Often when I look at portraits I talk about the reason the background is plain so not to detract from the person being portrayed. My featured artist today was a person who wanted to be remembered for her art but her exuberant and unconventional lifestyle was often what most people focused on. Today I want you to meet Hannah Gluckstein who was born in London on August 13th, 1895.
Hannah Gluckstein was born into an extremely wealth Jewish family. Her father was Joseph Gluckstein. He was involved in the family’s tobacco retail business, Salmon & Gluckstein which advertised itself as The Largest Tobacconist in the World. His brothers Isidore and Montague along with Joseph Lyons, the cousin of Isidore’s wife Rose, founded the British restaurant chain, food manufacturing, and hotel conglomerate, J. Lyons & Co in 1884. Hannah’s mother was the American-born opera singer Francesca Halle. She was Joseph’s second wife. His first wife Kate, a cousin, whom he married in 1882 died childless in 1889. Joseph, then aged thirty-eight, and Francesca, aged nineteen, married in September 1894 after a whirlwind courtship lasting just six weeks. After the marriage the couple returned from their American honeymoon and went to live in a purpose-built house in West Hampstead. Eleven months after the marriage Hannah was born. Eighteen months later her brother, Louis was born. Francesca’s career as a soprano ended when she married, as her husband had made it crystal clear that no wife of his would work for a living. Hannah would look back on this as the sacrifice of Art to Money. Francesca spent much of her time doing charitable work. She worked for the Jewish Board of Guardians, The Home for the Deaf, The Home for the Incurables and many more. Her role as a mother was in a way superfluous due to the large number of servants employed by her husband which included parlour maids, cooks, a nanny, a governess, a groom, and a coachman.
Hannah and her brother had everything money could buy. They were home educated by a Swiss governess and taught about the responsibilities of being part of their large family empire with all its responsibilities, opportunities, and wealth. Louis warmed to the task and did everything expected of him. He became a formidable public figure working as a British lawyer and Conservative Party politician. He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of London in 1952 and was knighted in the Coronation Honours of 1953 for his services to the community. Hannah Gluckstein could not have been more different !!!
In 1899, Francesca Gluckstein suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns and she and her family went for a protracted vacation to America to stay with her parents. Once there Hannah and Louis were left with their grandparents whilst their mother and father went off to tour the country. The family returned to England but in 1903 when Hannah was eight their mother was once again struck down with a nervous breakdown, this time much more severe and the Joseph Gluckstein uprooted his family from their West Hampstead home and travelled to France, Germany and Switzerland in search of a cure for his wife. The family did finally return to England in 1908 and went to live in a large mansion in St John’s Wood on the edge of Regent’s Park. Hannah attended a Dame School (an early form of a private elementary school) in the London borough of Swiss Cottage and two years later when she was fifteen attended the St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. Although she would later maintain that she never learned anything at these schools and her education was gained due to her vociferous appetite for reading books. She did however receive many special prizes for drawing and painting.
During her time at school Hannah Gluckstein wanted to follow a career in the Arts but could not decide whether it should be through music, as she had a fine contralto voice, or art. Fate took over, for when she attended a St Paul’s pupils’ concert at the Wigmore Hall, she received heartening applause for her performance, and it was then that she decided on a career as a singer. She waited backstage for her next appearance on stage and was looking at photographs of famous musicians when she came across a photograph of John Singer Sargent’s 1904 painting Portrait of Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, conductor, and composer. She remembered the incident well:
“…Suddenly I faced the only photograph of a painting in the room – Sargent’s portrait of Joachim. There was a great swirl of paint and this hit me plumb in the solar plexus. All thoughts of being a singer vanished. The sensuous swirl of paint told me what I cared for most…”
However, her desire to leave school and train to become an artist and study art met opposition from both her father and the headmistress of her school, both of who wanted her to go onto university. Her art teacher came to Hannah’s rescue by convincing the headmistress that Hannah was a talented artist and should not be made to go to university. A compromise was finally agreed in which Hannah would stay on at school for another year, practice her art but also study the History of Art.
Following the extra year at St Paul’s Hannah went to art school. She had wanted to go to the Slade which was notorious for its liberal attitude to studies but her father decided that if she was to study art, and he had hoped it was just a passing fancy, then she would be enrolled at the St John’s Wood Art School which was close to where the family lived. She was not happy with the school. Later she wrote:
“…As far as I was concerned there was nothing taught that could be considered training…”
Those in authority at the school looked upon Hannah as just a very rich girl who wanted to dabble with art prior to marrying a rich husband. Hannah became very frustrated and this soon turned into rebelliousness. She became friendly with a fellow female student, who wanted to be simply known by her surname, Craig. Hannah Gluckstein felt an empathy for her new friend and demanded that from then on, she would be simply be addressed as Gluck. Her parents were informed of her decision that she was never again be addressed as Hannah !!
In 1915 she painted a portrait of her grandfather which she completed in just sixty minutes!
In 1915, the First World War was barely a year old and Gluck’s brother Louis had left home to volunteer for active service. Her mother was working hard to help the refugees and was barely ever at home. Her father was busy with his business which left Gluck on her own as she had refused to help with her mother’s charity work. Probably because of her unhappiness her parents allowed her to go to the artists’ colony at Lamorna in a valley in West Cornwall with Craig and two other art students. Here she loved to mingle with established artists such as Alfred Munnings and Harold and Laura Knight all of who would become part of the Newlyn School set up by Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes. Gluck, this young and rebellious girl, was accepted into the group and would entertain them with her singing. She wrote about those happy days:
“…I was very spoiled by them all because they liked my singing, and we used to have a lot of music in the Knights’ huge studio. Little did I think then that this studio would one day be mine…”
Gluck returned to the family home but had had a taste of freedom – a freedom from family restrictions. Alfred Munnings had wanted her to return to Cornwall and even offered to financially support her. Her father, desperate to keep his daughter offered to build her a studio at home but she refused to stay. Her father was hurt and refused to forgive her rebelliousness. He had worked hard all his life to provide a comfortable home for his family and his daughter had in one act of defiance thrown it all in his face. In July 1918, he wrote to his son, Louis:
“…I don’t think she will ever return permanently and that will always remain a cancer to me however I try to forget, I really shall never be able to…”
Gluck was pleased to be back in Lamorna amongst the artists who used to appraise her work. She lived with Craig in a primitive cottage. She delighted in being a rebel. She revelled in being who she wanted to be and do what she wanted to do without any parental or religious control. She began to wear male clothing and smoke a pipe. She and Craig stayed in Lamorna during the summer but returned to a rented flat in the Finchley Road in North London during the winter months.
Despite his acrimonious split with his daughter Joseph Gluckstein continued to support her financially by opening a bank account in her name and setting up trust accounts. Maybe this was his way of maintaining lines of communications with her. In a letter to his son dated November 6th, 1918, Joseph Gluckstein wrote:
“…I am only doing this to protect her against herself and also against me, as I won’t take the risk of her suffering financially, in case I feel inclined, through passion or otherwise to stop her allowance……….I told her I would allow her even more if she wanted it as my and mother’s sole idea was to make her happy…”
There were however financial restrictions which prevented her getting at all the money or that an undesirable man may try to marry her for her money. Gluck, although happy to have access to money, resented her father’s stance. Her father’s relations were very unhappy at how Gluck had treated “The Family” and were highly critical of Joseph Gluckstein’s generous financial settlement on his daughter. Furthermore “The Family” were horrified by Gluck’s behaviour, her outrageous way of dressing as a man and what they saw as her disreputable friends. Gluck’s mother hoped it was just a passing phase in her daughter’s life and blamed it all on Gluck’s female companion Craig. In a letter to her son in November 1917 she wrote:
“…Hig [the family’s nickname for Gluck] showed me her work from Cornwall and it was very fine, but she was in trousers and that velvet coat and when I see her dressed like that I am sure she has a kink in the brain and I go heartsick. I am sure when she leaves the pernicious influence of Craig all will be well…!
Both Gluck’s mother and father hoped that her friendship with Craig would end soon for her parents sincerely believed that their daughter would then return to “normality” but of course that was never going to happen. They also believed that her brother Louis, whom she loved, would talk her into reforming. However, Louis never tried to change the ways of his sister.
Compared to many of her artist friends in Cornwall, Gluck had no financial problems. Living in the Lamorna artist colony was cheap and she also had her Finchley Road flat in London and had even rented two rooms in Earls Court as her studio, one for her painting studio and the other as a storeroom and a place to entertain friends. She was content with her life and spent most of her time putting together a collection of her work which she exhibited at solo exhibitions in London. In 1924 her paintings were exhibited at the Dorien Leigh Gallery in South Kensington where fifty-seven of her pictures were on show. All were sold, and she could now afford to move to a bigger studio in Chelsea.
Two years later she had put together another selection of works which she exhibited in 1926 at the Fine Art Society in Bond Street. The latter location was to become the home for all her future exhibitions.
……to be continued
Most of the information for this blog came from the excellent book – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.