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Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890-1978)
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Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890-1978)

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, half-length before a Highland landscape

Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890-1978)
Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, half-length before a Highland landscape
signed 'BROCKHURST' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 25¼ in. (76.2 x 64.1 cm.)
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
Anonymous sale; Phillip's, London, 5 November 1991, Lot 99 (as 'Portrait of a Lady'), from where purchased by the current vendor.
Special notice

No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

Lot Essay

Gerald Brockhurst swept the board as the most brilliant student of his day at Birmingham School of Art which he joined aged twelve. His successes continued at the Royal Academy Schools, where among other prestigious prizes he won a Gold medal and a Travelling Scholarship which took him to Paris and Italy. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1923, and was elected A.R.A. in 1928 and R.A. in 1937.

Brockhurst was inspired by the great draftsmen of the Italian Renaissance. During the 1920s he became renowned for his etchings and in the following decade he established himself as one of the greatest portrait painters of the day. Jeunesse Doree, depicting his girlfriend Dorette Wooward, created a sensation at the Royal Academy of 1934. Bought by Lord Leverhulme, this is now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. In portraits like this and The Zeitgeist (The Spirit of the Age) painted the following year, Brockhurst created icons of a specifically modern type. With her rippling fair hair and blue eyes, Dorette was the archetypal 1930s beauty. In 1930, while still married to his first wife, Anais Folin, Brockhurst had caused a scandal in 1930 by falling in love with Dorette (Kathleen Nancy Woodward), whom he married in 1947. Brockhurst became an American citizen in 1949, having lived there for ten years.

Many of Brockhurst's society patrons had already achieved iconic status in real life. He specialised in painting rich and famous women and evolved a technique admirably suited to capturing the chic and sophisticated glamour of the 1930s. At the period when Brockhurst painted her portrait, the Tatler commented that, without any doubt, 'Mrs. Charles Sweeny is even more lovely to look at nowadays... she set a beauty standard for debutantes which has stood unchallenged ever since'. Other sitters included Merle Oberon, Marlene Dietrich, Mrs Paul Mellon, Lady Doverdale and the Duchess of Windsor, who gave Brockhurst's portrait pride of place in her collection at her Paris home. This sold for more than £65,000 in 1998 and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Charming, amusing and urbane, Brockhurst rapidly became something of a society figure himself, and photographs of him painting his models or attending celebrity functions frequently appeared in magazines like the Tatler.

From the Italian Renaissance painters, Brockhurst adapted the idea of setting his figures dramatically against a wide expanse of sky and a distant landscape background. In this case the blue volcanic mountains and the small wooded island in the loch refer to the sitter's Scottish heritage, of which she was intensely proud. They also recall the mysterious landscape against which Leonardo set the Mona Lisa; and it is probable that Margaret's enigmatic expression and half-smile were alike inspired by this most famous of female icons. The elegant black dress closely resembles designs by the great Italian courturier Schiaparelli, and Margaret was to feature in the list of the top ten world's best dressed women more than once. However, the serenity of this image overlays a daring nature which was to earn her notoriety in later years.

When the Duchess of Argyll died in 1993, the Observer commented that she had 'bequeathed a legacy of intrigue and scandal worthy of Britain's naughtiest aristocrat'. Her sensational divorce from the 11th Duke in 1963 made her notorious, but she had been newsworthy since the age of seventeen. Born Margaret Whigham, daughter of a self-made millionaire, she was voted the most beautiful debutante of 1930 and, as the Sunday Chronicle noted, was soon 'the most photographed girl in the country'. Pursued by some of the richest and most eligible young men in society, she became engaged to Prince Aly Khan and later the Earl of Warwick, before marrying the handsome Irish-American, Charles Sweeny. Margaret had been educated in America and retained a great love of the country and its people. Their wedding at the Brompton Oratory was the social event of the year and brought traffic to a standstill from Knightsbridge to Hyde Park Corner. Charles Sweeny was a charismatic figure: a successful stockbroker, a first-rate amateur golfer and, according to his wife, the best dancer in London. Margaret's own standing was such that she was immortalized in Cole Porter's song 'You're The Top' from the musical Anything Goes.

A daughter, Frances, later to become Duchess of Rutland, was born in 1937 and a son, Brian, in 1940. During the war Margaret joined the American Red Cross in London. In 1940, before America had entered the war, Charles Sweeny founded the Eagle Squadrons for American pilots who were thus able to serve as a unit of Fighter Command. They were soon to prove their mettle in the Battle of Britain. Partly due to their separate activities, Charles and Margaret gradually became estranged. They were divorced in 1947 after fourteen years of marriage, but remained good friends, and in 1990 Charles intervened to save her from threatened bankruptcy.

In 1951 Margaret married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th. Duke Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell and Hereditary Master of the Royal Household in Scotland. In 1932 the Duke had seen Margaret, then unknown to him, at the Cafe de Paris, and instantly vowed that he would marry her one day. She was his third wife. He was handsome, cultivated and well-informed, and much admired for the courage which had enabled him to survive five years in German prisoner-of-war camps. Long after their divorce, Margaret was to describe the marriage as 'explosive, nerve-racking and sometimes terrifying... often very, very happy' but 'certainly never dull'.

Inveraray, on the shore of Loch Fyne, had been the headquarters of the Clan Campbell - the oldest and largest of all the clans since the 15th century. Both of Margaret's parents were Scottish; she herself was born in Scotland, and she took great pride in being able to trace her ancestry back to the 12th century. With financial help from her father she began restoring the Castle and was responsible for opening it to the public. She revived the annual Highland Games and became the London Appeals President of the Highland Fund, which aimed to encourage re-population of the glens through loans to farmers and crofters. In 1959, the Duke and Duchess toured Australia and New Zealand, to rally the Clan in further support of the restoration. They enjoyed an almost royal reception and at every city there was a Campbell gathering or a full-dress Highland ball. On their return, the relationship deteriorated and the Duke sued his wife for divorce. Evidence in the trial included photographs of the so-called 'headless man', shown in a compromising situation with the Duchess, now generally believed to have been the swashbuckling American actor, Douglass Fairbanks, Jnr. In retrospect, the Argyll case is scarcely shocking, but in 1963 it was sufficient to make the Duchess the most scandalous figure of the day. All the same, she received sympathy and support during the trail from both friends and public, and afterwards, despite further acrimonious law suits and personal feuds, she maintained her popularity. On a visit to Houston, Texas, in 1966, she caused a greater stir than the Beatles' tour of the same year, and was formally granted the freedom of the city by the Mayor. Her friends included J. Paul Getty for whom she gave an 80th birthday party at the Dorchester in 1972. She was also friendly with the Nixon family, and one of the few British people to be invited to the inauguration of the President in 1969.

The Duchess was involved in a variety of charitable works, and in 1968, with Lieutenant-Colonel Colin 'Mad Mitch' Mitchell, launched a campaign to save the Regiment of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from disbandment. More than a million signatures were collected from Britain, America and the Commonwealth, which, together with the world-wide storm of protest their campaign aroused, ensured a successful outcome.

Over the decades the Duchess's extravagant life-style continued, and the newspaper cutting attached to the back of the portrait show that she enjoyed her prominent place in society. In 1978 she gave up her Mayfair house and until 1990 lived in a suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane. She entertained lavishly and lost vast sums in her law suits. Finally, with financial help from her two children she was moved to the St. George's Nursing Home in Pimlico where she received a special dispensation to keep her pet poodle, Louis. When she died there in July, 1993, there were numerous obituaries, all sympathetic.

Interest in the Duchess remains undiminished and she still makes news. In 1995 she was the subject of a new chamber opera, Powder her Face, which brought the British composer, Thomas Adés, international acclaim. The most recent television documentary about her was broadcast on Channel Four in April 2005.

We are grateful to Dr Mary Cowling for providing in catalogue note.

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