Why We Love The Legendary Portrait Sir Winston Churchill Hated

Why We Love The Legendary Portrait Sir Winston Churchill Hated

The 'Study of Sir Winston Churchill' by Graham Sutherland is a historic portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. It was an informal work, produced during preparatory sketches for the war time leader's official 80th birthday portrait - famously loathed by its subject and covertly destroyed by his secretary in 1956. This surviving painting is rich in historical and artistic significance and now comes to auction for the first time. Read one of the most fascinating intrigues of British art history...
The 'Study of Sir Winston Churchill' by Graham Sutherland is a historic portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. It was an informal work, produced during preparatory sketches for the war time leader's official 80th birthday portrait - famously loathed by its subject and covertly destroyed by his secretary in 1956. This surviving painting is rich in historical and artistic significance and now comes to auction for the first time. Read one of the most fascinating intrigues of British art history...

The artist Graham Sutherland’s infamous 1954 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, commissioned by Parliament for his 80th birthday so enraged its aged subject, his faithful secretary had it destroyed.

B ut while the original portrait was reduced to ashes, 70 years on from its creation, Sotheby’s is presenting for the first time at auction, in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Auction, Sutherland’s Study of Sir Winston Churchill, a portrait of Winston Churchill executed in September 1954, during the sittings for the formal painting – a charming and historically-significant work, that presents a more thoughtful aspect to Sir Winston.

Painted relatively quickly, this study provides us with a fascinating sideways view of Churchill, his habitual pugnaciousness here softened to a mood of reflection and contemplation. Given Churchill, his wife and their many friends’ hostility to the final portrait, this study in oils stands as not only a warm tribute to its subject, but also a corrective to a long-perceived misfire on the part of Parliament. Sotheby’s specialists André Zlattinger and Bryn Sayles talk us through the back story and context of this long-lost treasure of British history.

“I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street”
Roy Jenkins in his biography 'Churchill' (2001)

What do you get a wartime hero, twice-serving Prime Minister, doughty elder statesman and global icon of British pride for his 80th birthday?

It is hard to overstate Winston Churchill’s enormous presence in post war Britain. Justly regarded by the nation as a lion-hearted leader, who bullied Britain to victory over the five gruelling years of World War II, Churchill was – to the surprise of some - returned to 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister in 1951, where he would remain until 1955. Despite his advancing years, his second Premiership saw him continue to push for stronger US-UK relations, consolidate alliances in the face of encroaching Soviet influence across the West, oversee the declining British Empire in the East, and at home, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. It was also a period of particularly lively internecine squabbling in the Tory party (a situation thankfully no longer imaginable). Yet proud, ailing, iconic and frail as he approached his 80th birthday in 1954, Churchill was still, to millions of Britons, emblematic of victory.

'80 Years Since Churchill Took Charge'

What was Churchill’s state of mind as his milestone birthday approached?

As the 1950s progressed, Churchill’s status as national hero was in decline, as a new generation of politicians came to the fore. In his own Conservative party and in the increasingly irreverent media, there were rumblings of dissent and contempt. And as Churchill approached his birthday, robust egotism had been brought into check by failing health. “He was old,” says Bryn Sayles, Head of Sale, Modern & Post-War British Art. “And along with age, he was also dealing with the fact that the previous year (1953), he had had a stroke. He had understood for decades that public presentation is extremely powerful - he was one of the most reproduced figures of the 20th century. His vanity was legendary.” Churchill’s stroke had been kept secret, as far as possible. But he dreaded the loosening of his public armour as he battled the one enemy he could not defeat – the march of time itself.

How did the portrait commission come about?

In June 1954, a Parliamentary committee was set up, to decide how best to commemorate Churchill’s 80th birthday. Dubbed the “Churchill Joint Houses of Parliament Gift Committee”, the group settled on commissioning a large portrait as a gift from the Houses of Parliament and by extension, the people of Great Britain. There then followed some debate over the eminent artists of the day. Certain names, such as feted portraitist Sir Herbert Gunn, were dismissed on grounds of cost. It was committee member Jennie Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, who on the recommendation of Lord Beaverbrook, came up with the idea of modish Modernist painter, Graham Sutherland.

Today, the notion of a contemporary artist depicting a statesman, business magnate or Royal would be perfectly acceptable. In 1954, the idea occasioned some disquiet, given that Sutherland was very much associated with a new wave of Modern artists. Nevertheless, bumbustious media magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who had recently been painted by Sutherland himself, strongly urged the commissioning of the London-born painter.

“Lord Beaverbrook was friends with both Sutherland and Churchill” says Sayles. “And while he had recommended Sutherland to the Committee when they were debating a painter for Churchill, Jennie Lee was also friends with Sutherland’s framer, Alfred Hecht – who was the first owner of The Study of Sir Winston Churchill.” And so, the decision was made.

"Churchill was very concerned about how he was to be depicted, especially after his stroke in 1953"
- André Zlattinger, Head of Modern British & Irish Art

Sutherland was duly summoned and in June 1954, commissioned to paint the portrait for 1,000 guineas. In August of that year, he was despatched to meet Churchill at his home, Chartwell. “When they first met,” says André Zlattinger, Head of Modern British & Irish Art “Churchill was very concerned about how he was to be depicted, especially after his stroke in 1953. There had been increasing concern in the news about him losing his way - quite damning articles in Punch magazine for instance - and he knew that while Sutherland was a great Modern painter, he, Churchill was clearly in decline.”.

Graham Sutherland with his portrait of Sir Winston Churchill in progress (1954)

Who was Graham Sutherland?

London-born Graham Sutherland (1903 - 1980) was a sculptor, print-maker, tapestry-maker, draughtsman and painter. Drawn early in his career to prints - specialising in etchings and engravings - he gravitated to oil paintings in the 1930s, absorbing the emerging visual language of Surrealism into moody landscapes, that drew on an innate darkness he found in the British countryside. Religious works, such as 1946’s The Crucifixion and a tapestry for Coventry Cathedral entitled Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph sealed Sutherland’s reputation for profound spiritual statements.

Graham Sutherland, O.M.
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“Sutherland was regarded as a Neo Romantic, along with artists such as Braxton, Bourne and other great painters,” says Zlattinger. “He did these incredible, slightly surreal landscapes. So, he had very different tastes to Churchill. But Churchill would have respected him - despite being apprehensive about being painted by him”.

“With the exception perhaps of the paintings of the Duke of Wellington by Goya and Thomas Lawrence, [Graham] Sutherland accomplished the most powerful image of a Great Briton ever executed”
- Simon Schama 'The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits'.

Sutherland had exhibited in the British Pavilion at the 1951 Venice Biennale, had had a show in New York, been commissioned for London’s jamboree of post war optimism, the Festival of London and had taught at Goldsmiths. He was also a trustee at the Tate Gallery (a post he resigned in 1954 after an argument, something that rapidly raised Churchill’s hackles when they first met). In short, he was something of a sought after Renaissance man, by the time he came to paint the ailing statesman.

So, Sutherland was a relatively progressive Modernist with a twist of Surrealism. Meanwhile, Churchill was a staunch Conservative in every sense – including in his own hobbyist painting. How would this work?

True, and furthermore, Sutherland was a staunch Labour supporter. Churchill, lest it be forgotten, was not only the Leader of the Conservative party, he fancied himself a painter too. A keen amateur who would take watercolours and easel with him on his global travels, he enjoyed creating airy, fruitily-coloured landscapes sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Gaugin or Manet. He was a fan of the Impressionists and had little time for what he would snortingly dismiss as 'Modern art'.

How did sittings for the portrait evolve?

Initially, with a degree of suspicion and uncertainty on both sides. Having painted portraits of eminent, impossibly vain subjects before, Sutherland was not intimidated by the aging bulldog. Instead, after quietly laying down the law about dress (Churchill had wanted to be portrayed in ceremonial garter robes, the Committee insisted instead on everyday Parliamentary wear), the artist set about capturing the undulating landscape of the man in front of him – vast, craggy, slightly fearsome, yet utterly compelling. “There are so many Churchills. I have to find the real one” Sutherland commented to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames as he began work.

Churchill had fantasised about being portrayed in a fictionalised setting, something that would assuage his vanity and reassert his sense of self as an undimmed force of nature. Sutherland sat him facing – slightly slumped - forwards, against a murky, darkened background. Disgruntled at his lack of control as he would have been at the outset, it is a fair assumption that as the process continued, over the course of several days in September, the artist’s quiet strictures inspired a grudging sense of respect. This would have been useful as sessions progressed, given the increasing agitation of the sitter to see the work in progress, only to be met by consistent respectful yet firm refusals from the artist. Despite this, Sutherland reportedly grew fond of his demanding subject, describing him as “always considerate, always kind, always amusing and cooperative”.

When was ‘Study of Sir Winston Churchill’ itself painted?

As he worked on the portrait over several days in September 1954, Sutherland generated a significant number of drawings and sketches. “His process was intense and investigative” says Bryn Sayles. Sutherland, being an artist who examined his subject extensively through preliminary studies and sketches, ended up with numerous drawings and oil paintings, including a depiction of his subject in his garter robes. Many of these pieces were later acquired by Lord Beaverbrook.

The studies of Churchill’s face and aspects of his body helped Sutherland locate points of especial interest around the vast coastline of Sir Winston. In one, he painted the great leader’s bulky head, famous cigar jutting from his lower lip. Churchill gruffly rejected this outright, claiming it made him look like a ‘toffee apple’.

“There were 12 pencil charcoal studies [in all],” says Andre Zlattinger “Six oil sketches and numerous detailed drawings of Churchill’s hands, eyes, nose, mouth and so on. We believe our portrait here, The Study of Sir Winston Churchill, was done on 9th September.”

"The setting sun lit up one side of his face, seeming to render the skin translucent. He was in a sweet, melancholy and reflective mood"
- Graham Sutherland

That day, according to a biography of the painter, was “unusually fruitful. Churchill at one stage, sat up by the window, dictating a letter. The setting sun lit up one side of his face, seeming to render the skin translucent. He was in a sweet, melancholy and reflective mood", Graham later told Beaverbrook. He used that glimpse of the ‘melancholy cherub’ as the basis for two oil sketches, one of which was given to framer Alfred Hecht.

The portrait had a rich, dark background enlivened by dramatic brushstrokes and animated variations in depth and tone. The face is illuminated, positioned slightly forwards making Churchill seem more youthful. In fact – perhaps accentuated by the high collar – one can almost see peering out of the aged face, the young swashbuckling Churchill of the 1920s.

“Mr Graham Sutherland is a ‘Wow!'”

As the sittings for the portrait drew to a close, all appeared copacetic. The two men had gotten on well and Sutherland’s wife Kathleen had also enjoyed the family’s hospitality. As the portrait approached completion, Lady Churchill visited Sutherland’s studio to inspect it, and apparently burst into tears (of joy, not horror). “I can’t thank you enough,’ she tearfully told the artist, before writing to her daughter on 1 September reporting, “Mr Graham Sutherland is a ‘Wow!’”. She took a photograph of the portrait and sent it back to Winston. Storm clouds were gathering back at Chartwell.

'Filthy and malignant'

“Are you going to paint me as a bulldog or a cherub?” Churchill had barked at the artist when they began their sittings. “This depends on what you show me.” Sutherland had replied. And over the decades, historians and commentators have speculated at length on the nature of the dynamic between the pair, and the resulting portrait. Was it an honest, warts-and-all depiction of an ailing man nearing his 80th birthday? Or was it something deeper than that, a younger artist, ideologically motivated, committing a pointed commentary on the iconic visage of a British hero, so unquestioningly feted for so long? We will never know for sure – but Churchill certainly refrained from downplaying his feelings. ‘Filthy and malignant’, was how he described the painting in a letter to a doctor friend, Lord Moran. “Not suitable as a presentation from both Houses of Parliament’ he wrote to the Sutherlands, much to their dismay. Elsewhere, he opined that it made him "look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter” or, in one case of particularly alarming imagery, "It makes me look as if I were straining a stool". According to daughter Mary Soames, “He felt he had been betrayed by the artist, whom he had liked, and with whom he had felt at ease, and he found in the portrait causes for mortal affront”.

“For better or worse, I am the kind of painter who is governed entirely by what he sees. I am at the mercy of my sitter. What he feels, or shows at the time, I try to record.”
- Graham Sutherland, 1961 to Lord Beaverbrook

"Sick with disgust"

It was formally unveiled by the prime minister at Westminster Hall on 30th November 1954. When the work was uncovered, Churchill unkindly described it as being a “striking example of Modern Art...”, to laughter from the audience. At the event, Viscount Hailsham loyally boomed "If I had my way, I’d throw Mr Graham Sutherland into the Thames". Kathleen wrote in her diary that night, “I felt sick with disgust.”

Sir Winston Churchill acknowledging the portrait at the official ceremony at the Houses of Parliament, November 1954

Two years later, it was unceremoniously burnt by the Churchills' secretary Grace Hamblin. According to Clementine Churchill’s biographer Sonia Purnell:
"It had been hidden in a sort of cellar at Chartwell and it was very, very heavy, so she [Grace] got her big burly brother over to Chartwell in the dead of night, and they carried it … into her brother's van. They drove to his house several miles away, and then scurried round the side of his house into the back garden, built a huge bonfire and put it on, so that no-one could see it from the street. The next day, she told Clementine what she'd done and Clementine said: 'We'll never tell anyone about this because after I go, I don't want anyone blaming you. But believe me, you did exactly as I would have wanted'."

Many, many years later, millions of viewers worldwide learned of this fascinating story via Netflix’s The Crown, which gave over the lion’s share of an early episode to the sittings and relationship between Sutherland and Churchill, in a storyline illustrative of Queen Elizabeth’s affection for the aging Prime Minister. It culminates with John Lithgow’s Churchill thundering “That is not a painting, it’s a humiliation!” to Stephen Dillane’s bemused Graham Sutherland.

The painting of Churchill's portrait by Graham Sutherland as depicted in Netflix's 'The Crown' (2023) (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

But what happened next to the 'Study of Sir Winston Churchill'?

Graham Sutherland, bewildered by the furore around the portrait, gifted the Study of Sir Winston Churchill to his framer, Alfred Hecht. Hecht kept it all his life before gifting it to its present owner who is now offering it for sale at Sotheby’s, in what will be its auction debut. And its historical significance is profound, not only as a superb example of post war Modernist painting, but as the most important surviving artefact of the notorious affair.

“I think Churchill would have probably liked the way he was perceived in this painting,” says André Zlattinger. “I don’t know if he did see it, but I think he would have thought it a really nice, sympathetic, nice rendering and would have been happy with how he was portrayed in it”.

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