GLUCK

BBC TV recently broadcast a programme about the painter Gluck (1895-1978), who was born Hannah Gluckstein into the family that started the successful J. Lyons catering empire. She was a considerable artist and is now a gay icon.

Gluck dressed in a masculine style, had her hair cut short, and, if one is to judge from the photos she had taken of herself (above), she was aware of her striking and handsome appearance. She refused to be called Hannah, or Miss Gluck – she was just Gluck without forename or prefix. She benefited from her family’s money and did not risk it by taking her lovers to meet them.

I was interested in Gluck because she is a cousin of my friend David Cheepen, who is also an artist. David’s mother, Dorothy Gluckstein, was a hairdresser and his father a proof reader. They were pretty hard up and saw none of the Gluckstein money. They were members of the Communist Party until 1956 and then were politically homeless.

Gluck’s biographer, Diana Souhami, was helped by a rich personal archive. The love of Gluck’s life was Nesta Obermer but she also had an affair with the floral artist Constance Spry, who inspired the stylised flower painting for which Gluck is best known, and it was a surprise to me that one of her lovers was the actress Annette Mills, who fronted the early BBC TV children’s programme familiar to all baby boomers, Muffin the Mule. At the time no-one imagined Muffin was gay, but we are now told that he had a suggestive name.

Gluck got good portrait commissions. Her picture of the fantastically bewhiskered psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne is in the National Portrait Gallery, as is her moving self-portrait of 1942. She insisted that her work should be exhibited in a special frame, which she patented as the Gluck Frame and which was used in Art Deco interiors.

The TV programme was gossipy and focused on Gluck’s style, character, love life and on her subversion of gender categories rather than on her her art. She was a fluent but conventional painter, which obviously helped her to get the good commissions, but although she challenged sexual conventions, she was, in contrast to, say, the Bloomsbury group, not at all Bohemian. At her height, she had smart houses at good addresses, servants and skiing holidays when that signified something. Later she lived modestly in Cornwall and did small, sincere landscapes.

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