I n 1972, a 78-year-old woman in a tweed overcoat and cape marched into the Fine Art Society, summoned the managing director and demanded a solo exhibition. ‘As my last show here was in 1937,’ she insisted, ‘I think it is time we considered another.’
Two years earlier, Gluck (‘no prefix, suffix, or quotes’) had written to her lover Nesta Obermer of her desire to ‘come back just sufficiently as a painter before my demise’ and ‘go out with a bang’. The resulting exhibition secured Gluck’s reputation as a major twentieth-century artist, whose elegant landscapes and still-lifes show a remarkable sensitivity to colour and light, and whose portraits of glamorous socialites and scenes of music-halls and cabarets capture the heady atmosphere of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
Gluck considered the Fine Art Society her ‘second home’. Following a debut exhibition in 1924 at the Dorien Leigh Gallery in Kensington, Gluck held ‘one-man shows’ at the FAS in 1926, 1932 and 1937, each opening to critical acclaim and immense public interest in the artist’s unconventional appearance and bohemian lifestyle. Born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895, Gluck cropped her hair, smoked a pipe and bought her clothes from men’s tailors: ‘I do not know that I should altogether like my own wife or my own daughters to adopt Miss Gluck’s style of dressing her hair or clothing her limbs,’ wrote one critic in 1926, ‘but I do know that I should be proud of them if they could paint as well as Miss Gluck paints.’
The works in ‘Stage and Country’ (1926) captured the duality of Gluck’s personal life, then split between the peaceful haven of Lamorna in Cornwall and the bustle of London’s high society. Delighted by the show’s success, Ernest Dawbarn, the gallery director, encouraged Gluck to return with new work as soon as possible. In 1932, the gallery’s main exhibition space was transformed into the ‘Gluck Room’, its panelling especially designed by the artist and the walls painted to her specifications. All works were presented in a patented frame of Gluck’s creation, featuring three steps of the same white as the backdrop, conceived to ensure harmony between art and setting. The reviews of this show, and another in 1937, at which the Room was reprised, were rapturous: Gluck was called ‘a remarkable genius’, her paintings ‘arresting in the extreme’. The run was extended for a month and attended by the Queen, while works previously purchased by friends and lovers were now sought by public galleries. Macy’s in New York asked to recreate the interior in their store. After her 1937 show, however, Gluck faded into obscurity, selling her studio and leaving Dawbarn’s letters unanswered. She poured her energies instead into a long campaign to improve the durability of artists’ paints, hoping to ensure her work would last; ironically while her active production dwindled.
In preparation for the 1973 exhibition, Gluck worked around the clock on several new paintings (when she suffered a heart attack, she phoned her lawyer to insert a clause into her will ensuring the show would go ahead even if she died before its opening). Fifty-two paintings were shown, representing the span of her long career: Gluck stayed for a month in a suite at the Westbury Hotel opposite the gallery, watching from her window as a stream of visitors arrived to pay tribute. Each day she sat there among her paintings (which included a self-portrait immediately bought by the National Gallery), regaling guests with stories of her life. The Financial Times was succinct in its assessment, which has stood the test of time: ‘Gluck,’ its critic wrote, ‘is a remarkable personality and her paintings are remarkable too.’
Francesca Wade is co-editor of The White Review. Her book about the women writers of Mecklenburgh Square will be published by Faber in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.