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'Jeunesse Dorée' 1934, by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890-1978)


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About the artwork

Gerald Leslie Brockhurst was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham on 31 October 1890. His father was listed on his birth certificate as being a coal merchant and at some point left his family and went to the US. Brockhurst was brought up by his mother. He attended various local schools but never lasted more than a few days at any of them. A recurring ear infection saw him frequently bedridden, from where he would send illustrated letters to an aunt living in India. This talent earned him a place at the Birmingham School of Art where he studied from the age of 12 to 17. Early on he declared that he wished to be a painter and he spent his lessons drawing portraits of his teachers. Brockhurst won many awards at Birmingham and then at the Royal Academy Schools including the Bronze Medal for "A design for a figure picture" in 1912 and culminating in the prestigious Gold Medal and Travelling Scholarship. He used this scholarship of £200 in 1914 to travel with his new wife Anaïs to Paris and Italy. The 15th and 16th century paintings he saw there were to have a lasting impact on his art.

Brockhurst and Anaïs lived in Ireland for five years where her beauty was to inspire him to create many etched and painted portraits of her. It is clear from these that he was obsessed by her individual beauty. He soon became increasingly involved in the artistic circles of Augustus John who at that time was making a great name for himself as a portrait painter. John himself had obtained many portrait commissions, including that of Lord Leverhulme. It was probably John who encouraged Brockhurst to stage his first two major exhibitions at the Chenil Gallery in London in 1916 and 1919. These really launched his career and advertised his work to future society patrons. The 1919 exhibition was even reviewed in Vogue magazine amongst others. Living back in London Brockhurst began entering etchings and drawings - mainly portraits - to the Royal Academy shows and these quickly established Brockhurst as a leading printmaker of his day.

In 1933 Brockhurst exhibited his sensational ‘Dorette’ at the Royal Academy. The model was Kathleen Woodward whom Brockhurst had met after being appointed in 1928 a Visitor to the Royal Academy Schools where she was a model at the age of 16. Brockhurst became immediately enamoured by Kathleen and her youthful beauty. She was to be his lifelong model and second wife. He renamed Kathleen Dorette in the style of Augustus John. His new muse Dorette became the focus of most of his proceeding Royal Academy exhibits often with fanciful titles such as ‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘Ophelia’. Prospective patrons would see his pictures at the Royal Academy and then commission Brockhurst to paint portraits for them. Indeed, this was Brockhurst’s most successful decade and he rapidly became the most fashionable and highly desired portrait painter of the 1930s. He painted the Duchess of Windsor, J Paul Getty, and the film star Marlene Dietrich amongst others. Increasing exposure in America (and no doubt the outbreak of World War II) lured Brockhurst to the USA. By 1940 he and Dorette had moved there where they were to spend the rest of their lives supported by several loyal patrons.

‘Jeunesse Dorée’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1934 and Lord Leverhulme bought the painting on the first day of the show. It was priced at £1000; the most expensive picture that year. Lord Leverhulme had tried to buy ‘Dorette’ the previous year for the Lady Lever Art Gallery but delay in the Gallery Trustees’ decision meant that he was pipped to the post by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston where ‘Dorette’ hangs today.

When 'Jeunesse Dorée' was exhibited it received lots of critical attention and was the star of the 1934 show. A 1934 Daily Mail reporter said "again I saw people yesterday standing before the picture trying to fathom the secret of those curiously haunting deep-blue eyes." Lord Leverhulme lent the picture to the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of that year. The Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions were the Walker’s equivalent of the Royal Academy shows. The curator at the Walker, Charles Carter, wrote in the ‘Liverpool Evening Express’ that ‘Jeunesse Dorée’ was "a picture of sensuality incarnate". There was even some speculation in the local press that Jeunesse Dorée was a direct copy of the ‘Dorette’ that Preston had bought the previous year, though this was quelled by the Harris’ curator. Brockhurst was still married to Anaïs at this time. When photographs of Dorette were printed comparing her to her portraits she was reported diplomatically as being a dancer and art pupil of Brockhurst.

'Jeunesse Dorée' means 'gilded youth' in French and was a term applied to wealthy and fashionable young society people. Dorette was again the model. She is painted in half-length portrait against a stark rocky landscape and vast sky. Her direct pose and unflinching gaze are compelling. It is only a portrait in the limited sense of a portrait being a likeness of a real person. There is a tension in this gaze that holds the viewer’s attention but gives nothing away about Dorette or her character. Dorette has been moulded into Brockhurst’s image of ideal beauty and the painting has a slight unearthly atmosphere in the way that she seems to float in front of a landscape rather than appear to be rooted in it. The lack of depth and muted tones of blue and grey reflect Brockhurst’s earlier training in draughtsmanship and printmaking in Birmingham and London. The diffused influence of the Italian painters that Brockhurst had seen earlier in his career from masters such as Botticelli and Leonardo can be also seen here. Like in many of his 30s and 40s portraits, he has placed the sitter against a flat background of idealised landscape painted in sombre hues rather than in a realistic outdoor setting with perspective. This simple composition is Brockhurst’s signature portrait format that he used again and again.