Hannah Gluckstein (Gluck). Part 3-Floral paintings and Constance Spry.

Gluck in the Gluck Room at The Fine Art Society

In 1932, by the time Gluck was thirty-seven years old, life could not have been better. She lived in Bolton House in Hampstead village with its newly-built large studio and was busy putting together a collection for that year’s Autumn Exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London. Her live-in guest and lover, Sybil Cookson, a journalist who had split from her racing driver husband, Roger Cookson had moved in to Bolton House with her two daughters. Gluck never wanted for anything financially as her mother always ensured that her daughter had everything she wanted from art materials, and clothes to covering the cost of repairs to her daughter’s house and car and as Diana Souhami wrote about this mother/daughter relationship in her biography of Gluck:

“…After the death of her husband, she [Gluck’s mother] let it be known to the other trustees that she favoured generous treatment for her daughter. What Gluck wanted, after her father’s death and before the outbreak of war, in any material sense, she received…”

Despite all that financial help Gluck was wary of her mother. She believed her mother to be unstable and Gluck was unhappy with her mother’s tendency of trying to control her life. Gluck had forged herself a place in “smart” society, a society which was sexually tolerant and not judgemental and whenever she tired of London social life she could take herself off to the tranquillity of Lamorna in Cornwall. Having said all that, one has to question her happiness at this time. Gluck eulogised about her love of the simple life and yet lived somewhat flamboyantly. She said that she flourished on exhilaration and yet she often yearned for peace and quiet. She would often be the soul of integrity regarding everyday mundane dealings of business and yet her integrity was often set aside when it came to her own infidelity and affairs with other men’s wives and it was this constant dichotomy which would cause her mental anguish.

Annette Mills and Muffin the Mule

It was Gluck’s infidelity which led to the ending of her time with Sybil Cookson just prior to her 1932 Fine Art Society exhibition when Sybil discovered Gluck and Annette Mills, in flagranti in the art studio. Mills would later become a household name for her TV role in Muffin the Mule in the 1950’s. Sybil deeply upset by Gluck’s infidelity immediately took her children and left Bolton House.

Gluck never lacked company and the loss of Sybil was soon forgotten as she moved on to her next lover. It is interesting to muse that her different lovers influenced her painting subjects. Whilst she was with the journalist and writer of romantic novels, Sybil Cookson, she would depict courtroom dramas which Sybil covered for her newspaper. She also painted portraits of Sybil’s family.

Constance Spry arranging flowers

Gluck’s next love affair was with the society flower arranger, florist and writer, Constance Spry, and throughout their four-year liaison she produced the most beautiful floral paintings. Constance Spry’s expertise was in much demand, as what she produced was looked upon by the monied upper-class as the height of sophistication and respectability. Constance Spry, who was nine years older than Gluck, had a very difficult early life. She had moved with the family to Ireland because of her father’s job. When she was nineteen she enrolled in a course for health lecturers and got a job in Dublin. In 1910, she married Irishman James Heppell Marr, a mine engineer from the north of England in and the couple had one child, a son, Anthony. The family then moved to Barrow-in-Furness. Their marriage, although it lasted six years, was doomed from the start. He was often moody and suffered from depression. But it seems that their wedding night was so brutal it shocked her for years to come, and despite Constance giving birth to a child, she would reject her husband’s sexual advances and he became increasingly violent.

Constance Spry at work

In 1921, she was appointed headmistress of the Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School in east London. It was here that she taught teenage factory workers in cookery and dressmaking, and later flower arranging. She gave up teaching in 1928 and opened up her first florist shop in 1929 in Pimlico which she called “Flower Decorations“. The name was to distinguish her work from the normal floral arrangements supplied by other florists. She would fill the shop with stock from her own garden and when necessary buy in some from Covent Garden. Soon Spry was inundated with orders and she had to recruit a dedicated team to cope with the increasing business. It was not just the floral arrangements which made Spry popular as she would rake through junk shops for unusual vases to hold her displays and she insisted that every arrangement should be composed in situ, as opposed to in her shop, so it would fit in perfectly with the surroundings. She looked upon herself and staff, not just as flower arrangers but as artists. Ever more commissions poured in and she had to move to a larger premises and it was important that her shop was in the midst of her wealthy clients and so in 1934 she took on the lease of a shop at No. 64, South Audley Street at the heart of Mayfair and business was so good that she eventually employed seventy staff.

The Pine Cone by Gluck

Whilst living in London, Constance met Henry ‘Shav’ Spry and they fell in love, although he was married at the time. Later they lived together and pretended that they were married. They eventually did marry when both Constance and Henry were divorced but the marriage was far from perfect with Shav having a long-running affair with one of her flower shop employees. It was around about this time, in 1932, that Constance Spry was introduced to Gluck by a mutual friend, Prudence Maufe, a trained architect and interior designer, and the wife of the architect, Edward Maufe, who designed Gluck’s new studio. Constance Spry had been asked by Prudence to present Gluck with a floral arrangement. In her letter to Gluck, dated January 4th 1932, Prudence wrote:

“…Edward and I are giving ourselves the pleasure of sending you up a Mixed Bunch of white flowers for your Studio. I have commissioned my friend Mrs Spry to do it and to ring you up when certain flowers which I have asked are procurable………………..I think she has a genius for flowers and you have a genius for paint, so that ought to make for happiness…”

Chromatic by Gluck (1932)

Val Pirie, an assistant of Constance Spry came to Gluck’s studio at Bolton House and slowly created the floral display using anthuriums, amaryllis, arums and tulips. The flowers in a Warwick vase were placed on a pedestal. Gluck was taken back by the beauty of the floral display and decided to paint it immediately. The finished work measured 122 x 119cms. It was the most painstaking and most spectacular of all her flower paintings and the finished work was entitled Chromatic and it became the centrepiece for 1932 show at the Fine Art Society  exhibition. It was sold to a private client. After the death of the owner it was sold to an art dealer. Gluck loved the painting so much that she tried to buy it back but the dealer refused to sell it to her.

Ambrose Heal’s furniture store on Tottenham Court Road

Gluck’s friend, Prudence Maufe, ran a show flat in the Mansard Gallery, on the top floor of Ambrose Heal’s furniture store in the Tottenham Court Road. This iconic company was behind some of Britain’s finest furniture. Ambrose Heal was also a lover of fine art and his involvement with painting and drawing went side by side with his training as a designer, manufacturer and retailer. It was this love of art and furniture design that Ambrose Heal set up the Mansard Gallery at Heal’s to exhibit the most ground-breaking art of the period. It was here that he showcased contemporary artists and designers. At the time, Prudence would exhibit Gluck’s paintings as well as weekly floral arrangements supplied by Constance Spry.

The Vernon Picture by Gluck (1937)

Derbyshire landowner, Lord Vernon of Sudbury Hall, a stately home near Uttoxeter, commissioned a painting of lilies by Gluck for his new London home, Vernon House in Carlyle Square. The finished painting became known as The Vernon Picture.

A Cornish Farmhouse by Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) in its stepped white-painted ‘Gluck frame

The painting was in a frame which had been specifically designed and patented by Gluck in 1932. She was very protective of her patented design and had an antique furniture dealer and restorer, Louis Koch as the sole maker of the frame. In the Frame blog it describes the Gluck frame:

“…In the 1930s the artist Hannah Gluckstein (‘Gluck’) (1895-1978) went about framing her work from a much more austere viewpoint than Bloomsbury. She produced frames with a stark three-step profile, usually painted white, and which she patented as the Gluck 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’…”

Still life by Gluck

Constance Spry’s work contributed to the fashion of the day – white interiors. Everything of the interior was to be white – white walls, upholstery, ornaments and flowers and it was said that 1932 was the year when the white fashion trend reached its peak. Constance wrote about her love of white flowers in her 1934 book Flower Decorations:

“…It is the interplay of light and shade, colour and shape in a thousand variations, that the delight of white flowers lies. It is subtle and distinct, cool yet brilliant and is a matter of endless experiment and pleasure…”

Lords and Ladies by Gluck (1936)

Constance Spry realised that Gluck’s artistic talent would work well with her floral displays in formulating perfect interior decorative design and she began to introduce Gluck to her upper-class and wealthy clients, including the Royal Family as well as leading interior designers such as Syrie Maugham, the leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and 1930s who was best known for popularizing rooms decorated entirely in shades of white. Her all-white drawing rooms featured in many fashion magazines and some would have Gluck’s Chromatic painting featured on one of the walls.

Datura, The Devil’s Altar by Gluck (1932)

One of Constance Spry’s favourite plants was the Datura. Gluck’s 1932 painting which is now at the Art Gallery Brighton, entitled The Devil’s Altar depicts two beautiful and delicate pendulous flowers hanging from the gnarled twigged stems of the Datura plant.

During her time with Constance Spry, Gluck and Constance would holiday in Tunisia, North Africa at Villa Hammamset, the home of Constance’s friends, Jean and Violet Henson. After Gluck’s relationship with Constance Spry ended she still remained friends with the Hensons, and a month after the split with Spry, Gluck travelled back there on her own. Gluck loved the North African lifestyle and would often dress in Arab clothes such as her androgynous outfit of white baggy trousers, a scarlet Neapolitan sash, yellow shirt and green jacket. If that was not eye-catching enough she would wear a geranium behind the ear and a Hammamet cap.

One of her pictures from those North African stays is a depiction of the head of a young Arab boy. She said that she was madly excited by the beauty and subtlety of the skin of the boy. She commented:

“…He is really delicious – A tiny delicate little head with a sad, far away look in his eyes…..God knows whether I shall get any of it. He can’t speak French and is very tiny and moves a great deal…”

Gluck, through Constance Spry’s social circle, now moved in high society and from this, gained numerous commissions and invites to society gatherings. One of the most memorable was when she was invited to a dinner party at Broadlands, the Palladian mansion by Molly Mount Temple who was the stepmother to Edwina, Countess of Burma. Gluck’s mother was so impressed by her daughter being invited to such a dinner party she allowed her to go there in her Rolls Royce driven by her chauffeur. Besides commissions to paint Broadlands and a portrait of Molly, the dinner party was another pivotal moment in Gluck’s life.

Nesta Obermer by Gluck

It was at one of these social gatherings that Gluck was introduced to society woman, Nesta Obermer, the second wife of an elderly American, Seymour Obermer. He had married Nesta in 1925 after the death of his first wife. He was thirty years older than Nesta. The couple led a jet-set lifestyle travelling around the world, wintering in Switzerland and spending many summers in Venice. Nesta, who despite being married, was destined to be Gluck’s next lover.

…………. to be continued


Most of the information for this blog came from the excellent book – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
For a much fuller account of Hannah Gluckstein’s life, treat yourself to this biography.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “Hannah Gluckstein (Gluck). Part 3-Floral paintings and Constance Spry.”

  1. Interesting to read Jonathan, thanks so much for the interesting thread on Gluck. My mother worked at Constant Sprays in South Audley Street. She was incredibly influenced by her style, and white flowers were her favourite flowers. I subsequently became a Floral Artist’ . Following my degree in sculpture and a void of many years of feeling unable to produce any satisfactory work I found my new passion in flowers and plant materials. It encompassed everything I needed to produce beautiful creations. An unbelievable palate of colour, form, movement, 3D, texture , and the live material using the force of nature. Then the final beauty as it fades and dies.

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