A grateful nation wanted to honor Sir Winston Churchill for his remarkable service. The painting they commissioned was regrettably unsympathetic.
|Sir Winston Churchill, by Graham Sutherland|
In 1954, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was winding up his second term of office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was one of the most brilliant men of any age: a leader, a soldier, an historian, a writer, and along with all that, a skilled painter. Where he could have gone with an art career had he not been busy saving Western Civilization is anyone’s guess.
|Mary's first speech, by Winston Churchill|
Wishing to honor him, the joint Houses of Parliament commissioned a portrait painting by another polymath, Graham Vivian Sutherland. Sutherland was a printmaker, a textile designer, a wartime artist, and a portraitist of some note. He was also known as a modernist, which ought to have struck a warning bell. For all his complexity and brilliance, Churchill was deeply orthodox.
Sutherland was paid 1000 guineas. This needs explaining. The guinea had been officially removed from circulation more than a hundred years earlier. However, luxury goods like art, couturier clothing, horses, and fine furniture were quoted in guineas right through the late 20th century. A guinea was 21 shillings, and that equaled about $35,000 in today’s money. The fee was paid entirely by donations from members of the joint Houses.
|W. Somerset Maugham, by Graham Sutherland|
To date, Sutherland’s most famous portrait commission had been of the writer W. Somerset Maugham. Sutherland’s fans thought him honest; others considering him cold. In retrospect, his portraits seem almost to be caricatures.
Churchill wanted to be shown in the chivalric robes of the Order of the Garter. However, the commission specified that he be shown in his usual parliamentary dress.
|Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French|
Sutherland was methodical in his preparation. He traveled to the Churchill home, Chartwell, to make charcoal and oil studies, doing the final work in his studio. The pose was meant to quote Daniel Chester French’s monumental portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. However, in its odd miasma of dreary monochrome, Sutherland’s painting was oddly unheroic. It was just an old man, struggling out of his chair.
That was a bad note to strike, even if it did resonate with the nation’s own sense of exhaustion. Unknown to the public, Churchill had recently had a stroke. He was feeling sensitive about his health.
Clementine Churchill brought a photograph of the completed portrait back to her husband ten days before the public ceremony at Westminster. Churchill hated it, calling it “filthy” and “malignant”. His fellow Conservative Charles Doughty convinced him that he had to accept it, since rejecting it would offend the donors.
In his speech, Churchill, ever the wit, described the likeness as “a remarkable example of modern art.” Although it was intended to hang in Parliament, Churchill immediately took it back to Chartwell with him, where it was stashed away.
|Lord Goodman, by Graham Sutherland|
In 1978, it was revealed that Lady Churchill had asked her secretary to destroy the painting. Grace Hamblin was the Churchill’s loyal private secretary for more than 40 years. She and her brother burned the painting on a large bonfire in the back garden of his house.
Biographer Sonia Purnell has described Lady Churchill as “ruthless” in protecting her late husband’s legacy. Because the painting didn’t represent her own image of her husband, “it had to go.” That disregards the fact that he hated it as much as she.
Sutherland later described the disposal of the portrait as an “act of vandalism.” Certainly no artist wants to see their work destroyed, but in the end a painting is an object, a possession, and the owner has the right to destroy it.