Garden Museum (London, UK): Constance Spry and the Fashion of Flowers
- Gluck 1895–1978
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 664 × 410 mm
frame: 920 × 660 × 45 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Denise Coates Foundation on the occasion of the 2018 centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain 2019
Flora’s Cloak c.1923 is a portrait-format oil painting in the centre of which is a full-length figure of a nude young woman set on a pale blue ground. The figure’s legs and feet are pointed towards the lower corners of the canvas, so that she seems to be lightly floating in space. Her right arm hangs down and rests in front of her right thigh, while her left extends out from her core at forty-five degrees, with her palm open to the viewer. The geometrical spacing of her limbs recalls the form of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man c.1490 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Her nude figure is youthful but toned, with pale pink skin, and she wears a headdress reminiscent of straw or yellow flames attached to a green band framing her face. Her face is also youthful, with blue eyes and an open expression of raised eyelids and a slightly parted mouth. Behind her back and outstretched left hand is a billowing cloak of small spring flowers, including daisies painted in white and light green, with others rendered with darker green stems, and petals in light pink, and more occasional touches of deep red, light blue and purple. Like the figure, these flowers seem to hover or to move slowly in the air; together they form a rounded shape with a definite edge, cloaking her back, as well as a single trail that circles loosely as a narrow band of white flowers around her right thigh.
The light blue ground slightly pales towards the figure’s feet and towards the centre of the composition, creating the impression of a portion of an airy cloudless sky on a bright day. At the figure’s base is a top-section of a rounded globe or mound of earth, covering approximately the painting’s lower fifth, which extends to the right, left and lower edges of the composition. In the foreground of this earth are some wide rounded pebbles, varying in size, before a circular pool of water, all set within a field of short green grass. Behind this a more distant landscape of yellow and green fields is visible. The pool is described as a reflection of blue sky and a rim of reflected green grass. The figure’s toes extend towards this earthly surface and her right foot appears to touch lightly the grassy bank. In this area a trail of smaller flowers has been painted in a small circle near her foot and then receding towards the distant earth. This might suggest that the figure, with her cloak of flowers, has brought them to the earth with her presence or touch.
The painting’s title, Flora’s Cloak, refers to the Roman mythological character Flora, goddess of flowers and spring and symbol of fertility, youth and the renewal of life. Gluck’s treatment of this theme in this way particularly recalls the figure of the same character in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera c.1470–80 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence), who looks to the viewer while scattering flowers over the ground, clothed in a billowing floral grown. Flora’s Cloak has also previously been referred to as ‘Primavera’. Botticelli’s example would have been well-known to Gluck and available in reproduction, as would also have been his full-length female nude in The Birth of Venus c.mid-1480s (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Both Gluck and Botticelli’s paintings are allegorical visual expressions based on the personification of Spring. While Botticelli’s larger composition has been described as a depiction of the progress of the spring season over time, Gluck’s depiction catches the goddess at an extended moment of arrival or reign. In one textual description of the myth by Ovid, it is described how a naked wood nymph attracted the first wind of Spring, Zephyr; she was ravished and flowers sprang from her mouth, transforming her into Flora, the goddess of flowers. In this source the reader is told that ‘till then the earth had been but of one colour’, namely green (Ovid, Fasti, Book 5, 2 May, original 8 AD, trans. James G. Frazer, 1931).
Flora’s Cloak is thought to be the only painting by Gluck of a nude figure. It was painted when the artist was in her late twenties, after she had returned to north London (where she was born, to an affluent Jewish family) following a close attachment to the landscape and artistic scene of West Cornwall. During the early 1920s she lived and worked in London, first living in a flat in Finchley Road and working from a two-room studio in Earl’s Court; from 1926 she owned Bolton House in Hampstead, which had its own studio. Throughout she spent summers in Lamorna, Cornwall, where she continued her association with the Newlyn School of Painters. In the countryside Gluck was especially struck by the effect of light upon the sky and landscape, writing later how ‘a landscape is chameleon to the light’ (Gluck, ‘Notes on Landscape Painting’, undated , quoted in Souhami 1988, p.42). A work comparable to Flora’s Cloak, as a symbolic expression of the wonder of the natural world, is a landscape based on Cornwall showing broad beams of light emanating from the sky (Pheobus Triumphant c.1920, private collection). Flora’s Cloak was included in Gluck’s first solo exhibition, at the Dorien Leigh Galleries in South Kensington in 1924. A show of fifty-seven pictures that proved a commercial success, this led to a second solo exhibition two years later, called Stage and Country, at the Fine Art Society, London.
Gluck continued to exhibit with the Fine Art Society. In 1932 she designed and patented ‘the Gluck Frame’, a three-stepped frame painted the same colour as the wall and intended to incorporate the picture into the wall visually, creating greater unity between her paintings and the surrounding room. Flora’s Cloak is framed in a stamped ‘Gluck Frame’, which was probably fitted during the 1930s. It was also in 1932 that Gluck, openly lesbian, met a new partner, the florist Constance Spry. They were introduced that January via an arrangement of flowers that had been delivered to Gluck that she had decided to paint. Not only was a new relationship sparked, but Gluck also made a significant number of flower paintings that show how her artistic sensibility aligned with Spry’s preference for well-spaced white floral arrangements that focused attention on the interplay between light, shade, colour and shape. During this time Spry came to own Flora’s Cloak, which hung above the fireplace in her Kent home, Park Gate, where Gluck frequently spent weekends. It is also said to have hung on the walls of Spry’s shop ‘Flower Decoration’, probably at 64 South Audley Street in Mayfair (which her business occupied from 1934 to 1960). Though the relationship ended in 1936, Gluck continued to paint floral arrangements into the early 1940s.
Drawing & Design: Incorporating the Human Form, vol.4, series VI, November 1924, illustrated p.205.
Diana Souhami, Gluck: Her Biography, London, 1998, pp.54-62, detail reproduced p.55.
Amy de la Haye and Martin Pel, eds., Gluck: Art and Identity, New Haven and London, 2017, p.90, reproduced p.92.
Rachel Rose Smith
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