British artist Gerald Leslie Brockhurst was a highly celebrated, highly active portraitist of the early 20th-Century. He began by producing small etchings of elegant, alluring women. However, he saw his career flourish in the 1930s and 1940s when he became dedicated to portrait painting. He was for a time the highest paid portrait artist in the world, painting the likes of Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor.
His works have a strong energy and vitality, made even more evocative by his incredible realism. This is symptomatic of the ‘psychological intensity’ prevalent in portrait art after World War One. In an effort to explore and process the horrors that had been inflicted during the war, artists focused on expressions of emotion in their work. Pensive, moody looks from deep set, piercing eyes seem to scrutinise the viewer as much as they scrutinise the subject.
There is a real sense that the sitter is looking back at you, and in doing so, forcing you to realise the emotional poignancy behind their gaze, and become involved in the process yourself. Combined with tempestuous and shadowed backgrounds, there is a real sense of horror, even as the subjects look so glamourous. Brockhurst’s work is akin to that of Augustus John (1878-1961), the foremost portrait artist of early 20th-Century Britain. Indeed, Brockhurst met John and assisted him for a time, so it is likely the two shared insights and inspiration.
Brockhurst was also heavily influenced by the work of Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. Posited as a ‘promising young artist’ during his time studying at the Royal Academy, such prodigal prowess earnt Brockhurst a travel scholarship. He journeyed to Italy, and it was here he was to gaze upon the work of da Vinci, Botticelli, and Piero della Francesca. The realism of their work and the spirits of their subjects that they evoked became a guiding light for Brockhurst in his early years. Indeed, his work ‘Ursula’ is a direct reference to the ‘Mona Lisa,’ veil over the hair and enigmatic smirk included.
Women were indeed the mainstay and constant inspiration for his work. His two wives in particular proved fertile muses. His first wife, Anäis Folin, nurtured his growing talent, appearing often in his etchings as well as his paintings. In these, it should be said, Brockhurst retains the same sharp psyche of being as his paintings. As he matured in his craft and age, however, he found new inspiration in the younger Kathleen Woodward. She posed as a model for him on a number of occasions before he undertook a messy and highly publicised divorce from Anäis for her sake.
In his later years, Brockhurst moved to the USA to seek new success. Perhaps he was hoping that the works which had fared so well in Britain might do just as lucrative a trade in the States. Unfortunately, he never climbed to the same dizzying heights he had been working at in Britain.
His legacy, however, is a prominent marker of the interest in portrait art in the early 20th-Century and the emotion and mood they conveyed. The horrors of war seemingly brought about a new beauty in art, one of emotional intensity and psychological insight.
Born in Birmingham.
Attended the Birmingham School of Art.
Studied at the Royal Academy.
Awarded a gold medal and travel scholarship by the Royal Academy.
Married Anäis Folin.
Lived and worked in Ireland.
Returned to London. Exhibition of works held at Chenil Galleries.
Elected an associate of the Royal Academy.
Became a member of the Royal Academy.
Moved to the USA.
Divorced Anäis Folin.
Became a US citizen.
Died in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.