Yesterday I visited the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral peninsular in order to stand face to face with Holman Hunt’s painting The Scapegoat as this was going to be my featured painting. Of course, whilst I was there I went around the gallery, half of which is taken up by fine art paintings, mainly from British artists, and the other half was set aside for tapestries, sculptures, furniture and porcelain. It was an interesting gallery and I can thoroughly recommend you visit it if you are in the vicinity. The reason I mention all this is that I was mesmerised by one of the paintings on display. I kept having to return to it and try and work out in my own mind what was the magnetic attraction of the work. It still haunts me even now as I put my thoughts on paper. Unfortunately the gallery shop could not offer met a print of it or even a postcard which was very disappointing. My Daily Art Display today is this exquisite painting entitled Jeunesse Dorée by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, who was one of the outstanding English artists of the twentieth century and a renowned portrait painter.
Brockhurst was born in Edgbaston, a suburb of Birmingham, in 1890. His father, a coal merchant, deserted the family and went to America. He attended a number of local schools but found it hard to settle down to school life. This was exacerbated by recurring ear infections he frequently suffered from and which often left him bedridden. The young lad had an aunt who lived in India and he would frequently send her illustrated letters and it was this that got him interested in art and he was determined to become a painter. His artistic talent was recognised at the early age of twelve and he won a place at the Birmingham School of Art where he remained for five years. It was here he began to fall in love with portraiture. He won many awards at the Birmingham School of Art and later the Royal Academy Schools, the oldest art school in the country, which was founded through a personal act of King George III in 1768.
In 1912 Brockhurst was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal and Travelling Scholarship. Two years later he used this scholarship to travel with his new wife Anais to Paris and Italy. During his travels he studied the works of the “Old Masters” of the 15th and 16th centuries and these were to have a lasting impact on his art.
Brockhurst and his wife Anais Folin went to live in Ireland and remained there for five years. It was during those years that he created many etched and painted portraits of his wife. From them, we can see that he was truly in love with her and was mesmerised by her beauty. It was during this period of his life that he first met the portraitist, Augustus John who introduced Brockhurst to his circle of friends. In fact, it was Augustus John who persuaded him to stage two major exhibitions of his works at the Chenil Gallery, London in 1916 and again in 1919. These launched his career and Brockhurst, who had moved back to London in 1920, started to enter some of his etchings and drawings to the Royal Academy. It was in the 1920’s that he established himself as an outstanding and flourishing portrait painter, and also strengthened his reputation as one of the exceptional printmakers of his generation
Teaching in the Royal Academy Schools was undertaken by a system of lectures delivered by Professors and Royal Academician ‘Visitors‘, and in 1928, when Brockhurst was thirty-eight years old, he was appointed a Visitor to the Royal Academy Schools. During this time he met the sixteen year-old artist’s model Kathleen Woodward. Brockhurst was immediately besotted by her youthful beauty and she was to become his lifelong model. He renamed her Dorette. Their relationship led to the break-up of Brockhurst’s marriage to Anais and a protracted and bitter divorce case, much sensationalised in the press. The adverse publicity from this divorce together with the onset of World War II led to his decision to leave England with Kathleen ‘Dorette’ Woodward in 1940 and emigrate to America. Brockhurst and Kathleen eventually married in 1947.
In New York Brockhurst became both famous and wealthy and lived out his life supported by a number of loyal patrons who loved his portraiture. During his career, he carried out over six hundred portraits including portraits of the rich and famous such as the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, J Paul Getty and Marlene Dietrich. He died in New Jersey in 1978 at the age of 88. Kathleen Dorette Woodward died in 1996.
And so to the painting which captivated me yesterday. Jeunesse Dorée, meaning “gilded youth” in French, is a term applied to wealthy and fashionable society people. It was painted by Brockhurst in 1934 and exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It was purchased for £1000 by Lord Leverhume, for his Lady Lever Gallery on the very first day of the show. The buyer’s determination to have the painting stemmed from his disappointment the year before when he tried to buy Brockhurst’s etching Dorette, but his Gallery Trustees dithered on funding the proposed acquisition and it was bought by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery of Preston.
Like myself yesterday, many people have been captivated by this wonderful painting. The Daily Mail of the day reported on the painting and its admirers stating:
“…again I saw people yesterday standing before the picture trying to fathom the secret of those curiously haunting deep-blue eyes…”
Let us look at the painting in more detail. It is a half-length portrait with an almost two-dimensional stark and rocky idealised landscape along with an immense sky as the background. There is a lack of depth to the background of this painting, which in a way projects the young girl towards us. This setting was consistent with his many portraits of the 1930’s and 1940’s but which was in contrast to the works of other portraitist who preferred to use realistic three-dimensional settings. He has used sombre colours. The girl stares straight at us almost daring us to blink. As you look at her you wonder what is going through her mind. Her eyes are penetrating as if she is looking into your very soul. There is no hint of a smile on her full-red lips. Hers is an inscrutable expression as she fixes her gaze on us. Having said all that, in my mind, there can be no doubting her beauty and her alluring sensuality. Her plain-coloured cardigan, echoing the shades of the background, clings tightly to her body. Her full breasts strain against the material and the buttons of the cardigan which hold them captive. It is no wonder that Brockhurst was seduced by her beauty and fell in love with her. I think I too was lost in her enigmatic loveliness.