In November 1932, the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street, London, hosted Gluck’s much heralded third solo exhibition. Constance Spry decorated the Fine Art Society galleries for the exhibition. All the paintings were hung in the main gallery which Gluck transformed into what became known as the Gluck Room. All her paintings were mounted in her own Gluck frames. This frame was described in Jacob Simon’s 1996 book, The Art of the Picture Frame:
“…The essential feature of the Gluck frame’, according to a note in the catalogue of her 1937 Fine Art Society exhibition, ‘is that it becomes part of any wall whatever its character, colour or period… It can be painted the same colour as the wall, or covered with the same wall-paper, or made in any wall material…”
Gluck designed the interior of the Gluck room. It was a series of white panelled bays and pilasters which echoed the steps of the Gluck frames and this resulted in a unified effect of pictures and their setting. Modern furniture was added. Twenty-nine of Gluck’s paintings were shown at this exhibition, eleven of them were depictions of flowers with the pride of place going to her painting entitled Chromatic. Others on display were portraits of her mother, James Crichton-Browne, Margaret Watts and Georgina Cookson.
There was also room for landscape paintings featuring her beloved Cornwall.
The exhibition was a great success and the visitors from all walks of life queued to see Gluck’s paintings. Even Queen Mary put in an appearance. So popular was the exhibition that the Fine Art Society extended its run for a month and added a few more of Gluck’s paintings. Newspaper and magazine reviews couldn’t have been better. In the journal, The Lady, the art critic wrote of Gluck’s sensitive brush and delicate sense of tone, colour and composition:
“…no one who loves painting should miss this exhibition. It is perhaps not irrelevant that it occurs at the tercentenary of Vermeer…”
The Sunday Times regaled Gluck’s clarity of definition, clean light colour, feeling for stately design and Florentine dignity of composition, whilst The Times commented on Gluck’s suavity of workmanship. Most of the newspapers ran pictures of her work and gave passionate and affirmative reviews.
It was in early 1932 that another woman came into Gluck’s life. She was Ella Ernestine Sawyer, known as Nesta Sawyer. Gluck and Constance Spry were invited to a dinner party at Broadlands, in Romsey, Hampshire by Molly Mount Temple. Broadlands was a Palladian mansion and the home to Molly and Wilfred Ashley, the 1st Baron Mount Temple and once the country residence of Lord Palmerston when he was prime minister. Molly Mount Temple, an imperious figure, was the second wife of Ashley and a regular client of Constance Spry. Constance arranged the flowers at Broadlands and Molly’s London town house, Gayfere House in Westminster. In 1936 Gluck painted the portrait of this commanding female entitled The Lady Mount Temple. We see her imposing figure dressed by the Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli in black and white. Her head is cocked to one side with a haughty look of arrogance. At that soirée, Molly introduced Nesta Obermer to Gluck.
Nesta was the daughter of a diplomat who had married the wealthy playwright Seymour Obermer in 1925 when she was thirty-one years of age. Before the marriage Nesta Sawyer had some of her literary works published under the name, Nesta Sawyer. Seymour Obermer, a widower, was some thirty years older than his wife. The couple led a glittering international life, wintering in Switzerland and spending the summers in Venice. For the elderly Seymour Obermer, his wife added a touch of style and elegance to his life. I suppose in today’s parlance she would be looked upon as his “trophy wife”. Diana Souhami summed up Nesta’s character in her biography of Gluck:
“…Strength and fearlessness were Nesta’s attributes. It was she who loved life to the full, charmed people with her glamour, generosity and understanding, had a go at everything – painting, writing, singing, drove fast cars, got her pilot’s licence, did yoga, got gold medals for skating and skiing and travelled the world…”
May 23rd 1932 was a special day for Gluck. This was the day that a chauffeur driven car whisked her off to Nesta’s home, The Mill House, which was in the East Sussex village of Plumpton. Gluck was to be Nesta and Seymour’s weekend guest. According to Gluck’s letters it was during this weekend that Nesta and Gluck fell in love. From then on, this day in May was looked upon as their anniversary date. From then on Gluck’s diary was full of entries about when the two women met, lunched, dined and sent and received each other’s letters. Gluck later looked upon the letters as the YouWe letters, letters which were affirmations of their romantic love that spanned the gap of frequent separation. Some of the hand-written love letters still survive but when the relationship ended Nesta destroyed many she had received from Gluck and sent some back to Gluck.
In June 1936 Gluck and Nesta embarked on a lesbian relationship which was so intense and all-consuming that it caused a division between Gluck and her previous close friends such as former lover, Constance Spry.
This close relationship with Nesta was to lead to Gluck’s most famous painting, completed in 1936, known as Medallion or the YouWe painting. The work is a portrait of Gluck and Nesta Obermer and according to Gluck it came about after the two women went to see the Mozart opera, Don Giovanni at Glynbourne on June 23rd 1936. Nesta and Gluck sat in the third row of the stalls and Gluck recalled how she felt the intensity of the music which fused them into one person and matched their love. In her biography of Gluck, Diana Souhami describes the painting:
“…The gaze of aspiration and direction and the determined jaws have something of a feel of socialist revolutionary art. Nesta’s fair hair forms a halo around Gluck’s dark head…”
This dual-portrait depicts the artist and her lover, the American socialite Nesta Obermer. Gluck was forty-one and Nesta forty-three. The painting which was quite small (31 x 36cms) is the bringing together of Gluck with Nesta Obermer, whom she termed “her dear wife”. The painting hung on a wall in Gluck’s Bolton House residence and it consoled her during the frequent weeks of separation while Nesta travelled the world with her American husband. For Nesta the painting was all about teasing people who, on looking at the depiction of the two women, began to wonder about the nature of their relationship. The depiction was a dichotomy of honesty and restraint. For Gluck this relationship with Nesta was one she believed would last forever. It was a relationship which would banish her loneliness but of course like many relationships there is often an end point. The end point for Gluck’s relationship with Constance Spry came the day after Gluck and Nesta had attended the Glyndebourne opera. Gluck had invited Constance to dinner at Bolton House and during that evening Gluck told her that they could no longer be lovers. It was the end of the relationship. Constance had been a great influence on Gluck. She encouraged Gluck’s talent and introduced her into the heart of 1930’s English high society.
Gluck’s deep love and all-consuming passion for Nesta can be seen in a letter she wrote to her in the Autumn of 1936:
“…My own darling wife. I have just driven back in a sudden almost tropical downpour in keeping with my feelings at leaving you – my divine sweetheart, my love, my life. I felt so much I could hardly be said to feel at all – almost numb and yet every nerve ready to jump into sudden life…………..I love you with all my being now and for ever. Good morning dear heart and goodbye…”
Nesta was Gluck’s inspiration and in Gluck’s mind, her wife. In 1936, she wrote to Nesta:
“…Love, you are such an inspiration to me, and that you should be my darling wife too is all any man can expect out of life, don’t you agree?…”
Like all relationships there are good times and bad times. In 1937 Nesta Obermer was experiencing a lot of her own problems. Her elderly father was dying and her mother was becoming wary of her daughter’s relationship with Gluck, which she had been told by her daughter was just a casual relationship. Gluck was also starting to be concerned about her relationship with Nesta. She was jealous of Seymour and felt side-lined by his rightful claim on his wife’s time. She was starting to believe that her love for Nesta was much stronger than Nesta’s love for her. Gluck’s anticipation of receiving at least one letter a day from Nesta did not seem to be reciprocated by Nesta in her attitude to Gluck’s letters of love which she seemed to open “when she had time” unlike Gluck who almost opened Nesta’s letters before they exited the letterbox in her hallway. She mentioned this to Nesta in her letter but fearing that the tone of the missive would be seen as complaining, she ended by saying:
“…Don’t make any mistake – I know you love me, I know how you love me and I know that nothing like this can prevent me loving you, but my ears went back and I felt the armour close with a snap again round my heart which had become, I suddenly realised dangerously softened…”
Nesta was feeling the pressure from all sides as she wintered with her husband in St Moritz. Her father was dying (he died in April that year) and she felt guilty for not returning home to visit him as her mother pleaded for her to do. Gluck was becoming more needy, also wanting her to come back to England as she was barely surviving on just Nesta’s letters. Nesta’s husband Seymour wanted her to stay and in fact he wanted to lengthen their planned winter stay in Switzerland. It was almost certain that Gluck disliked Seymour’s hold on his wife and Seymour disliked Gluck’s influence on his wife and because of all this, Nesta was being torn different ways by various people.
For Gluck her artistic life had to continue notwithstanding her often troubled relationship with Nesta and on November 16th 1937 her new solo exhibition at the New Bond Street premises of The Fine Art Gallery opened. Thirty-three of Gluck’s paintings were on show with others on stand-by. There was a mix of genre – portraiture featuring people who were in the news at the time, floral paintings and idealised landscapes. All were up for sale and the prices ranged from £2 to £300. As was the case with her 1932 exhibition, this one was hailed as a great success. In the November 24th 1937 edition of the Bystander, a British weekly tabloid magazine, the art critic wrote:
“…I do not remember for years seeing such a display of versatility. Gluck’s flower paintings would be her strong point if her landscapes were not so brilliant, and her landscapes might get the top marks if it were not for her portraits or her still life…”
Her paintings were reproduced in many of the national newspapers and magazines. The Times lauded her, commenting on….
“…the clearness of her sense of form, her subtle use of colour and curiously reserved emotional content…”
The art critic of the Daily Telegraph, T.W.Earp called her crowd scenes little gems of humorous perception. The Daily Sketch wrote a piece about Gluck describing her as having:
“…the profile of a Greek god with eyes that shone like black diamonds…”
Gluck spent the summer of 1938 holidaying with Nesta in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Unbeknown to them, World War II was only a year away and this was going to cause Gluck a lot of hardship but even more depressing for Gluck was the slow unravelling of her relationship with her beloved Nesta.
..……..to be continued
Most of the information for this blog came from two excellent books – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
For a much fuller account of Hannah Gluckstein’s life, treat yourself to these biographies.
Another great read is Gluck: Art and Identity by Amy De La Haye (Author), Martin Pel (Author), Gill Clarke (Author), Jeffrey Horsley (Author), Andrew Macintos Patrick (Author)