by Rebecca Birrell (Bloomsbury £25, 384 pp)

Gluck (no prefix).’ That was how the artist known as Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) signed her business letters.

I think that instruction was the 1920s equivalent of today’s ‘they/them’: a strident declaration of ‘Don’t you even dare refer to me as Miss or Mrs.’

The cropping of her name’s prefix, and its ‘-stein’ suffix that would identify her as the rich Jewish daughter of parents who ran the Lyons catering empire, was a similar androgynising act to the cropping of her hair, which Gluck also famously did, immortalised in her painting of two strong-minded, short-haired women, she and her lover Nesta Obermer. She gave that picture the bold, modern title ‘YouWe’.

Rebecca Birrell studies ten women artist born in the late-Victorian era in a new eye-opening book. Pictured: Hannah Gluckstein’s Medallion (YouWe) dual portrait

Rebecca Birrell looks at ten women artists who were born in the late Victorian period in a new book. Pictured: Hannah Gluckstein’s Medallion (YouWe) dual portrait

She kept the Hampstead grand Queen Anne pile that her parents had given her. She also kept her maid, housekeeper, and cook. She didn’t crop those. They were too useful.

In her deeply thoughtful and eye-opening study of ten women artists born in the late-Victorian era, Rebecca Birrell takes us back to that new dawn in women’s lives and art history: the years during and just after World War I when women who’d had stifling childhoods in stuffy homes, often wearing mourning dress for one tragic reason or another, were daring to veer from the path planned for them: marriage, children, running a household and no career of their own.

They left their home to attend art school. They rented cheap rooms in Bloomsbury and spent the night talking and sipping wine with like-minded, free spirits. Some of them eventually married for the security but managed to negotiate a decent open marriage deal.

But even if they veered from the expected path, the well-off ones still didn’t do their own cooking.

This book is a brilliant art-history lesson as well as a window into women’s lives. It awakened a desire in me to see their beautiful still-lives: jugs, tea table, bedroom windows, eggs and flowers in vases.

Many of these women were often undervalued as artists throughout their lives. Vanessa Bell, for example was never as well-known as Duncan Grant as a painter. However, it seems that they were almost equals.

Just one warning: Birrell is a Women’s Studies graduate and she uses the word ‘heteronormative’ rather a lot, as well as ‘homosocial’. In the minefield of which words we are and aren’t allowed to use these days, I now realise that ‘queer’ (which I’d thought rather passé, with its overtones of ‘odd’) is the currently acceptable and preferred word for non-heteronormative.

This book is a celebration all things queer. Vanessa was not queer herself, just married and having an affair, as was her husband Clive, but she lived in a queer household, with Duncan Grant whizzing up to London from Sussex to have his affair with David ‘Bunny’ Garnett.

Gluckhad a long affair with the married Constance Spry in the 1930s and fell madly in love with Nesta Obermer. Pictured: The artist at work

Gluckhad a long affair with the married Constance Spry in the 1930s and fell madly in love with Nesta Obermer. Pictured: The artist at work

These strong-minded women will blow you away. Gluck was an example of this. In the 1930s, she had a long affair infidelity with Constance Spry, who was married.

Never having been allowed to study nudes at art school, her almost photographically delineated paintings of Spry’s all-white flower arrangements somehow manage to make reference to the erotic zones of the body, all stamens and pistils.

But then Spry’s husband put up resistance to his wife’s lesbian relationship (you can see his point), and Gluck fell madly in love with Nesta Obermer, and she burnt all evidence of Constance.

‘I want to start such a new life that anything vaguely smelling of my past stinks in my nostrils,’ she wrote to her new love.

Nesta had a pilot’s licence and liked riding, sailing, skating and skiing, and Gluck was determined to learn those skills.

Nesta was married to an American who was wealthy and useful financially. She went on vacation with him and Gluck had no choice but to accept it. When all went sour with Nesta, she was possessed with bitterness and regret and burned the word ‘Nesta’ out of all her letters.

Nina Hamnett was, too, a handful. She’d had a miserable childhood, raging at having being born a girl: fights, tempers, punishments and loneliness in the stuffy parental home in Acton. She wanted to go to art school, but her parents forced her into becoming a postoffice clerk.

Gluck's paintings of Spry’s all-white flower arrangements somehow manage to make reference to the erotic zones of the body. Pictured: Chromatic still life

Gluck’s paintings of Spry’s all-white flower arrangements somehow manage to make reference to the erotic zones of the body. Pictured: Chromatic still life

She hated it so much that she lost sensation in both her hands. This was a physical manifestation her bodily rejection of the forced job. She fled and lived in a Bloomsbury cockroach-infested house, cut her hair and read Rimbaud every night.

Crazy, she married a Norwegian artist, and they lived off bone broth, porridge, and margarine. He was interned in World War I. After that, he moved to France. After Vanessa Bell had ended her relationship with Roger Fry in World War I, she began an affair with him.

She lived in bedits throughout her life, drinking heavily and refusing to accept the pressure to find refuge in respectability.

Her luminous domestic still-lifes, painted in the midst of all this poverty and chaos, are balm for the soul — hers and ours.

Ethel Sands, born 1873, was a woman I loved. She revelled in her unprettiness, which made her a great bride.

THIS DARK COUNTRY by Rebecca Birrell (Bloomsbury £25, 384 pp)

THIS DARK COUNTRY by Rebecca Birrell (Bloomsbury £25, 384 pp)

As Birrell puts it, ‘to be dismissed by society as chaste, prim and unattractive was to bypass an unwanted life and to settle into a queer one.’ Quietly and unshowily, Ethel lived with her girlfriend, the painter Nan Hudson, for sixty years until her death in 1962. Virginia Woolf referred to them as ‘the two discreet ladies.’

Lytton Strachey described Ethel as ‘dressed in white satin and pearls and thickly powdered and completely haggard.’ So withering, those Bloomsbury-ites could be! Ethel was granted freedom by that cruel brush-off.

It helped that she was wealthy, the spoiled child American socialites. The couple lived in style. Ethel’s paintings of her and Nina’s own grand and glittering interiors were dismissed by Vanessa Bell as ‘fatally pretty’. But Birrell sees them as serene and highly atmospheric feminine spaces ‘where women linger’.

It was difficult for those women to let go their expectations. Birrell has a few stories of abject failure. One example is that of Edna Waugh who showed so much promise at a young age that she attended the Slade at 14. William Clarke Hall, a predatory barrister and saboteur, ended her chances.

When she was 13 years old, he became obsessed with her and eventually married her. He went on to ruin her career as well as her life. In 1919, she had a nervous collapse. It’s mind-boggling that as a barrister, Hall specialised in . . . children’s rights.

Birrell highlights the uniqueness of the lives and times of those few women who were able to escape from the expected path. He includes vignettes of women being crushed by that method.