Portraits of passion: After WWI, some of our greatest female artists rejected stifling domesticity to create luminous paintings and revel in affairs with both men and women
THIS DARK COUNTRY
by Rebecca Birrell (Bloomsbury £25, 384 pp)
Gluck (no prefix).’ That was how the artist known as Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) signed her business letters.
I think that instruction was the 1920s equivalent of today’s ‘they/them’: a strident declaration of ‘Don’t you even dare refer to me as Miss or Mrs.’
The cropping of her name’s prefix, and its ‘-stein’ suffix that would identify her as the rich Jewish daughter of parents who ran the Lyons catering empire, was a similar androgynising act to the cropping of her hair, which Gluck also famously did, immortalised in her painting of two strong-minded, short-haired women, she and her lover Nesta Obermer. She gave that picture the bold, modern title ‘YouWe’.
Rebecca Birrell studies ten women artist born in the late-Victorian era in a new eye-opening book. Pictured: Hannah Gluckstein’s Medallion (YouWe) dual portrait
The only thing was, she kept hold of the grand Queen Anne pile in Hampstead that her parents had bought for her, as well as keeping her maid, housekeeper and cook. She didn’t crop those. They were too useful.
In her deeply thoughtful and eye-opening study of ten women artists born in the late-Victorian era, Rebecca Birrell takes us back to that new dawn in women’s lives and art history: the years during and just after World War I when women who’d had stifling childhoods in stuffy homes, often wearing mourning dress for one tragic reason or another, were daring to veer from the path planned for them: marriage, children, running a household and no career of their own.
They left home, went to art school, rented cheap rooms in Bloomsbury, and sat up late into the night talking and drinking wine with like-minded free spirits. Some eventually succumbed to marriage, for the security of it, but managed to wangle a decent open-marriage deal.
But even if they veered from the expected path, the well-off ones still didn’t do their own cooking.
This book is a brilliant art-history lesson as well as a window into women’s lives. It has awoken my craving for their stunning still-lives of apples, jugs, tables laid for tea, views from bedroom windows, eggs, flowers in vases, and liberated women reading books.
Many of these women were undervalued as artists during their lives. Vanessa Bell, for example, never enjoyed the same prominence as a painter as her lover Duncan Grant, although it seems to me they were equals.
Just one warning: Birrell is a Women’s Studies graduate and she uses the word ‘heteronormative’ rather a lot, as well as ‘homosocial’. In the minefield of which words we are and aren’t allowed to use these days, I now realise that ‘queer’ (which I’d thought rather passé, with its overtones of ‘odd’) is the currently acceptable and preferred word for non-heteronormative.
This book is a celebration of all things queer. Vanessa was not queer herself, just married and having an affair, as was her husband Clive, but she lived in a queer household, with Duncan Grant whizzing up to London from Sussex to have his affair with David ‘Bunny’ Garnett.
Gluckhad a long affair with the married Constance Spry in the 1930s and fell madly in love with Nesta Obermer. Pictured: The artist at work
The strong-mindedness of these women will knock you over. Gluck, for example, was a bit of a burner and slasher. She had a long affair with the married Constance Spry in the 1930s.
Never having been allowed to study nudes at art school, her almost photographically delineated paintings of Spry’s all-white flower arrangements somehow manage to make reference to the erotic zones of the body, all stamens and pistils.
But then Spry’s husband put up resistance to his wife’s lesbian relationship (you can see his point), and Gluck fell madly in love with Nesta Obermer, and she burnt all evidence of Constance.
‘I want to start such a new life that anything vaguely smelling of my past stinks in my nostrils,’ she wrote to her new love.
Nesta had a pilot’s licence and liked riding, sailing, skating and skiing, and Gluck was determined to learn those skills.
But Nesta was married to a rich American (useful financially) and went on holiday with him, and Gluck had to put up with it. When all went sour with Nesta, she was possessed with bitterness and regret and burned the word ‘Nesta’ out of all her letters.
Nina Hamnett, too, was a handful, and you can see why. She’d had a miserable childhood, raging at having being born a girl: fights, tempers, punishments and loneliness in the stuffy parental home in Acton. She longed to go to art school but her parents forced her to train to be a post office clerk.
Gluck’s paintings of Spry’s all-white flower arrangements somehow manage to make reference to the erotic zones of the body. Pictured: Chromatic still life
So profoundly did she loathe this that she lost sensation in her hands, a physical manifestation of her bodily rejection of the enforced job. She ran away and lived in a cockroach-infested bedsit in Bloomsbury, chopped off her hair, read Rimbaud in bed, and hardly had baths.
Crazily, she went and married a Norwegian artist and they lived on bone broth, porridge and margarine. He was interned during World War I and then moved to France and she never saw him again. She then had an affair with Roger Fry, who had just broken up with Vanessa Bell.
She lived in bedsits for the rest of her life, drinking quite heavily and defying the pressure to take refuge in respectability.
Her luminous domestic still-lifes, painted in the midst of all this poverty and chaos, are balm for the soul — hers and ours.
I loved Ethel Sands (born 1873), who revelled in her un-prettiness, which got her out of being married off.
THIS DARK COUNTRY by Rebecca Birrell (Bloomsbury £25, 384 pp)
As Birrell puts it, ‘to be dismissed by society as chaste, prim and unattractive was to bypass an unwanted life and to settle into a queer one.’ Quietly and unshowily, Ethel lived with her girlfriend, the painter Nan Hudson, for sixty years until her death in 1962. Virginia Woolf referred to them as ‘the two discreet ladies.’
Lytton Strachey described Ethel as ‘dressed in white satin and pearls and thickly powdered and completely haggard.’ So withering, those Bloomsbury-ites could be! But that cruel brush-off actually gave Ethel her freedom.
It certainly helped that she was rich: the pampered child of American socialites. The couple lived in style. Ethel’s paintings of her and Nina’s own grand and glittering interiors were dismissed by Vanessa Bell as ‘fatally pretty’. But Birrell sees them as serene and highly atmospheric feminine spaces ‘where women linger’.
It was certainly not easy for those women to cast off the expectations of them. Birrell includes one or two stories of abject failure, such as happened to poor Edna Waugh, who showed such promise at an early age that she went to the Slade aged 14. But a predatory barrister, William Clarke Hall, ruined her prospects.
Obsessed with her when she was 13, he married her and went on to ruin her career and her life. She had a nervous breakdown in 1919. It’s mind-boggling that as a barrister, Hall specialised in . . . children’s rights.
By including a few vignettes of women being crushed in that way, Birrell brings out the novelty of the lives of the few who did manage to get away from the expected path: marriage, childbirth and decades spent invisibly in the confines of the marital home.