Nowadays I don’t go to nearly as many exhibitions as I did in pre-Covid times. So over the summer I was delighted to encounter three artists I knew very little about. What’s more, I discovered that two of them had links with Fitzrovia.
At the Whitechapel Gallery in East London there was a rare opportunity to enjoy the creativity of Eileen Agar (1899-1991), painter, sculptor and pioneer of collage. Agar’s connection to Fitzrovia is pretty solid.
From 1927 to 1929 she lived at 29 Fitzroy Square with her lover Joseph Bard, before moving for a while to Paris. Not always a smart address, number 29 is now celebrated as the home of George Bernard Shaw (1887-1898) and Virginia Woolf, née Stephen (1907-1911).
A flamboyant personality as well as a brilliant artist, Agar certainly deserves to be added to this list of notable residents. She’s generally referred to as a surrealist — she can be seen seated in the middle of the front row in the photo above from the first surrealist exhibition held in London in 1936 — though apparently she wasn’t too keen on the label herself.
Her work is poetic rather than disturbing. It includes paintings in which natural forms, modernist machinery and figures from ancient Greek art come together in a colourful array. My personal favourite, from 1949, is Demeter — a goddess of growth who’s lifting up her skirt and displaying her flower-strewn bottom to our admiring gaze.
My second artist was born Hannah Gluckstein, but preferred to be known simply as Gluck. In this story, Fitzrovia features as a centre for frame-making, a trade of vital importance in many creative circles. Gluck was a superb painter of portraits and still-lives. Stylish and unconventional in dress, and a rebel against gender conformity, Gluck also managed to fashion a fluid persona which was a work of art in its own right. In the 1930s Gluck became the lover of Constance Spry, recently the subject of an excellent exhibition at The Garden Museum in Lambeth.
Spry became famous in the 30s and 40s as a designer who provided the flowers for society occasions, including the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947. She later became the inventor of Coronation Chicken, as well as doing the flowers for the event after which it is named. Far from stuffy, she’d made a name for herself by introducing weeds, twigs and vegetables — Swiss chard was her signature leaf — into her fabulous floral set pieces. She was adventurous in her love life too. The survivor of an abusive marriage, she lived with Henry Spry for many years while both were still legally tied to other spouses. For part of that time she was also enjoying a four-year affair with Gluck.
Neither Spry nor Gluck ever lived in Fitzrovia as far as I know. But in 1932 Gluck invented and patented a distinctive picture frame which stood out from the wall in three steps. It might be painted white, or decorated with colours and patterns which blended with the wallpaper; this allowed the artwork to emerge gradually from the fabric of the room. Gluck was very protective of this frame, and appointed Louis Koch, antique furniture dealer and restorer based at 106 Cleveland Street, as its sole manufacturer.
This detail of Gluck’s biography caught my attention, mainly because in the 1970s I lived two doors up from Louis Koch. By that time it had transformed itself into a vast emporium renting out props to film studios. You walked through the shop into a magical warehouse, overflowing with period furniture. I once had the good fortune to be shown round the place, but the only frames I remember were of the elaborate gilt variety. Today two battered concrete dogs are still guarding the door to no.106 — sad remnants of former splendours. Louis Koch is long gone.
Flowers played a part in the work of all the artists I’ve been writing about here. While involved with Spry, Gluck started to produce glorious, stylised paintings of floral arrangements. And in an obscure street in Fitzrovia the painter commissioned some striking frames to enclose them. As we head into another hard winter, I’ll be enjoying the memory of all these blooms, and of the wonderful characters who presented them to us.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com