Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, RA RE RP SGA (1890-1978)
Gerald Brockhurst was a precociously gifted painter, draughtsman and printmaker, who is best known for his portraits of women, including his two wives and a number of celebrities. The work of Italian Renaissance artists informed his developing style, which at its most mature was intensely, even unnervingly, realistic. Gerald Brockhurst was born at 106 Summer Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, on 31 October 1890, the fourth son of the coal dealer, Arthur Brockhurst, and his wife, Amelia (née Ward). Displaying a prodigious talent for drawing at an early age, he was only 12 when he began to study at Birmingham School of Art. His fellow students included Henry Rushbury, who would become a close friend.
In 1907, at the age of 16, Brockhurst won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, in London. There, he received a number of awards, including the Landseer Scholarship, the Armitage Medal, the British Institute Studentship and, in 1913, a gold medal and a travelling scholarship worth £200.
This last enabled him to visit Paris, where he worked in the Louvre, copying work by such early Italian Renaissance artists as Botticelli. From there, he went on to Italy, and based himself in Milan.
In 1914, Brockhurst married Anaïs Folin, the young French woman who was employed as a governess by his artist friend, Ambrose McEvoy and his wife, Mary. An artist herself, Anaïs soon became Brockhurst’s chief model. In the same year, he made his first experiments in etching, encouraged by Henry Rushbury, with whom he had shared lodgings before his marriage. However, this interest would not begin to flourish until the end of the decade.
Brockhurst began to exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1915, but in the same year moved to Ireland with Anaïs. While there, he met the poet, Oliver St John Gogarty, who provided patronage and introduced him to Augustus John. Working alongside John affected his style, and John also encouraged him to exhibit at the Chenil Gallery, in Chelsea. He held his first solo show there in 1916, and his more significant second one in 1919, the success of which led him to return to London.
From 1920, when he produced his first editioned print (a portrait of the Irish poet, Francis MacNamara), Brockhurst decided to concentrate on etching, and so meet the demand known as the modern etching boom. Developing a high degree of virtuosity, he became the most successful etcher of female figure subjects, rivalled only by William Russell Flint. In 1921, he was immediately elected a full member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and also of the recently formed Society of Graphic Art. In addition, he soon became a member of both the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (1923) and the Art Workers’ Guild (1924). Exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy from 1923, he was elected an associate of the RA in 1928, and made a visitor of the RA Schools in the same year. At this time, he was living at 2 Fernshaw Road, Chelsea, which backed on to his studio in Gunter Grove.
It was as a visitor to the RA Schools that Brockhurst met Kathleen Woodward, a 16-year-old model, whom he dubbed ‘Dorette’, and with whom he soon began an affair. She inspired Dorette and Adolescence (both 1932), works that marked the culmination of his achievement as an etcher. The latter proved particularly popular when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1933.
The slump that occurred in the etching market in the 1930s affected Brockhurst less than other artists, and he continued to produce and sell prints. Nevertheless, he had gradually returned to painting through the late 1920s, and was producing such impressive portraits as that of Henry Rushbury (1927, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA). Responding to celebrity and society commissions, he quickly established himself as one of the most fashionable portraitists of the period between the wars, and especially for female sitters. His characteristic format was inspired by the Italian Renaissance portraitists that had first excited him as student, including Leonardo and Bronzino, and set an intensely realised half-length portrayal of a subject against distant Italianate hills. Notable examples include those of the actress, Merle Oberon (exhibited at the RA in 1937, private collection), and the Duchess of Windsor (1939, National Portrait Gallery). Brockhurst was elected a full Royal Academician in 1937, though he contributed regularly at its exhibitions only until 1939. By that date, he was living at 50 Tite Street, Chelsea.
In 1939, Brockhurst left for the united States with Kathleen Woodward, and soon settled at Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, 205 which would remain his home for the remainder of his life. He divorced Anaïs in 1940, and married Kathleen in 1947, the couple becoming American citizens two years later.
Brockhurst continued to undertake lucrative portrait commissions, and exhibited with Knoedler & Co and Portraits Inc, both of New York. However, his reputation declined in Britain, and if he was remembered at all it was more as an etcher than as a painter. He died in Franklin Lakes on 4 May 1978. The retrospective exhibition, ‘A Dream of Fair Women’, mounted by Sheffield Art Galleries in 1986, and touring, began the process of reviving interest in his work.
His work is represented in the collections of the Royal Academy of Arts and numerous public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery; and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh).
Further reading: Anne Goodchild, Marilyn F Symmes and Stephen Wildman, A Dream of Fair Women: An exhibition of the Work of Gerald Brockhurst RA 1890-1978, Sheffield Arts Department, 1986; Anne L Goodchild, ‘Brockhurst, Gerald Leslie (1890–1978)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/58743; Anne L Goodchild, ‘Brockhurst, Gerald Leslie (b Birmingham, Oct 31, 1890; d Franklin Lakes, NJ, May 4, 1978)’, Grove Art Online, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T011442