Essay: The Artist Gluck - Resistance, Dress & Legacy

by Amy de la Haye on 18 December 2020

Amy de la Haye explores the Queer legacy of Gluck via an analysis of the artist's personal possessions and dressed appearance.

Amy de la Haye explores the Queer legacy of Gluck via an analysis of the artist's personal possessions and dressed appearance.

‘When a loved one dies, suddenly their personal belongings and defining possessions come to the foreground of consciousness – they are truly noticed. This noticing is complex and often poignant. Death reconstructs our experiences of personal and household objects in particular ways; there is a strangeness of realising that things have outlived persons, and in this regard, the materiality of things is shown to be more permanent than the materiality of the body.' (Margaret Gibson Objects of the Dead: Mourning and Memory in Everyday Life 2008:1).

16. Gluck, 'Medallion (You/We)', oil on canvas, (30.5 x 35.6 cm), private collection.
10. Howard Coster, 'Portrait of Gluck', photograph, c.1932, courtesy of The Fine Art Society.

Gluck was the carefully constructed identity of Hannah Gluckstein (1895-1978), a significant modern British artist who challenged societal norms by adopting masculine dressed appearance, an unconventional name and who loved women. In 1977, aged 82 years, Gluck donated a group of 57 garments and dress-related items to Brighton Museum. In 1953 the artist had donated to the museum a hauntingly beautiful flower painting called The Devil's Altar (1932) [1]. The museum, which has major collections of decorative arts and fashion, is nearby Steyning, the small town where Gluck had lived with Edith Shackleton Heald (1885-1976) for over thirty years [2]. Parting with our most precious possessions forms part of the preparation for death. The gift was made one year after Edith had died and a year before Gluck’s own death. After a short contextual introduction, this essay explores this gift - Gluck’s legacy - as discovered by Martin Pel, fashion curator at Brighton Museum, and myself in 2015.

1. Gluck, 'The Devil’s Altar', oil on canvas, (135.8 x 74.9 cm), 1932. Given by Gluck to The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton.
'This also becomes a story about absent objects, the apparel that Gluck chose not to preserve, for future eyes.'

Since the late 20th century, Gluck has been positioned as an important figure within LGBTQIA+ lives. Diana Souhami’s book Gluck: Her Biography (Pandora: 1988, reprinted in 1989, 2000 and 2013) was vital in bringing the artist’s life and work to widespread attention. Souhami states that in 1988 it would have been unthinkable to use the term lesbian in the title (in conversation with the author). In the 21st century the transgender community have situated Gluck within their own historical trajectories. Gluck referred to ‘herself’ as a woman, with the rare exceptions when the term ‘husband’ and ‘boy-ee’ (Souhami, Gluck: Her Biography, pp.121-126) were used in relation to Nesta Obermer, the woman who stole and broke Gluck’s heart. Here, I avoid using gendered pronouns, which may make the writing appear ‘clunky’ in places.

Gluck was born into an affluent Jewish family who lived in north London and owned the J. Lyons & Co. catering empire. Defying family expectations Gluck trained to become an artist and in 1916, ran away with fellow student Craig (Miss E.M. Craig, 1893-1968) who is believed to be Gluck’s first lover. Together they joined the thriving arts community in Lamorna, near Newlyn in Cornwall. Gluck was to become an accomplished and versatile artist who painted portraits of the self and others (including a number of high society women and judges); floral still lifes; popular culture entertainments; land, sea and skyscapes [3] [4] [5] [6].

From 1926 the prestigious London gallery The Fine Arts Society represented Gluck whose exhibitions (1926, 1932, 1937, 1973 and 1980 - the latter one posthumously) were reviewed in the press, where journalists invariably also commented on the artist’s unconventional dressed appearance; the barber cut hair, tailored menswear and masculine accessories [7][8]. It was a style unlike the more feminised tailored dandy styles worn by artistic lesbians including Radclyffe Hall, Una Lady Troubridge and Romaine Brooks [9].

7. Gluck’s leather shoes bought at Fortnum & Mason, London, in the 1930s and subsequently bought and worn by Barbara Buckley. Photograph: Tessa Hallmann.
9. Romaine Brooks, 'Peter: A Young English Girl', oil on canvas, (127.3 x 76.4 cm), 1923-4, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist.

In 2015 Martin invited me to work with him to write a detailed review of the museum’s dress collection, which involved examining some 10,000 objects and making recommendations for its future (our suggestions included significantly building the collection of clothing worn by the large local LGBTQIA+ community). We already enjoyed a shared fascination for Gluck’s art, life and dressed appearance and were familiar with some items in the collection - notably the linen smock the artist wore to be photographed by Howard Coster [10] [11]. Also, a group of Tunisian menswear, (where Gluck had spent time working in the 1930s), that shows no signs of wear. But other items we discovered took us by surprise.

The gift includes three black evening dresses dating from the 1930s [12], clearly worn by someone much taller than Gluck and several flower-patterned daywear dresses from the 1950s worn by someone more petite [13] ; a group of costume jewellery; a fob watch; two black leather handbags; two Victorian beaded reticules with flower patterns; Tunisian tunics, salwar and caps, a large 1920s shawl with a pattern of roses and a single Vogue Paper pattern (not for the aforementioned dresses). There were none of the tailored items or dashing hats which Gluck wore in everyday life and to pose for formal photographic portraits. As such, this also becomes a story about absent objects, the apparel that Gluck chose not to preserve - or simply overlooked - for future eyes.

Gluck had adopted menswear style tailoring and workwear in the early-to-mid-1920s and retained this style of dress into old age. Was this apparel considered still serviceable, simply overlooked or, in line with prevailing museology, considered too utilitarian or not ‘special’ enough for a museum dress collection? Yet, in the context of several of the seemingly fairly mundane (in terms of design, materiality and condition) gifts donated - and perhaps surprisingly accepted by the museum - this seems less plausible.

11. Gluck’s smock, linen (styled with a modern zipped sweater), 1930s. The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton. Photograph: Tessa Hallmann.

Intrigued we embarked upon a two-year research project. With the generous support of Gluck’s family, we were granted access to Gluck’s (private family) archive, which is divided into papers relating to Gluck’s career and personal papers, such as letters and snapshots. It soon became evident that the dresses Gluck gifted were worn by Nesta Obermer [14] [15] [16], who refused to leave her wealthy husband and society lifestyle to make a life with Gluck in the 1930s, and Edith Shackleton Heald. Gluck had chosen not to preserve personal clothing, but instead to safeguard items imprinted with wear by Nesta and Edith, that were holders of deeply personal meanings.

A visit to the small local history museum in Steyning revealed other garments and new lines of enquiry. Following the artist’s death, and (like many LGBTQIA+ people) without an heir, Gluck’s ‘valuables’ were sold at auction. What remained - including items of Gluck’s own clothing - were sold at a local jumble sale in aid of charity. Several garments were purchased by Dr Barbara Buckley, who aged 17 years worked at Churchman's auction house on a Saturday and had become fascinated by Gluck. Barbara bought Gluck’s leather collar box containing handkerchiefs; a pair of leather shoes that she subsequently wore extensively herself; a long black silk velvet coat; a maroon-coloured spotted silk scarf (which the artist was photographed wearing in the style of a cravat [17]); a Harris tweed Ulster coat and a masculine felt hat. The collar box, shoes and scarf survive.

In later life, the artist’s paintings reflect a preoccupation with mortality. Requiem (1964) depicted a dead sparrow and Credo (Rage, rage against the dying of the light) (1970/73) captures the head of a cod fish, found decaying on a local beach. Credo’s sub-title came from the poem ‘Do not go Gentle into that Good Night’ (1947) by Dylan Thomas, written when his father was dying. In a letter written to Andrew McIntosh Patrick, one of The Fine Art Society’s Directors, Gluck wrote the following statement to accompany the catalogue entry of this painting: ‘I am living daily with death and decay, and it is beautiful & calming. Something vital emanates.' (Dated 1970, Gluck archive).

12. Evening dress, black rayon and lace, made by Cresta Silks, mid-to-late 1930s. The dress almost certainly belonged to Nesta Obermer. The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton. Photograph: Tessa Hallmann.
13. A group of dresses dating from the 1950s that were almost certainly worn by Edith Shackleton Heald. The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton. Photograph: Tessa Hallmann.

See image references below, including more examples of Gluck’s paintings and apparel, some with detailed captions that expand the above narrative on Gluck’s life, art and legacy.

Our research was published as Gluck: Art & Identity (edited by Amy de la Haye and Martin Pel, Yale University Press, 2017). An exhibition of the same title, co-created with Jeffrey Horsley, was staged at Brighton Museum in 2017. The point at which our research entered the public domain was timely. Also in 2017 The Fine Art Society staged a Gluck retrospective exhibition, Tate Britain chose Gluck’s 1942 self-portrait [5] - in which the artist appears defiant and vulnerable - as the poster image for Queer British Art (2017) and BBC 4 commissioned Clare Beavan to make the documentary Gluck: Who did she think he was? .

I would like to thank Penny and the late Roy Gluckstein, Patrick Duffy (The Fine Art Society) Martin Pel (Brighton Museum) and Tessa Hallmann (photographer).

Amy de la Haye is Professor of Dress History & Curatorship and joint director of the research Centre for Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion. @amy.delahaye_curator

  1. Datura, also known as devil's trumpet, is a herbaceous plant that is a powerful hallucinogen, used in ‘love potions’ and ‘witches brews’. Datura was the favourite flower of the fashionable flower decorator Constance Spry (1886-1960) with whom Gluck was having a relationship.
2. Gluck with Edith, photograph, late 1940s. This is a rare photograph which shows Gluck’s head to toe dress, including dapper shoes. Original image, Gluck private family archive.
3. Catalogue cover for the ‘Queer British Art’ (2017) exhibition at Tate Britain featuring Gluck’s ‘Self-Portrait’ [oil on canvas,(30.6 x 25.4 cm) 1942] , which forms part of the National Portrait Gallery's collections. It was painted just a couple of years after Nesta had finished the pair’s romantic relationship, from which Gluck would never fully recover (although they stayed in touch later in life).
4. Gluck, 'Spiritual', oil on canvas, (40 x 40 cm), 1927, private collection. Gluck advertised for a model in order to explore the possibilities of painting the face of a Black person against a black background; ostensibly an exercise in tonality, the result is a highly sensitive and accomplished portrait.
5. Gluck, 'Primavera', oil on canvas, (63.2 x 38.7 cm), c.1923. Recently purchased by The Tate. This is, to the best of the author’s knowledge, the artist’s only painting of a nude. The body, ostensibly female is depicted devoid of hair and has pronounced musculature.
6. Gluck, 'The Punt', c. 1937, oil on canvas (18.5 x 24.5 cm), private collection. Gluck and Nesta spent romantic afternoons entwined together in the punt, anchored on the lake in the garden of Nesta’s home in Plumpton, East Sussex. The director of The Fine Art Society thought the painting too suggestive and refused to exhibit it in Gluck’s 1937 exhibition (Diana Souhami, 'Gluck: Art & Identity', p.54).
8. Unattributed press clipping ‘Why She Feels Better in Men’s Clothes’, 1 July 1926, Gluck private family archive.

9. Brooks’ dramatic, largely monochromatic, modern canvas presents her subject as dashing, grave and introspective: it is a manner in which men are often portrayed. There are no other references to Gluck being called Peter.

14. Nesta and Gluck ice skating in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, photograph, 1938-39, Gluck private family archive.
15. Gluck, 'Bank Holiday Monday', oil on canvas (23.7 x 18.7 cm), c. 1937, private collection. Art curator Simon Martin writes, ‘While outwardly the type of clothing that night be worn by a dandyish young man of the period, the brassy yellow hair that is clearly artificially dyed, dark lip-colour and shapeliness of the eyebrow imply that this is either an effeminate male or a woman in menswear.’ (Simon Martin, 'Gluck: Art & Identity', p.93).

16. This double-portrait shows the artist with Nesta Obermer, the woman with whom Gluck fell deeply in love. It was painted to mark what Gluck considered to be the occasion of their marriage. It is a seminal depiction of LGBTIA+ love and relationships.

17. Gluck at the FAS wearing a silk scarf that was later purchased at the aforementioned jumble sale, it now forms part of the collection at Brighton Museum. Gluck private family archive.
18. Gluck relaxing in the garden at the Chantry House, Steyning, 1960s.



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