Simon Schama’s new BBC2 art series promises a fresh look at Britain…and Winston Churchill

The historian, who will be speaking at the Radio Times Festival on 26th September, says his new series The Face of Britain comes at a time when we are wondering who we are as a country...

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Join Simon Schama at the Radio Times Festival. Tickets available here

Simon Schama’s new BBC2 series on the history of British portrait painting promises to offer a fresh look at how people in this country have seen themselves over the centuries – as well as making us look differently at the great war leader Winston Churchill…

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The first episode of The Faces of Power, unveiled at a press launch today, will explore the moment in 1954 when Winston Churchill publicly and cruelly rebuked a painting of himself by the great British artist Graham Sutherland.

The painting, which took months to complete, was unveiled in the Palace of Westminster and Churchill, who (unbeknownst to the rest of the country) had suffered a stroke, hated it.

But he got his revenge. When it was unveiled, his dry comment that it was a “remarkable example of modern art” caused gales of laughter among the great and the good of the British establishment – a devastating humiliation for Sutherland.

Schama’s series seeks to rehabilitate the portrait which was destroyed by Churchill’s family soon after his death in 1965. In fact, the presenter says that it was “one of the greatest portraits ever painted” and showed Churchill as he was and not the “baby face” or the “bulldog” of previous representations.

Sadly only a transparency of the painting survives (below).

Schama told RadioTimes.com: “The Churchill family still feel…it makes them upset to see it. The painting is an extraordinary homage to Churchill. What Sutherland saw in front of him was a magnificent ruin but there’s nothing to apologise for. I remember London at the time – it was full of magnificent ruins which we were proud of both as ruins and for their magnificent quality. Churchill said it made him look half-wittted. It doesn’t. It is a man of years.”

The dramatic story of the Sutherland painting is told in episode one of Schama’s The Faces of Power.

The remaining four programmes in the series – which starts on September 30th – are Faces of the People, The Face of Fame, The Look of Love and The Face in the Mirror.

Subjects examined range from royal portraits and those of the great and the good to love portraits and the work of the 1950s street photographs taken by Charlie Phillips.

Speaking today, Schama said of his new project:  “It is complete serendipity that the whole nature of Britain is now in play. Do we stay in Britain, does Scotland stay part of Britain or not? There is a sense of contingency alive and around now about what Britain is. We made this series as a meditation on the spontaneous diversity of what it means to be part of an endlessly expanding British family.”

Schama will also be appearing at the Radio Times Festival on Saturday 26th September.

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His event – at 2.30pm – is called Simon Schama: A History of the Nation through its Portraits. Book tickets here.