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Gerald Leslie Brockhurst RA, Ophelia

Ophelia, ca. 1937

Gerald Leslie Brockhurst RA (1890 - 1978)

RA Collection: Art

The model for this portrait was the artist’s lover, Kathleen Woodward (c. 1922 – 1995). Gerald Brockhurst RA often painted his female muses in different guises, and here Woodward is depicted as the tragic heroine Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, she descends into a state of insanity through her hopeless love for Hamlet and ultimately drowns herself. The character of Ophelia has inspired many artists, creating representations reflecting her vulnerability and desperation. In this painting however, Woodward’s unflinching stare and striking presence on the canvas evoke an Ophelia who is quite the opposite of a helpless young woman at the mercy of fate.

Woodward became Brockhurst’s second wife and he painted her obsessively, as he had his first wife Anaïs. For Brockhurst, Woodward represented a feminine ideal; each portrait emphasises her youth and beauty. In this painting Woodward is the sole focus, her perfect pale skin and dainty hands contrasting with the dark material of her dress and the plain background. The lack of detail in the background is unusual for Brockhurst; he often painted backgrounds as a distant landscape, in the style of Renaissance portraiture. Instead, his choice of a simple grey wall directs all attention to the sitter, reinforcing her startling presence.

Brockhurst and Woodward had met in 1929 when he was 40 years old and she was just 16, working as an artist’s model. At this time, Brockhurst was still married to his first wife Anaïs, but that did little to prevent Brockhurst and Woodward starting a passionate and open affair. Brockhurst nicknamed Woodward "Dorette" and drew scandalous attention to their relationship by exhibiting portraits of his new lover – including Ophelia – at every Royal Academy Summer Exhibition from 1933 to 1939. Portraits like this one not only served as excellent publicity for Brockhurst but also showcased his skill at dramatic and finely-detailed portraiture, resulting in numerous commissions. His work was particularly popular in upper and high-profile social circles; he made portraits for individuals such as Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor and John Paul Getty.

Object details

ca. 1937
Object type
Copyright owner
Oil on canvas

1020 mm x 810 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst RA accepted 1938

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