Gladys, Gertie and Gluck

Robert Hazle, Education Officer at the Noël Coward Archive Trust

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Noël Coward Archive Trust’s Education Officer, Robert Hazle, shines a light on some of the remarkable women who made their mark on Coward’s life and work. All three will feature in the forthcoming Noël Coward: Art & Style exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. Pioneering in their fields, these are the stories of Gladys, Gertie and Gluck.

Gladys Calthrop

A black and white image of Gladys Calthrop. She has short curled brown hair and is wearing a large silver earring and white silk blouse. She looks over her left shoulder.
Gladys Calthrop by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery

Gladys Calthrop (born Gladys Treeby) was born in 1894, growing up in Devon, and West Sussex before attending a finishing school in Paris. She was briefly married to Captain Everard E Calthrop with whom she had a son, Hugo, but once separated, she spent the rest of her life in lesbian relationships.

Calthrop trained at the Slade School of Fine Art and over nearly 50 years had a successful career in theatre and film design, especially in the work of Noël Coward. The first of these, which launched her career was The Vortex, at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead.

“It was the first play I had ever designed so I was terribly excited, though there was nowhere to paint the sets except outside the theatre in Hampstead High Street, and the costumes all had to be made in a kind of basement there”
-         Gladys Calthrop (A Talent to Amuse, Sheridan Morley)

Following the Broadway transfer of the production, she remained in New York to become Artistic Director for the Civic Repertory Theatre of Eva Le Gallienne, with whom Calthrop had a relationship. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, she designed many productions on Broadway, including several for Coward, including Bitter Sweet and Private Lives.

Perhaps my favourite story of Calthrop is when, following flying lessons, she bought her own plane and flew to Germany with Jeffery Amherst where they met a certain dictator in the Chancellery in Berlin. As an aviator, it is not surprising that during the Second World War, she served in the Mechanical Transport Corps. During this time, she also designed or oversaw films for Coward including In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter (whose title, incidentally, was her suggestion).

Her lifelong friendship with Coward was a close one from the day they met on holiday in Italy. They were introduced to each other by Mrs Astley Cooper at the beginning of the 1920s. Coward was singing at the English Club, distracted by

A back and white image of Noel and Gladys reclining on a sofa. noel wears a suit and gladys a big black coat, they are looking at eachother fondly.
© Noel Coward Archive Trust
“a smartly dressed young woman in the front row, who appeared to be fighting an attack of convulsive giggles with singular lack of success. I remember frowning at her several times, but this only seemed to send her into fresh paroxysms.”

-         Noël Coward (Autobiography)

As well as with Eva Le Gallienne, Calthop was romantically involved with the writer Mercedes De Acosta, but later in life, her longtime partner was Patience Erskine,who was tasked with maintaining the gardens of Coward’s Kent home, Goldenhurst. Calthrop’s relationship with Erskine was not always the smoothest: Coward noted in his diary that during a lunch in 1966, “Gladys was snarling at Patience and vice versa”.

Many of Calthrop’s designs are collected in the Noel Coward: Art & Style exhibition, showing the remarkable contribution she made to Coward’s theatrical world.

Gertrude Lawrence

A black and white picture in a silver frame of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. They both wear black hats and white collared shirts, they're both looking way from the camera off to the left.
Coward’s own framed photo with Gertrude Lawrence © Noel Coward Archive Trust

Undoubtedly Coward’s closest friend, confidante and favourite interpreter of his work was Gertrude Lawrence. They were child actors together and Coward wrote his first musical revue, London Calling! specifically for Gertie, as she was known. They would later star together in the transatlantic hits Private Lives and Tonight At 8.30. The Noël Coward: Art & Style exhibition has recreated the iconic dress, designed by Molyneux, which Lawrence wore in that first production of Private Lives.

Born in 1898, Gertrude Lawrence was a child actor – one of Italia Conti’s cast of the long-running Where The Rainbow Ends, a production which also launched the careers of Hermione Gingold and Nora Swinburne. A big moment came in 1916 when she was hired by André Charlot to understudy Beatrice Lillie in the revue Some, subsequently taking on her role in the national tour. This led to another musical revue where she met and married dance director Francis Gordon-Howley, twenty years her senior. They separated soon after the birth of her daughter Pamela.

A dark image of the exterior of a theatre. Bright lights state the names Gertrude Lawence and Noel Coward.
Private Lives Marquee at the Times Square Theatre © Geoffrey Johnson Collection, Noel Coward Archive Trust

In 1920, Lawrence once again replaced Lillie for Charlot, this time in the revue A To Z. Over the next couple of decades, her career encompassed plays, films, radio and several Gershwin musicals in addition to her collaborations with Coward. During the Second World War, she entertained troops in France with ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association) alongside Ivor Novello and Margaret Rutherford. In 1945, she wrote an autobiography called A Star Danced.

Lawrence is perhaps best known for her role in the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I in 1951. For her performance as Anna Leonowens she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Sadly this would be her last performance. On the 16th August, 1952 she fainted backstage after the matinee performance and three weeks later she died of cancer. At the news, all Broadway theatres dimmed their house lights – the first time this happened.

Her life up until her marriage to Richard Aldrich was celebrated in the 1968 film Star! with Julie Andrews as Lawrence alongside Daniel Massey as Coward, his own godfather. In the 1980s, Lawrence’s biographer, Sheridan Morley devised the successful biographical ‘entertainment’, Noel and Gertie, at the Donmar Warehouse, with Patricia Hodge as Gertie.


Embed from Getty Images

Like Gladys Calthrop, Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) (1895-1978) refused to be constrained by the conventional expectations of young women in the early 20th century. Gluck blazed a defiant trail for gender non-conformity, and now seems a timely opportunity to explore the life and work of this remarkable artist.

Educated in London, Gluck trained at the St John’s Wood School of Art, followed by a period of time in Larmorna, Cornwall in an artists’ colony. It was during this time that Gluck began to explore gender identity. At the age of 23, with cropped hair and exclusively men’s clothing, the artist formerly known as Hannah Gluckstein took the androgynous name ‘Gluck’, refusing to accept references to ‘her’ gender. So absolute was this identity that when an art society of which Gluck was vice president wrote "Miss Gluck" on its letterhead, Gluck resigned.

Resisting being associated with any particular artistic movement, Gluck showed work only in solo exhibitions. Over a long career, albeit with a thirty year haitus, Gluck made several innovations, including a novel 1932 method of framing paintings – the patented Gluck frame, with its three-step profile building the painting out from the wall. It became an integral part of Art Deco and Modernist interior design throughout the 1930s and beyond.

Noel Coward Archive

Gluck was open about relationships with women, among whom was Constance Spry - who inspired the stylised floral pieces that characterised the artist’s output - and Nesta Obermer, with whom Gluck painted the joint self-portrait Medallion – now considered an iconic lesbian statement. The break-up in this relationship coincided with a decline in popularity of Gluck’s work which led to a lengthy hiatus in creative output. During this time, in the 1950s Gluck achieved another innovation in persuading the British Standards Institution to create a new standard for oil paints following a sustained campaign against the poor quality of paints at the time.

Speaking of oil paintings, included in the Noël Coward: Art &Style exhibition are two of several works Gluck painted of performers in C.B. Cochran’s On With The Dance. The production was a major revue written and composed by Coward and Philip Braham in 1925 with stage sets by Gladys Calthrop and costumes by Doris Zinkheisen. Gluck saw the show many times, sketching backstage and in the wings of the small Pavilion Theatre stage. One of the paintings, Three Nifty Nats, is a striking presentation of one of the song-and-dance routines and would later be described by Gluck as one of the true art deco paintings. It is a highlight of the exhibition and a unique glimpse behind the scenes of a Coward production.

There are many other influential women showcased in Noël Coward: Art & Style so follow the Guildhall Art Gallery’s and the Noël Coward Archive’s social media for more stories and highlights across this month and throughout the exhibition.

Robert Hazle is the Education Officer for the Noël Coward Archive Trust, which has its own blog looking at all aspects of Coward’s life and work at www.noë

Further Reading & Listening: