Wednesday 21 August 2019

Painting an Irish 'Mona Lisa'


Realistic: the portrait of Florence Forsyth by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
Realistic: the portrait of Florence Forsyth by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
The portrait of Merle Oberon

Eleanor Flegg

'Could this be Ireland's Mona Lisa?" ponders James O'Halloran, auctioneer. He's looking at a painting of a young girl and he's obviously smitten. The portrait of Florence Forsyth by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst is coming up for auction at Adam's sale of Important Irish Art on June 12 (Lot 44: est. €20,000 to €40,000). It shows a young girl against a background of dark mountains and a lake. She's wearing a green dress with a wide cream collar and a bow in her messy hair. Her expression is enigmatic - she's obviously thinking of something but we don't know what - and the painting is emotionally charged. You can see where O'Halloran is coming from with the Mona Lisa comparison, but even so… "I'm probably stretching it a bit," he admits, "but it's absolutely enchanting and it's got a lovely Renaissance Masters' feel to it."

It's widely recognised that Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890-1978) was hugely influenced by the Renaissance Masters. In 1913, he won a travel scholarship to Italy and France where he was impressed by the work of da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, and Botticelli. Brockhurst and his French wife, Anaïs Folin, moved to Ireland for the duration of the First World War. In 1916 he painted her as the personification of Ireland. She's standing in peasant garb, arms akimbo, against a background of a dry stone wall with the Connemara mountains beyond. She has a shifty expression, as well she might, with not a drop of Irish blood between them. After the war, they returned to London, where Brockhurst became a fashionable portraitist.

Brockhurst's portraiture was immensely popular in its day, but no artist suffers a quicker decline in popularity than a fashionable portrait painter. "Posthumously there is little interest among collectors or museums in the work and most of the portraits remain with families of the sitters, disappearing from public view," wrote Abe M. Tahir, consultant for the Muscatine Art Center, USA, in 2005. "Such has been the case with Brockhurst paintings." Then, in December 2018, Brockhurst's portrait of Merle Oberon sold at Heritage Auctions in Texas for $290,000 (€260,188) against an estimate of $40,000 (€35,888). The auction circuit sat up and took note.

"The price may have been down to the Merle Oberon effect, rather than the Brockhurst effect," says O'Halloran, who has clearly recovered from his Mona Lisa moment and is striving for balance. "It's a very striking portrait, but you wouldn't say it was one hundred percent better than ours."

Merle Oberon's portrait was painted in 1937, two years before her iconic role as Cathy in Wuthering Heights. It shows her exotic, bejewelled and wearing bright lipstick. Oberon liked the portrait and bought it for the then substantial price of £2,000, which did Brockhurst's career no harm at all. It became one of his three most famous celebrity portraits. The others are of Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor.

Brockhurst painted to a formula, which served him well. He had a background in printmaking and, as the catalogue note for Heritage Auctions described, had developed a "meticulous etching technique for rendering light and shade in a hyper-realistic manner". This technique translated successfully into paint. His portraits show a realistic portrayal of the sitter's face and clothing, against a distant unrelated landscape. "The pairing led to a much-prized surreal quality that combined the porcelain reserve of Italian Old Masters with a strong sense of the modern (bobbed hairstyles and deco fashion) to wonderful effect."

Merle Oberon was a celebrity in her own right; Florence Forsyth was not. She trained to be a singer in London but she may not have continued her career. The painting was commissioned by her father, a Norwich Union executive in Dublin, and has remained in the family ever since. "It wasn't a discovery," O'Halloran explains. "Brockhust's Irish paintings are relatively rare and having one would be like having a Lavery. Everyone that has one knows what they have." That said, if Brockhurst is having a revival, his Irish paintings may be worth more than their owners thought.

But, while an undiscovered portrait is relatively unlikely, Brockhurst's etchings are also highly collectible, although they tend to fetch hundreds rather than thousands. His etching and drypoint portrait of Oliver St John Gogarty (1939) fetched €500 at Whytes in 2008; the following year, four etchings of Connemara characters and a famous print of the poet Francis Macnamara (1920) made €800.

Brockhurst liked to paint beautiful women and his life took a racy turn in the early 1930s when the teenage Kathleen Woodward, called 'Dorette', became his favourite model, replacing his wife Anaïs. Their relationship became public and created much scandal. Brockhurst, at the time, was earning more than any other portraitist in the country. Anaïs sued for divorce. Her husband had already put the marriage under strain by sleeping with her sister. He countersued on the grounds of her adultery and moved to America with Dorette. Brockhurst continued his career as a portraitist, but the American art establishment took very little interest.

Adam's auction of Important Irish Art takes place on June 12 at 6 pm (


In the Salerooms

Victor Mitchell

In the 1980s, NASA sent six large plates of 24-carat gold into space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. The “space gold” orbited the earth for 69 months, returned and was studied, and eventually used to create the 2015 Moon Festival Panda Proof Coins. Each of the 2,000 commemorative proofs (10cm wide) is made of silver accented with “space gold”. One of these is for sale (est. €4,500) in Victor Mitchell’s Summer Antiques & Interiors Auction at Mount Butler Salesrooms, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, on Wednesday June 12 at 10 am. Viewing is from June 8 to 11, see and

City Auction Rooms

The next Antique & Decorative Furniture Auction at City Auction Rooms, Waterford, takes place on Monday, June 10 at 10.30am. Items include a pair of cast-iron horseshoe benches (Lot 377: est. €900 to €1,200); a navy ground circular Persian Rug (Lot 704: est. €1,000 to €1,500); and an antique enamel sign for Fry’s Chocolate (Lot 505: est. €300 to €500). Viewing is from June 4 to 9, see

De Vere’s

Louis le Brocquy’s reputation as a designer of tapestries is based on just seven works, made by Tabard Frere et Soeurs in Aubusson, France. One of these, Allegory (Lot 47: est. €60,000 to €90,000) is part of De Vere’s Irish Art & Sculpture Auction, at the Royal College of Physicians, No. 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on Tuesday, June 11 at 6pm. Viewing is at de Veres Gallery, 35 Kildare Street, and the Merrion Hotel, from June 7 to 11. See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

The National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair takes place at the Great National South Court Hotel, Limerick City, on Saturday 8 and Sunday, June 9. This is a large-scale production with more than 80 dealers from across the country. Admission is €5 for one or both days. On Sunday June 9, the regular South Dublin Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire. Admission is €3.50. Both fairs run from 11am to 6pm.

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