In 1940 four French teenaged boys followed a dog into the cave of Lascaux and discovered nearly 600 sophisticated paintings and 1,500 engravings almost 17,000 years old that moved the elegantly stubborn soul of Andre Malraux to factor the possibility of a higher hand in the human condition. My first confrontation with the soul splashed into paint was far from Paleolithic. I was ten. My father had already made me an easel when the painting urge first hit me. As Gerald Leslie Brockhurst was born in 1890 and died in 1978, he was 65 when I knocked on his door in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.
It was a sunny afternoon, and it had to be Sunday because our family ritual was to drive about the country roads in the two-tone Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon after church and the big Sunday dinner, listening to the canary trilling on the radio’s Hartz Mountain Hour. A child’s ear thought that the bird had actually mastered Franz Lehar and Victor Herbert. The “For Sale” sign was a magnet to my parents, who were looking to buy. The vastness of the white Georgian-style mansion meant that we would not buy it, but my father was not adverse to adventure. In no time we were in the cool halls of my first artistic hero. He seemed charmed that I had no idea who he was and showed me a chest from the Armada, and I have every reason to believe it was so. With dramatic flourish he pointed to a sealed lead box in it that he had never opened and which prompted a homily on the vanity of this world’s trinkets.
He had lived in the years of the First World War in Ireland with his wife Anais, having gone on from the Birmingham School of Art to garner all the medals at the Royal Academy. There he met Augustus John, whose portrait of Rev. Martin D’Arcy, S.J., is to me a high-water mark in the tiny circle of significant modern clerical portraiture. He branched out to etchings and printmaking, and his 1932 etching Adolescence of a nude reflected in her mirror is one of the modern masterpieces of the genre. Brock- burst’s model was the teenaged Dorette Woodward, whom he later married, and who figured along with his sister-in-law in a scandalous divorce case that thrilled the haut-monde.
Fleeing the old world in 1939, his sensibilities led him to a leafy estate in New Jersey, where folks like my family had no idea that the woman who never appeared during our visits had rattled many cages in Europe. My father only raised an eyebrow when Brockhurst told of Hitler sitting for his portrait. My mother was just slightly less approving that he had painted the duchess of Windsor. When that picture was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1998 it brought a huge six-figure bid. My mother would not have given a penny for it. The Brockhurst manner was influenced by Piero della Francesca and Leonardo, but with a coolness closer to Botticelli. The result was a contrarian style that critics said placed appearance above character. In the instance of Hitler and Mrs. Simpson, that did not hurt. He also brushed John Paul Getty and Marlene Dietrich as a society artist, and as such there is no faster shooting star in the artistic firmament. But the same was said of Sargent and Boldini, so we can wait and see.
As for the ladies in his life, the defense could subpoena painters from Caravaggio to Delacroix to Picasso. If he has any place in the Cloud of Witnesses (he never breathed a word of religion in my presence), it may be through the intercession of Leonardo himself, whose last words were: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” I attest this: In Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, that silken salonist opened to a young boy sights as holy and strange as the bulls and ibexes that prehistoric souls painted in the cave of Lascaux.