This smaller than life-size portrait by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst depicts the socialite Margaret Sweeney, Duchess of Argyll (1912–1993) against a background comprising a dark sky and a landscape of mountains and lakes. Margaret is presented frontally, with her face, shoulders and torso in view. She wears a dark dress, the golden, floral embroidery of which Brockhurst has rendered in hyper-realistic detail using small brushstrokes. Her pale, porcelain-like skin contrasts with the subdued tones of the rest of the picture, especially her dark eyes and eyebrows, which punctuate the whiteness of her face. Margaret was known to be intensely proud of her Scottish heritage, and this is reflected in the painting’s scenery, which evokes the lochs and mountains of Scotland.
Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was painted in London in c.1931. Margaret was around nineteen years of age when the portrait was made, and at this time her life was filled with major public and private events: she was presented at court in 1930 and named debutante of the year, had affairs with several rich and powerful men and met her fiancé-to-be, the seventh Earl of Warwick (although they never married). At this time Brockhurst himself was rising to fame, specifically for his portraits of glamorous and beautiful women. The majority of these portraits were composed in half-length format – revealing the head, shoulders and torso of the sitter – as is seen in Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and in one of Brockhurst’s best known works from the same period, Jeunesse Dorée 1934 (National Museums Liverpool), which depicts Brockhurst’s model and second wife Kathleen Woodward.
Both Jeunesse Dorée and Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1934. Jeunesse Dorée received the greatest critical attention of the two, and its warm reception was partly responsible for Brockhurst’s continuing success in the 1930s. He became increasingly prolific during this time and was, as the art historian Romita Ray has argued, ‘Britain’s most sought-after portraitist’ of the first half of the twentieth century (Ray 2006, p.14). At the height of his fame, Brockhurst’s clients and supporters included rich and powerful British and American socialites such as Marlene Dietrich, J. Paul Getty and members of the Astor and Vanderbilt families. Brockhurst was also a skilled etcher, and his works in that medium received high praise when he settled in the USA in 1939 (eventually becoming an American citizen in 1949). Alongside his paintings, Brockhurst completed many portrait etchings during the 1930s of a very similar configuration to Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll has been interpreted by scholars such as Ray as both a realistic rendering of the sitter and an idealised representation of her beauty and taste (Ray 2006, p.14). Margaret’s fashionable clothing, her attractive features and the painting’s dramatic backdrop reflect the ways in which she constructed her public identity, while the formality of her pose and the hyper-realistic detail with which Brockhurst rendered Margaret’s face and clothing point to the reality that lies behind her self-presentation. The portrait is notable for its similarity in composition and palette to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa c.1503–6 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Leonardo’s work became a source of influence for Brockhurst following a trip he made to Paris and Italy in 1913, and there is a clear visual link between this portrait and the Mona Lisa in their half-length format, background landscapes with a low horizon, and their sitters’ inscrutable smiles.
Mark M. Johnson, ‘Gerald Leslie Brockhurst: Etchings from the William P. Brumfield Memorial Collection’, Arts & Activities, November 2002, pp.33–6.
Ian Chilvers, ‘Brockhurst, Gerard Leslie’ in Ian Chilvers (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of Art, 3rd edn, Oxford 2004, p.106.
Romita Ray, The Eternal Masquerade: Prints and Paintings by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890–1978) from the Jacob Burns Foundation, exhibition catalogue, Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia 2006.
Supported by Christie’s.