Among the usual paintings of distinguished British politicians, actors, kings, writers, and generals at the National Gallery in London, one made me stop cold in my tracks. Staring down at me was a gloomy, defiant genderqueer face with a chiseled nose and wavy, dark brown hair, cut short. The label gave no other information than “Gluck by Gluck, 1942”.
It’s an incredible honor to have your portrait included in the world famous National Portrait Gallery. But who was this Gluck? If you’re like me, you’d make a beeline to the museum shop to find out. I quickly learned that Gluck wasn’t the only artist that would have the same command over my gaze, and wasn’t the only artist whose gender was ambiguous– she was part of a genderqueer artist colony which settled in a tiny seaside village named Lamorna in Cornwall, the westernmost county in England.
By luck, I had been planning a spring break that season with a small group exploring Cornwall’s stunning scenery. The county is noted for its distinctive cuisine, artist colonies, Celtic history, and mild climate that allows even sub-tropical gardens to flourish.
The small seaside towns in Cornwall like St. Ives, Newlyn and Lamorna were a mecca for artists since the late 18th century, attracted by the county’s raw, changeable setting of cliffs, waves, storms, and sea. Like in France, artists fled from cities to paint and sculpt in a purer (and more affordable) setting that emphasized natural light. They were fascinated by the fishermen’s working life at sea and the everyday bustle of harbor towns. And no need to pay models!
First to arrive were British painters who settled in Newlyn, a fishing village close to Penzance. Landscape artists like Stanhope Forbes and Samuel Birch founded the “Newlyn School” as these artists were called. In the early 20th century, Lamorna, a nearby fishing village to the south, became a popular domicile for these Newlyn School artists. These colonies consisted mainly of heterosexual male artists and their partners, but that changed when a group of artist friends, notably Henry Scott Tuke, arrived in 1884. Tuke, a homosexual, is best known for his paintings of nude boys and young men.
Then, In 1916, the first of the genderqueer artists, arrived in Lamorna. Her name was Gluck. While she was the first, she would not be the last.
And so, my journey to follow in the footsteps of these genderqueer artists began. After lunch in Penzance, our tour van meandered along the streets of a chocolate-box, Cornish fishing village called Mousehole (named for its sea cave) before pausing for an afternoon walk around Lamorna Cove. It’s an isolated, blustery place dominated by ragged cliffs and abandoned granite quarries. A surly sea rushed onto the beach, while fishing boats clung to the waves in the distance off the Penwith peninsula.
I was hoping to find some landmark or plaque about Lamorna Cove’s secretive past – some remembrance of the genderqueer artists who took up residence here, beginning in the latter years of WW1 through the 1950’s. All those mavericks sadly have gone. What remained: a village pub called “The Wink” (alluding to Cornwall’s notorious history of smuggling), summer guest cottages, and a forlorn gift shop.
I was the last to board the bus. I took one final look back at the cove and sighed. Wild places don’t remember any of us. It’s the way of things. Their art and lives must tell their story now, as Lamorna has slumbered back into obscurity.
Let’s start with Gluck, the artist with a one-word name.
As Gluck once said, I’m an artist with “no suffixes, no prefixes, no quotes.”
Gluck was born as Hannah Gluckstein into a well-off family, one of the partners in a retail and hospitality empire. As a teenager, she broke loose from gender norms and began dressing in clothes considered masculine. Her artistic talent was soon recognized. Gluckstein attended classes at St John’s Wood School of Art in London from 1913 to 1916. In her early 20’s, she rejected her given name and became simply Gluck.
In 1916, Gluck ran away to Lamorna with a fellow art student and lover, a mysterious figure who called herself Craig. As recent graduates eager for new experiences, their arrival at Lamorna’s artist colony was a world away from their uptight upbringing. Gluck came to love Cornwall, and her family’s wealth made her “rich enough to live poor,” as Picasso once poetically put it.
Gluck brought her genderqueer friends with her from London, but made only a few close friends in the West Cornwall art society due to her blatant, gender-crossing elan. However, Gluck worked closely with the Newlyn School’s Samuel Birch for a time. She was resident in Cornwall between 1915-37, and a summer dweller until 1975.
In the 1920s, Gluck held a first solo exhibition that brought commissions to paint portraits of the elite members of the establishment—lawyers, judges, and so forth. In those years, she took up with Sybil Cookson, a writer, and together they lived in a house near London owned by Gluck’s family. That relationship crashed when Cookson found Gluck having sex with a dancer. Gluck’s next serious relationship was with a society florist Constance Spry, who inspired Gluck to paint large flower compositions.
In the 1930s, Gluck met the one great love of her life, the socialite and philanthropist Nesta Obermer, with whom she had an intense relationship until 1944. Overmer was married to a wealthy man, but Gluck considered their relationship to be the real marriage.
The iconic painting Medallion or YouWe, Gluck’s self-portrait with Nesta Obermer, is traditional in style, but radical in its representation. Painted in 1936, it’s a striking yet intimate portrait of a couple, of queer figures in love, their profiles like Roman emperors on ancient coinage – a provocative statement for the ages.
When Obermer ended their romance, Gluck was devastated—the powerful self-portrait of 1942 that I saw in the National Gallery depicts Gluck looking bereaved, bravely striving to carry on alone. Now I understood what lay behind that gaze.
Over the course of a long career, Gluck painted landscapes, theatrical scenes, exquisite floral still lives and most notably, the series of portraits. Lovers were often the inspiration for Gluck’s paintings. These were framed in a special white, three-stepped frame of her own patented design, which came to be known as the Gluck frame, used for all her work.
Gluck was the catalyst that brought other genderqueer artists to Cornwall like Marlow.
Marlow was another artist who transformed her birth name to a genderqueer name.
Born Marjorie Jewell Moss, Marlow studied at the notable English art academies Slade and St. John’s Wood. A friend of Gluck, she first visited Cornwall in 1919 during a despondent period of her life. From 1924-1926, she returned to study in Cornwall, having changed her name to Marlow.
In 1927, Marlow moved to Paris where she met the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and was greatly influenced by his geometric style and use of primary colors. She studied at the Académie Moderne with Fernand Léger and became a founding member of an art movement called “Constructivist.” Her works were included in major Paris exhibitions.
Marlow wore tailored clothes, strode around with a riding crop, had a clipped haircut: a bohemian genderqueer in the 1930s. When France collapsed to the forces of Nazi Germany, Marlow and her partner, the Dutch writer Netty Nijhoff, fled Paris for England as Marlow was Jewish. They left Marlow’s paintings behind. Sadly, these were all destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944.
In 1941, her gay and genderqueer friends in Lamorna urged the displaced couple to settle in Cornwall. Marlow and Nijhoff took up residence in Lamorna, where they lived on and off until Marlow’s death in 1958. Like Gluck, the straight artists in the Cornwall art colony never accepted Marlow to their discredit. Marlow’s ashes were scattered in the cove.
White, Black, and Yellow. 1954
Marlow’s work is totally abstract. She uses primary colors on a white background in a totally modern style. Unfortunately, art history places Marlow in the deep shadows of her fellow artist, Mondrian, although both influenced each other’s use of the double line. Marlow said, “I am no painter, I don’t see form, I only see space, movement and light.”
I first saw Marlow’s work at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. I was struck by Marlow’s parallel development with Mondrian, but they are different artists. I sense a more mathematical mind in Marlow, when I looked at those rectangles and double-grid lines.
In England, she was a forgotten artist until the Tate Britain London show in 2014; but in Holland, Marlow has been the subject of a novel, a ballet and an opera about her life with Netty Nijhoff. I think Marlow would have been pleased with her rediscovery by art historians and the English public, without varnish on her genderqueer life. After all, it was Marlow who said that ”Art is - as life - forever in the state of Becoming”.
Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988)
Colquhoun was born in British India but educated in England and studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art. An early disciple of a surrealist offshoot called Dada, she met Salvador Dali and studied the twilight world of dreams. For a time, she lived in Paris, Athens, Tenerife, and Corsica, A devoted explorer of decalcomania, frottage, collage and other forms of pictorial automatism, she invented several magic-inspired techniques of her own.
Gluck urged Colquhoun to consider moving to West Cornwall, where she could create in a world of her own with less friction. By the late 1940s, Colquhoun was divorced from both her husband and the British Surrealist artists, due to her occult preoccupations. The time was right for a new life.
In 1947, Colquhoun arrived in Lamorna and became totally enraptured with the place. For Colquhoun, the sea, cliffs, coves and sky of Lamorna were a mysterious, psychic space, as well as a physical landscape. Although outwardly “respectable,” Colquhoun was very much on her own in the artist colony, given her obsession with the unreal and mystical.
Colquhoun lived a monkish life in Cornwall. She rented a ramshackle hut in a tiny village that she named Vow Cave. This became her home and studio, and West Cornwall her inspiration. She was absorbed with fantasy, Celtic stories, and a mythical creature called the “Androgyne,” who Colquhoun thought existed at the beginning of creation and combined both male and female traits.
Though she never publicly identified with any gender identity, Colquhoun wrote about her sapphic desire for a Greek woman: “I did not try to analyze the stirrings within me, I could not reflect upon them while thus borne along. It was not until later and in calmer intervals, that I recognized this torrent that swirled me onwards. I was being carried, indeed, to the Lesbian Shore”.
A mystical view of nature is laid bare in Colquhoun’s painting, Attributes of the Moon. The swirls and shades of blue suggest a figure freed from a magic lamp.
Attributes of the Moon, 1947
Although that day in Lamorna I never found a commemoration of this singular artist colony, I sensed that the alchemy of this place surely drew them here — the hoarse breath of waves against rock, the briny mist, the raw cries of gulls, the moody light. All this and more are imbued into their work, which are spirit messages created during their time at an isolated cove in Cornwall.