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The 1954 Sutherland Portrait

RIDDLES, MYSTERIES AND ENIGMAS: FINEST HOUR 148, AUTUMN 2010

ABSTRACT
“The trouble was not that [Sutherland] admired the PM too little, but rather that he worshipped him too blindly….”

Q Recently on BBC Radio 4, antiquarian book dealer Rick Gekoski spoke of the Sutherland portrait of Churchill, commissioned by Parliament as a tribute on his 80th birthday in 1954, saying it was destroyed by his wife because she hated it so much. It portrayed the PM hunched with age and dark in mood. A detailed study by the artist still hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Gekoski asked if the rights of an owner override those of the public, and if the Churchills had the moral right to destroy it. What were Sutherland’s personal feelings toward Churchill? It looks like the sort of painting you’d do of someone you didn’t like very well. —James Mack, Fairfield, Ohio 

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This is an old story, remarked as early as Finest Hour’s fourth issue back in 1969. The occasion was a signal one, and Churchill’s words were apposite. “The portrait,” he told the assembled Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, “is a remarkable example of modern art. It certainly combines force with candour.”

Lord Moran recalled: “There was a little pause, and then a gust of laughter swept the hall.” In truth, Churchill hated the portrait and, if private property still has any meaning, Clementine Churchill was within her rights to do as she wished with it.

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It seems that there was a cordial relationship with the Sutherlands during the sittings, despite certain reservations about the artist’s work. From Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8 “Never Despair” (London: Heinemann, 1988), 1059: On September 1 [1954] Clementine Churchill wrote to her daughter Mary: “Mr. Graham Sutherland is a ‘Wow.’ He really is a most attractive man and one can hardly believe that the savage cruel designs which he exhibits come from his brush. Papa has given him 3 sittings and no one has seen the beginnings of the portrait except Papa and he is much struck by the power of his drawing.” “He used to dictate while he was sitting,” Miss Portal [a secretary] later recalled, and she added: “Sutherland would not let him see it. He would scribble on a piece of paper and say ‘this is what it is going to be.’ But he wouldn’t let us see the picture itself.” Each time Sutherland left Chequers, the portrait was covered up. When he finished, it was taken away, still unseen.

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Lady Soames, certainly a primary source on the episode, writes in her book Churchill: His Life as a Painter (London: Collins, 1990), 193-95, quoting several contemporaries who observed the events: Churchill and Sutherland got on well together, and Winston had demanded at the outset, “Are you going to paint me as a bulldog or a cherub?” To which the painter replied, “This depends on what you show me!”….Sutherland seems to have come to like his subject during the long hours of work. He told Fleur Cowles: “He was always considerate, always kind, always amusing and cooperative”….Graham Sutherland and his charming wife Kathleen, who sometimes came with him, were much liked by both Winston and Clementine, and by the other members of the family, but alas, as is now so well known, the story ended in tears. When Churchill saw the finished portrait, delivered to Number 10 about a week before its formal presentation at a great gathering in Westminster Hall, he took a violent dislike to it.

Clementine, who had been shown the picture by Graham Sutherland before Winston saw it, had at first sight seemed inclined to like it, but later she came to share Winston’s feelings. Seeing how deeply he was upset by the picture she promised him that “it would never see the light of day.”

Lord Moran’s Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966) provides a further glimpse of the episode (659-60). Although we tend to discount Moran when he disagrees with superior authorities, in this case we think he makes a canny observation. Speaking of his patient the doctor wrote:

A lot of his time since the end of the war had been spent in arranging and editing the part he will play in history, and it has been rather a shock to him that his ideas and those of Graham Sutherland seem so far apart. “Filthy,” he spluttered. “I think it is malignant.” Was Winston fair to the artist? Sutherland’s intentions, at any rate, seem to have been unexceptionable. The trouble was not that he admired the PM too little, but rather that he worshipped him too blindly. Graham Sutherland was thinking of the Churchill who had stopped the enemy and saved England, and the manner in which, without a word of guidance, Mr. Churchill took up a pose on the dais convinced the painter that he was on the right tack. “I wanted,” he said, “to paint him with a kind of four-square look, to picture Churchill as a rock.”

One day at Chartwell—it was either the first or second sitting—Sutherland said to me: “There are so many Churchills. I have to find the real one.” When I learnt that he intended to paint a lion at bay I tried to sound a warning note. “Don’t forget,” I said, “that Winston is always acting, try to see him when he has got the greasepaint off his face.” But the artist paid no heed; he painted the PM as he pictured him in his own favourite part. And why should Winston complain, for surely it was he who created the role? All that Graham Sutherland did was to accept the legend for the truth.

Finest Hour has vowed to respect Lady Churchill’s wish and never to run an image of the Sutherland portrait—it’s easily Googled, after all.

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