Philip de László is now recognised as one of the major portrait painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His great skill at capturing a sitter's likeness and his ability to transpose glamour and vitality onto a canvas often equalled that of Sargent.
The present portrait was commissioned by Gwen Brandt's parents to celebrate her marriage to Claude Mullins, which took place on 28 May 1925. Jean Brandt, the sitter's mother, was adamant that the portrait should be painted prior to the ceremony, but de László was extrememly busy, and this deadline proved difficult to meet. On 15 May 1925, de László was extremely busy, and this deadline proved difficult to meet. On 15 May 1925, de László explained to her: "Up to the moment of writing I have been hoping that I might still be able to fulfill my promise to paint Miss Brandt's portrait before the 23rd, otherwise I would have written before, but just to-day I have come to the decision that it will not be possible for me to do so. Various portraits that were begun some time ago, have now to be finished rather unexpectedly by certain dates and I would not like to have to paint your daughter's picture in haste [...] I did a portrait, in bridal dress, of Edwina Mountbatten after the wedding."
Jean Brandt had stressed to de László how very important it was to her that the portrait should be completed before the wedding for him to give the portrait of Edwina Mountbatten as an example. However, judging by her reply, this did not satisfy Gwen's mother: "you have no idea how desperately disappointed I am, that you have not been able to paint Gwen. I so longed for a portrait of her before her marriage - & hoped you could sketch her at least, even if you could not finish the portrait until afterwards. There is something in a girl's face - before she marries - one never gets again - however lively she may be - the girl, is gone - and I so longed to keep that girl face of Gwen forever. I suppose you could not sketch her face and finish the detail afterwards without changing the expression - could you?"
It seems that de László could not resist this desperate plea, and made arrangements to clear his diary on 26 and 27 May, the eve of the wedding, so that he could "finish the head entirely and [...] leave the rest for later on". The artist added that he was much looking forward to "painting a very picturesque portrait in her bridal attire."
De László succeeded in painting Gwen's head and shoulders by 12 June, before leaving for the continent, and completed the picture before the month ended. The artist's correspondence reveals that his honorarium for Gwen's portrait was £314.
(Elizabeth) Gwendolen 'Gwen' Brandt, was born on 10 April 1904, the younger of the two daughters of Augustus Brandt and his wife Jean Champion Garmany. Augustus Brandt was of Russian-German origin, and a senior partner in the family merchant bank, William Brandt's Sons & Company, while his wife Jean was an American from Savannah, Georgia, who persisted in dressing her daughters all in white, "Southern style", even though the Brandts divided their lives between Queen's Park Gardens, in Kensington, London and Surrey. The English climate and resulting mud meant that the girls' clothes had to be changed three times a day by their personal maid when they were in the country.
Gwen's mother, Jean, was an American from Savannah, Georgia. She was the only girl in a family with four boys. Two of the brothers became lawyers in New York, while another, Jasper, became a society doctor in New York. His patients included Andrew Carnegie and the Frick family. Gwen's mother left New York in the late 1890s after a scandal where it was revealed that for five years she had been secretly married to the son of Ward McAllister, the arbiter of New York society, friend of Mrs Astor, and coiner of the phrase 'The Four Hundred'. The marriage was never consummated, and after a divorce, Jean's mother, Gwen's grandmother, took her errant daughter away to Europe to avoid the newspapers. It was walking in Egypt that Jean met the young banker, Augustus Brandt, who fell in love with the vivacious redhead and proposed to her. The Brandt family, alarmed by this news, dispatched Augustus's younger brother, Rudie, to check out the American. Rudie famously sent a telegram home saying 'If Gussie doesn't marry her, I will.'
Augustus Brandt kept an open house for every member of the family. His home was therefore frequently animated with the visits of cousins from Germany, Russia and America. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, a number of relatives escaped and lived with the Brandts, some for several years. Gwen's favourite cousin amongst her German relatives was Hermann, who would soon be better known as Bill Brandt, the famous photographer. She did not care much for elegant society and, much aware of her father's sadness in not having a son, she did her best to act like one: athletic and courageous, she climbed trees, played golf, rode horses, and even ventured to say she would like to go into the family bank. When Gwen left school, she travelled to Italy, where she developed a passion for art. Back in England, she began to paint and draw. Always interested in materials and fabrics, indeed, she made her own dress for her portrait, Gwen attended a course at the London School of Weaving. This marked the beginning of a lifelong achievement with the crafts.
In 1925, aged twenty-one, she married Claud Mullins, her senior by seventeen years. He had served in the First World War in Mesopotamia and in India. At the time of their wedding he was a barrister, but he later became a Stipendiary Magistrate in London, and the author of noted works on prison reform. There were three children of the marriage: Ann, Barbara and Edwin. At the onset of the Second World War, she assisted in the occupational therapy work in Horton Hospital in Epsom, setting up looms for the soldiers, and putting some discarded book-binding equipment back into use. In 1948, her family moved to Graffham in Sussex where she founded a book-binding group for local people, which developed into the successful Graffham Weavers with her younger daughter Barbara, becoming one of the leading figures in the modern British crafts movement, both as a weaver and a patron. She had exhibitions of her weaving in London, Edinburgh and Paris. Gwen lost her husband in 1968, when he died aged eighty-one. She subsequently devoted herself even more to her work. She founded an association called Craftsmen's Mark to help hand-weavers develop the use of undyed wools, and the Gwen Mullins Trust, to finance training and apprenticeship schemes for young craftspeople who were not as privileged as her. She was closely involved in the setting up of teh Crafts Advisory Committee, which developed into the Crafts Council, with its exhibition space in central London and a card index and photo-library of living craftsmen's work. In 1975, she was appointed O.B.E. in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the crafts. Some of her rugs are now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Gwen Mullins died in Midhurst, Sussex, on 20 January 1997.
Copies of the correspondence between the artist and the sitter's mother will be included with the sale of the picture.
We are grateful to Dr Caroline Corbeau for her help in preparing this entry.
This portrait is included in the online catalogue raisonné of works by Philip de László compiled by the Hon. Mrs Sandra de László and Christopher Wentworth-Stanley (www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com). Dr Caroline Corbeau is the British and French Editor. Please see www.delaszloarchivetrust.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.