World War II started on September 3rd, 1939 and, by the end of that month Gluck’s Bolton House home had been commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service, but she was allowed to keep and occasionally stay at the studio. Whilst looking for a house to rent she went to stay with Nesta’s mother, Mrs Sawyer. These were troubled times for Gluck as witnessed by a passage from a letter she wrote to her mother on September 24th, 1939:
“…My looks say I am well, my spirit is a mess at the moment and my body and nerves almost at the end of their tether…”
The thing which was causing Gluck’s despondency was not the perils of the war but her finances. Not just her finances, but the control of her finances, which had been denied her and put in the hands of The Family trustees, her younger brother Louis, her mother, and her cousin Sir Samuel Gluckstein. This rankled with her for the persona she had adopted was that of a man, a person of competency, influence, and potency, but to The Family, it was all a pretence, for in their eyes she was just a woman and thus, in their social classification, she was a person with no authority. Her father, who had looked upon his daughter as somewhat wayward and rebellious, had made sure that level-headed and wise people would control her finances thus avoiding the possibility that she would squander her money and become poverty stricken and eventually destitute.
Gluck was paid rent by the Auxiliary Fire Service for Bolton House and her trustees agreed for her to rent a small house, Millers Mead, which was in Plumpton just two minutes away from Nesta’s home. In the small garden there was a simple outhouse which she used as her studio. She employed a married couple to act as her servants. The annual rental cost was £218. In July 1941 the Auxiliary Fire Service vacated Bolton House and stopped paying the rent and so the financial burden fell back on Gluck and as Bolton House was left empty because Gluck remained at Millers Mead, it started to suffer through lack of occupancy and there was a cost to carry out expensive repairs. Her money was slowly but surely trickling away. She had the high cost of running three places, her Letter Studio in Lamorna, Bolton House and Millers Mead. In a letter to her on July 30th, 1941, one of the trustees, Sir Samuel Gluckstein wrote that she needed to limit her expenditure:
“…I am not endeavouring to read you a lecture but I am endeavouring to help you to avoid getting into financial distress…”
Gluck sent numerous letters to her trustees pleading for more money and more control of it but it was to no avail. Her mother, a trustee, seems to have been annoyed at these constant missives as can be seen in a very terse letter she sent to her daughter on May 25th, 1942:
“…I cannot either understand or cope with this continual correspondence with copy letters to Louis and Mr Dyer but I would like to make this perfectly clear…..Today everybody’s income has been reduced to exactly half….if you were to write a thousand letters you would not alter this, and I do think, in these very strenuous, nerve racking days, the less correspondence you and anyone has the better…..I do not get younger and these things make me very unhappy…”
The two other trustees were less tactful and did not hold back in their condemnation of her moaning about money, and her brother warned her that her attitude would finally break their brother/sister relationship. She met with Louis and her mother in August at the Trocadero but the meeting collapsed due to violent rowing between the participants. In a letter to her mother four months later Gluck wrote:
“…This talk was of a nature so disgusting and shocking to me that it became clear that I cannot discuss any matters connected with my Trust affairs without a witness and a shorthand writer…”
An impasse between her and her three trustees had reached an impasse. Her income was important to her and whilst living in Millers Mead she received several portrait commissions including one from Nesta who wanted Gluck to paint a portrait of her elderly mother, Ethel Sawyer. The result was a depiction of an English gentlewoman with her veiled hat, no-nonsense smile, pearls, mayoral collar and bright, if somewhat watery, eyes. Gluck would paint a second portrait of Nesta’s mother in 1943 as she lay dying. This period of war and the death of loved ones was a time when people wanted portraits of their relatives, some of which would prove to be consoling images.
Gluck also carried on with her floral paintings and in 1943 produced a work entitled Pleiades depicting a tangle of pink convolvulus and grasses. This work was a real labour of love for Gluck spent hours in the garden crouching over the same patch of weeds despite suffering painful backache and the onset of arthritis in her hands. The details in the painting are remarkable, such as the drops of dew on the web. Can you see the grasshopper on the leaf? She worked on the painting on and off for two years and it became a burden. She wrote about it to her mother on August 16th, 1942:
“…if I don’t get it done before September is over I am dished – and there are two waiting prospective purchasers. Anyway I am not anxious to face it again a third year and the work in it is terrific. I can only do very little every day and it is a strain on the yes. It is certainly going to be worth it when finished, but when will it ever be finished?…”
The painting was finally finished in August 1943.
Gluck’s relationship with Nesta started to unravel during the war years. Nesta sent fewer letters to her lover when they were apart and when home with her husband Seymour. Nesta’s visits to Gluck became fewer and shorter in duration. Gluck’s diary entries noted when Nesta came and how long she stayed. Cracks were beginning to appear in her relationship with Nesta. Gluck had moved to Plumpton to be near Nesta but with her time with Nesta diminishing rapidly she began to feel isolated in comparison to her former social life when she lived in Hampstead. One of the few people who visited her was her old friend Craig who stayed for a month in November 1943 but Craig noticed how Gluck seemed depressed. The depression was brought on by her deteriorating liaison with Nesta and the wrangling with the Family Trust who controlled her money and believed that she had to be more frugal. She was desperately unhappy and for her, life was all gloom.
It was in 1942 that Gluck completed a self portrait and the way she has depicted herself is not one of happiness. There is no softness of expression. There is no expression of warmth or love in her eyes. She has depicted herself with her head tilted slightly backwards looking cheerlessly down on the viewer with a mutinous and antagonistic expression.
Gluck was working on several paintings during 1943, including one entitled Jerusalem and the floral painting Pleiades as well as two small landscapes and a triptych for Sussex Council of Churches. It was during the commission for the Sussex Council that she made several trips to the small West Sussex town of Steyning to see the council chairman, Bertram Nicholls. Whilst there she visited the Heald sisters, Nora Heald and Edith Shackleton Heald, at their home at Chantry House, in the town of Steyning, and would often stay their overnight or for a weekend break. Both Heald sisters were journalists. Nora was editor of The Lady and spent most of the week in a flat above the newspaper’s offices in London. Edith, the younger of the two sisters, was a correspondent for the London Evening Standard and tended to work from home. Gluck became a great friend of Edith, possibly due to a common issue, desolation. Gluck was deeply despondent due to her failing relationship with Nesta and Edith was very unhappy when her lover, the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, died in January 1939. Gluck and Edith were able to console each other and Gluck spent the Christmas of 1943 with Edith at Chantry House – the first time in eight years that Gluck had not spent Christmas with “her darling wife” Nesta. Edith Heald tried to help Gluck through this distressing period and the two would often take trips along the south coast visiting the various English seaside towns. Soon Gluck was spending most of her days and nights at Chantry House although she never lost contact with Nesta.
Gluck received a commission from Wilfrid Greene to paint his portrait. Greene was resigning as Principal of the Working Men’s College and had been asked to present a drawing of himself to the College and he decided that Gluck should be the artist. On 16 July 1941 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Greene, of Holmbury St Mary in the County of Surrey. Gluck stayed at his Dorset home, The Wilderness, for a few days whilst working on the portrait.
Gluck’s doomed love affair with Nesta ended in 1944. Gluck had almost seen the break-up coming. What she wanted from Nesta was the sole access to her heart, her total commitment to the relationship. Sadly, she latterly realised that this was never going to happen. Their love for each other was not equal. Nesta was never going to leave her husband who supplied the finances for her lavish lifestyle and this upset Gluck. To Gluck, their love for each other was one sided and although they corresponded and met in the following years, the “marriage” was over.
Gluck could not bear to be alone and, after the break-up of her relationship with Nesta Obermer, she accepted Edith Heald’s invitation to come join her and her sister (plus the sisters’ servants!) and live in Chantry House. Gluck accepted and on October 6th, 1944 she moved in. Edith Weald was delighted with the decision, her sister less so. For Gluck the move and new home took away some of the disappointment with Nesta’s attitude. It solved her financial problems and the relationship with her trustees, as her Hampstead home, Bolton House, was sold in 1945 and the money reverted to the Gluck’s Trust fund. She did however keep the studio but had a wall built separating it from Bolton House. In some ways she looked up to the sisters and the way they had both made their own way in a male-dominated industry without the reliance on someone else’s money. Gluck was now away from her mother and away from the temptations of London’s West End. It was the perfect working environment. What was once known as the Yeats’ Room in Chantry House became her study and a cottage in the grounds of Chantry House became her studio.
Raynard Goddard the Lord Chief Justice approached Gluck with a commission. He had seen the sketch she had done of Wilfrid Greene and he wanted Gluck to produce a similar work but this time in oils to present to the Inner Temple. She agreed but because of illness she did not complete the painting until 1949.
Gluck and Edith Heald’s relationship changed from friendship to a lesbian affair and this did not please Nora Heald. It was not just Nora that viewed her sister’s relationship with Gluck as distasteful, some of her sister’s erstwhile friends found the situation unbearable and began to distance themselves. The living arrangements at Chantry House were becoming problematic and far from harmonious and there were frequent excruciating tensions and shrieking matches between the three residents. Gluck always sided with Edith against Nora and the latter felt betrayed. With all this turmoil Gluck only completed one painting in 1946, and to escape from the cauldron Edith and Gluck went to Lamorna for a month that summer. On returning home they found Nora no easier to live with. Nora did not dare invite her friends and work colleagues to Chantry House, after all, she was the editor of The Lady which did not countenance ladies being in lesbian relationships. Something had to give. Nora wanted Gluck out and Edith and Gluck wanted Nora out. Gluck wanted a home and Edith was determined to provide her with one. Add to this the fact that Nesta still called on Gluck and became jealous of her relationship with Edith.
In 1947, after some pressure from her trustees Gluck sold her Lamorna studio. The situation with the Chantry House ménage à trois was finally sorted with Nora reluctantly leaving. Gluck’s trustees agreed to pay Nora half the value of Chantry House and the linen, tableware and ornaments were equally divided between the two sisters. The ménage à trois became a ménage à deux.
Even though many years had passed since her break-up with Nesta, Gluck never recovered from losing her or from the upheaval to her life caused by the war. Add to that the permanent estrangement between her and her brother Louis who managed her trust fund after her mother died in 1958. In addition, both Edith and Gluck were getting older and began to suffer from a variety of illnesses in their latter years. Gluck’s periods of depression became longer and she painted very little. Whether it was a cause she wanted to focus her mind back on art, we will never know, but she had a love of quality painting materials and was unhappy with the standard of paints and canvases on offer and so she began a dogged decade-long battle with the British Board of Trade and commercial paint manufacturers, who, in her mind, were producing inferior products that threatened to deteriorate over time. Fortunately for her, this cause had the backing of the Arts Council of Great Britain, British Colour Manufacturers Association, and two important museums. After a long battle she succeeded and the British Standards Institution Technical Committee on Artists’ Materials was formed and this meant that for the first time, there were published standards regarding the naming and defining of pigments, cold-pressed linseed oil, and canvas.
After the victory, Gluck returned to painting using the special handmade paints supplied by a manufacturer who had taken Gluck’s standards as a challenge. In all, fifty-three of these pieces were exhibited in a solo show at the Fine Art Society in 1973, and they were very well-received. The exhibition was her first since 1937. She was buoyed by the success of the exhibition and optimistic about the future. However, the directors of the Fine Art Society did not concur. For them the future of Gluck and her work were not as she saw it. She was now eighty years of age, was not in good health, suffering from arthritis and heart problems, painted slowly and they believed that her optimism about her future was simply her antidote to counter her depression. However, some of her older paintings were later shown by the Fine Art Society in their mixed exhibitions.
In 1973, Gluck completed her last painting and it was one with an unusual title, Rage, Rage against the Dying Light which comes from the lines of a poem by Dylan Thomas:
“…Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”
Edith Heald’s health deteriorated rapidly and it was agreed by her doctor that Gluck could not safely look after her and she was admitted to the Homelands nursing home in January 1975, aged ninety. Edith felt abandoned and betrayed. Gluck, who was not able to drive anymore, was chauffeured to the nursing home twice a week, to visit Edith, who according to Gluck seemed very sad and forlorn. Gluck was now living alone, albeit with her servants, and found the upkeep of Chantry House almost impossible. In the Autumn of 1975 Gluck returned to her cottage at St Buryan in Cornwall for the last time.
On October 11th, 1976, Gluck had Edith transferred from her Homelands nursing home she had been in for two years, to one close to Chantry House which would make it easier for her visiting her erstwhile friend but the move proved disastrous as within five weeks of the transfer Edith Heald died on November 5th, 1976. Gluck was in total shock on hearing of Edith’s death and blamed herself for having Edith transferred to her new nursing home. Two weeks after the funeral Gluck suffered another heart attack.
Gluck’s cousin Julia Samson visited her in January 1978 and recalls the event:
“…We talked and had tea. She thought of me as young and her sensibility wouldn’t have let her make a young person sad. I said I’ll come and see you next week. She didn’t say anything, just looked at me and her eyes were very very sad. There was a passion there inside. Perpetual liveliness…”
That next-week visit never came to fruition as Gluck died the next day, January 10th, 1978. She was 82. Her brother Louis broke off his Swiss holiday to attend the funeral of his sister and it was reported that his youngest son witnessed his father crying for the first time.
Nesta Obermer outlived Gluck by six years, dying at her French home in Vaud on October 3rd 1984 aged 91.
Most of the information for this blog came from two excellent books – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
Gluck Art and Identity by Amy De La Haye (Author), Martin Pel (Author), Gill Clarke (Author), Jeffrey Horsley (Author), Andrew Macintos Patrick (Author)
Both are excellent reads and fill in all the gaps in the life of Gluck which I have passed over.