IT ISN’T uncommon for an artist to be described as having a fiercely independent spirit.

It comes with the territory. To present (often personal) work to an audience you need confidence in your convictions and a belief that you have something important to say. There are single-minded artists, though, and then there’s Gluck.

Such was the force of the Londoner’s personality that she wilfully disassociated herself from her family name – she was born Hannah Gluckstein – in order to paint herself as a true individual in the art world. She eschewed gender conventions of the age in which she grew up, donning men’s tailored clothing and short, closely cropped hair.

During the First World War she ran away to Cornwall with fellow students to join an artists’ colony. She lived her last decades in Steyning and frequently visited Brighton, but more on that later. It would be stretching a point to call Gluck’s actions rebellious; she was merely following her impulses, as Martin Pel, the co-curator of a new exhibition of Gluck’s work, points out. “She did exactly what she wanted to do,” says Pel, who has also co-edited a new hardback book about Gluck’s life with Amy de la Haye (the pair collaborated for the exhibition, too).

“She was very independent, not just as an artist but also an individual. She maintained she was never part of any school or movement.” Gluck’s art encompasses still life, portraiture and landscapes among other forms but arguably now she is better known for her trailblazing ideas of gender. LGBTQ cultural commentators at the end of the 20th century identified her as a key figure in breaking down binary expectations.

In the 1920s and 30s, her appearance and sartorial choices were considered newsworthy. Tabloid paper The Daily Sketch published a picture of Gluck in a shirt and tie with the headline “You Wouldn’t Guess”. This, of course, referred to the androgynous image that masked her sex; after all, how could any woman have short hair and wear a suit jacket? Madness.

“It was just seen as kooky and eccentric,” says Pel of the public reaction to Gluck. “Lesbians were spoken about merely as eccentrics in those days. It was all brushed under the carpet like that.” It wasn’t as though Gluck was trying to make any major social statement by dressing in this manner – she acted on her gut feeling and left other people to make judgments.

Pel says she never bothered too much about those who focused on her image rather than her work. “To all intents and purposes she looked exactly like a man, which no other woman did back in that day, but she just saw that as the way it was.” Nor did Gluck see herself as any kind of pioneer of LGBTQ identity or rights. “She had relationships with women but I don’t think she saw herself as a trans man or a lesbian, or any of those things,” says Pel. “None of those terms came into her mind.”

To understand the root of Gluck’s constructed identity, we must explore the impact of family life upon young Hannah Gluckstein. Her uncles co-founded the J Lyons and Co company, which became a British institution in the world of catering and hospitality. There were two big Lyons “tea rooms” in Brighton. Pel calls the business the “Starbucks of its day”.

Because of Lyons’ success, Gluck’s extended family was exceedingly wealthy, meaning the artist was entirely free of any obligations and could sculpt her craft at her own leisure. Pel cites this as another reason why she was so single-minded; she was never burdened by the duty to work for a living. On the other hand, Hannah never wanted to be linked with such riches and the family’s reputation in general. She longed to form her own distinct persona.

“Hannah wished to disassociate herself from the Gluckstein family,” says Pel. “She said to her mother, ‘please, please don’t mention my dreaded name’. Whether it was due to gender, sexuality or her place in the world, she didn’t want to be known as Hannah Gluckstein.” Pel adds that there was “no encouragement” from Hannah’s parents in her quest to become an artist, but that her mother, opera singer Francesca Halle, was “incredibly proud” of her daughter when she began exhibiting at Fine Art Gallery in London in the 1920s.

Initially, though, Gluck faced a struggle to even go to art school. Her parents were against the idea but compromised on St John’s Wood Art School (Hannah had wanted to attend the more reputable Slade School of Art). Gluck later claimed she “never learnt anything” (in Pel’s words) during her academic years, but she did meet fellow artist Edith Craig at St John’s Wood. Just as Hannah shortened her surname to create the genderambiguous title she would become known by, Edith went by the name of Craig. The pair lived in an artists’ colony in the Cornish valley of Lamorna for a spell during the First World War.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s Gluck earned a reputation as a talented painter of portraits and floral designs; she had a particular fondness for still life flowers. In this same period, Gluck took on the mantra “no prefix, no suffix, or quotes” when discussing her gender. She stood down as vice president of an art society after they gave her the title “Miss Gluck” on its official documentation. One of Gluck’s best-known paintings, YouWe (above), depicts the artist with Nesta Obermer. The couple had a passionate affair even while Nesta was married to her wealthy husband.

When Gluck moved away from London in the 1940s, she conveniently relocated to a house in Steyning – two minutes away from where Nesta lived. At this point, says Pel, Gluck was “deeply in love” with Nesta. It was in Sussex, though, that Gluck met journalist Edith Shackleton Heald – the last lover of the great poet W B Yeats.

Gluck and Edith lived a “simple, happy life” in Steyning until the former’s death some 30 years later. While the women enjoyed the quiet of the town, they also relished trips to Brighton and took their first holiday together in the city.

“Gluck formed a strong relationship with Brighton,” says Pel. “It was always part of her life as she visited when she was a child with relatives. Gluck and Edith would come here to go shopping and to the theatre – they always enjoyed it." In a sense, there is a nice symmetry to the new Gluck exhibition at Brighton Museum. The institution was one of only two galleries – the other was the National Portrait Gallery – that the artist donated a painting to in her lifetime (a piece called Devil’s Altar).

“That was an unusual move for her,” says Pel of the donation. “Usually, she felt money was a poor exchange for her art.” It takes an artist of immense self-belief to consider their work above economic value. But then again, as we know, Gluck wasn’t lacking for confidence. As Pel prepares to open the display to the public, he sums up her unique personality.

“She wanted to be taken as a brilliant artist on her own terms – she wanted everything on her own terms.”

Gluck: Art and Identity opens at Brighton Museum on November 18. Visit