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Fire and Ice

July 12, 2017

Winston Churchill was a competent landscape painter. When asked about his paintings, the former British prime minister famously quipped, “They’re too good to give away but not good enough to sell.” In 1954, to celebrate Churchill’s eightieth birthday, a full length portrait commission was awarded to Graham Sutherland, one of Britain’s most highly acclaimed artists. The fee was 1000 guineas, approximately $35,000 today. The story of this painting was featured in the Netflix series The Crown, with John Lithgow playing Churchill, a role that won him an Emmy.

 

 

 

Graham Sutherland

 

 

Churchill had been painted many times, and was even sketched by that titan of Edwardian portraiture, John Singer Sargent. He enthusiastically sat for his portrait, even though Graham Sutherland was a modernist whose work wasn’t much appreciated by Churchill. Sutherland was cagey about not letting Churchill see the work in progress, and when Churchill saw a photograph of the painting ten days before its official unveiling at Westminster Hall he was horrified, rejecting it as “filthy and malignant.”

 

He reluctantly allowed the painting to be unveiled so as not to upset donors, and when the drape was pulled from the painting Churchill made the best of it by referring to the painting as “a remarkable example of modern art, combining force and candor.” Some critics admired the modern depiction, but for the most part it received an icy reception.

 

 

Churchill at the unveiling of his portrait

 

 

At the time, Churchill was ailing and well past his prime, and the painting was to have hung in the Houses of Parliament after his death, but it was accidentally sent to Churchill’s estate instead, where it was consigned to the cellar because the sight of it depressed the aged prime minister. It was never exhibited. In 1978 the dreadful truth was revealed; a year after the painting arrived at Churchill’s residence, Lady Churchill had her private secretary drive the portrait to a secluded spot where it was burned.

 

It’s understandable why Churchill didn’t like the portrait. He was accustomed to being portrayed as a gregarious, sophisticated statesman, like this:

 

 

 

Instead, he found himself slumped in a chair, his physical decline on full display, a scowl on his face as his pudgy hands grasp the arms of his chair. It wasn’t a flattering likeness, but it was a masterpiece of psychological portraiture. Consigning it to flames was a travesty.

 

 

 

Graham Sutherland's destroyed portrait of Churchill

 

 

Mary Cassatt once commented that if a family finds a portrait’s likeness unacceptable, a famous museum will be glad to have it. This would undoubtedly be true of Sutherland’s ill-fated portrait of Churchill.

 

I doubt I’ll ever painting anything so provocative that people would want to burn it. But you never know.

 

 

 

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Comments

25 Comments
Keep on painting; you might make it yet!!
By: fishducky on July 12, 2017
Another interesting art history lesson. I guess I can understand why he wasn't happy with the portrait, but it probably represented what he looked like at the time. We don't stay young and vibrant forever.
By: Kelly on July 12, 2017
I like the painting. Shame it was so disliked they had it burned.
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 12, 2017
What a shame that such an excellent painting was destroyed. The reality is we very rarely see what we want to see when see an image of ourselves, whether a painting or a photo.
By: LL Cool Joe on July 12, 2017
People just don't like to see the truth.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on July 12, 2017
Burning it just probably led to more people seeing it than otherwise would have.
By: PT Dilloway on July 12, 2017
BTW, was this the inspiration for the Simpsons episode where Marge has to paint Mr. Burns and does a nude portrait of him?
By: PT Dilloway on July 12, 2017
If I ever decide to paint, my work should meet the flames immediately. I have no artistic talent. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on July 12, 2017
Another fascinating Art History post! The selection of Sutherland was an odd choice for this particular commission-with Churchill being the subject. Honesty, with regards to an aging and ailing Lion who led his nation through WWII, might not have been best "sentiment" for a piece to hang in Parliament, but that does not excuse destruction of the work. Another artist or a work from earlier in his life, in his prime might have been more appropriate for Parliament. Still it is a shame the Sutherland could not have found it's way to a museum.
By: Tom Cochrun on July 12, 2017
Very interesting! While I'm certainly no art critic, I must agree with Mr. Churchill....that's a pretty ghastly portrait.
By: scott park on July 12, 2017
It does look awful, i wonder if that's really how Mr. Churchill looked, or just how Sutherland saw him.
By: messymimi on July 12, 2017
wow- I would never ever burn up a painting like this- how awful.
By: Kathe W. on July 12, 2017
Keep painting Stephen you just may paint a masterpiece the world loves but the subject wants to burn. I think Churchill, like most of us was pleased with his younger self as opposed to his older self.
By: Jimmy on July 12, 2017
Pretty hot rage over that painting!
By: red Kline on July 12, 2017
Churchill seems to have had a bit of ego, but perhaps we can forgive him. Who among us wants to look older than we feel?!
By: jenny_o on July 12, 2017
It is easy to see why he did not like it!
By: cranky on July 12, 2017
well, yes, I would have been pretty unhappy too. even in decline a person can be treated with dignity. looks like he is wearing the same suit in bothe paintings.
By: Ellen Abbott on July 13, 2017
I can see his problem with it. . He didn't look nearly as decrepit in the photo of the unveiling as he did in the painting. Still, burning was a bit drastic.
By: Arkansas Patti on July 13, 2017
Well...I don't know art. But I would have expected better for my $35,000.
By: Val on July 13, 2017
Well, "Winnie" (as he was known) had power to contend with. Power as in the one he had. The finished portrait presents a man without power at the mercy of nature. Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on July 13, 2017
Good for Sutherland - he boldly painted what he saw. It's one of the highest forms of flattery to have one's art so despised.
By: Robyn Engel on July 13, 2017
What an interesting story. I have a copy of a portrait that was painted for me, which I like but my wife and daughter make fun of it.
By: Sage on July 14, 2017
I would have burned it too :) R
By: Rick Watson on July 14, 2017
I never knew this about this portrait and am so sad she burned it. I find it sad but I can relate...not that I have had any painting done of me but how many pictures are taken and we see an unflattering one and now we can quickly delete into the trashbin
By: Birgit on July 18, 2017
I can understand why Churchill didn't like it. It's difficult enough to like an image of yourself, so I can't really blame him. I delete tons of pictures of myself - "digital burning." LOL.
By: Pixel Peeper on July 21, 2017

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