statement of lesbian love and identity, such that it was chosen as the 1982 cover of Radclyffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness’.
Gluck’s love affairs were multiple and passionate. However like many famous historical lesbians (such as both Radclyffe Hall and Anne Lister) those she loved were not always prepared to defy the conventions of their times. Obermer never left her husband for her ‘wife’ Gluck. That said, it’s probably fair to add that Gluck was not overly restrained by expectations of monogamy. She also lived with another female lover during her relationship with Obermer. This was the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald, who she met in 1943 and who was also lover to WB Yeats. It was all very exciting.
However, after the success of Gluck’s early career, by the interwar period she was falling out of fashion. After her relationship with Obermer ended, so too did Gluck’s art. Although she continued her relationship with Shackleton Heald and the two moved to Sussex, she painted nothing.
It would be the 1960’s before Gluck’s inspiration returned, with new paintings and a well-received solo show. Gluck’s last major work (completed 1973) was a painting of a fish head entitled ‘Rage, Rage against the Dying of the Light’ (a possible reference to the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that good night’). Until the end, a woman of unconventionality, fire and defiance. Shacklton Heald died in 1976, followed two years later by Gluck in 1978, at the age of 82.
I’m grateful for the following articles, which I drew upon when researching Gluck, and which provide further insights into her life and images of her work:
- Guardian 2021 article in collaboration with Art UK | The Great British Art Tour: Gluck shapes herself with gender defiance
- museumcrush.org | The enigma of Gluck: Discovering the artist behind the lesbian icon
- See also AfterEllen.com | Gluck: The Artist Who Rejected Gender and Genre