Churchill’s portrait ended up in the fire

When the painter Graham Sutherland visits the then British Prime Minister for the first time in September 1954, he has to wait a long time. The idea is for him to create a portrait in honor of Winston Churchill’s eightieth birthday. The celebrations and unveiling of the portrait will be broadcast live by the BBC.

Sutherland knew intuitively that he had made a mistake in accepting the assignment, but he was also flattered and demanded recognition from the politicians.

There was Sutherland waiting in Churchill’s study while the man to be portrayed arrives late. At one point a nose pokes around the corner of a door. “Just a nose that precedes the famous face. In time, the rest of Churchill followed: rounder, rosier, scaly, jagged and with more chins than most people – including the artist – imagined,” writes the historian Simon Schama in his time. The face of a world empire. Britain in portraits.

The drama that followed is one of the most famous examples in art history Pictogram (portrait murder). The successful series Netflix The crown devoted an entire episode to it, starring John Lithgow as Churchill and Stephen Dillane as Sutherland. The story is naturally romanticized for the series.

Emphasis is placed on the friendship that develops between painter and subject, whereby Churchill – who also painted himself – sees himself as a fellow artist. According to Sutherland, the goldfish pond in Chuchill’s paintings is the most honest and revealing part of his work. It turns out that Churchill started painting that pond right after his two-year-old daughter died. The connection between pain, art and the search for comfort and redemption: it is contained in one scene and is the prelude to the artist who sees more in his sitter than anyone else.

Churchill as a painting colleague

The scene is based on Sutherland’s story portrayed by author Somerset Maugham. When one of Britain’s greatest literary heroes sees the portrait, he is shocked: the portrait shows a self-satisfied man whose mouth almost radiates scorn. Somerset Maugham is stunned and realizes that there is much more of him on display than he had ever seen himself.

Churchill thought he was painted as a ‘cruel monster’.
Photo ANP

This is what happens with Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill. Not only in The crown Emphasis is placed on this, however, in almost all stories about the portrait. A special bond developed between the two, and Churchill, who liked to think of himself as a fellow painter, believes he can build something warm with the man who would admit him to British parliamentary history.

For Sutherland it was more complicated: “It was not a question of choosing between the man and the icon,” writes Schama: “At this stage they were inextricably linked. Indeed, there had never been a time when the public, political Churchill was separate from the private, personal Winston, least of all at this particular moment.”

The final result is a study in inflexibility, but what a study – says Schama. It was not a portrait of the great man who “We will never surrendergrowls, but rather it showed an evil man, a King Lear, Schama said.

Sutherland’s portrait is therefore an excellent follow-up to a photograph taken fifty years earlier of Churchill, in 1904, when he was a member of the House of Commons.

In that photo, the then thirty-year-old politician stands behind his desk on a chair with lavish woodwork. It is as if, on the one hand, the photographer is disturbing him, but on the other hand, the young Churchill – already in possession of some of the double chins mentioned by Schama – wants to look as good as possible. Churchill’s appearance is that of a suspicious person, ready to attack at any time. You can see the same suspicious look in the portrait that Sutherland created, only here the man who can attack at any time has become one of a defeated man.

‘Terrible and cruel monster’

Churchill dismissed the canvas on which he himself was depicted as a “cruel and cruel monster” at the Parliament ceremony as “modern art”, causing the audience to burst into laughter and the canvas to be nothing but derision. If it is modern art, it was ‘so’ not realistic.

When it first arrives at Churchill’s house as a gift, his wife cannot bear to see her husband’s injury and has the painting burned. The slides are still there, but the original is gone.

The heartbroken Sutherland would never again make his portraits so sad and ruthless, concluding with Simon Schama: “It was as if Sutherland, deeply scarred by the disaster, had decided not only what he imagined in terms of folds and wrinkles. of the skin, but also to capture the inner perception his models had of their own presence. If he could at least meet them halfway in that perception, his integrity would be intact.” Thus this despised portrait changed Graham Sutherland’s art.

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