Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill is probably one of the most famous ‘lost’ works of art in British history, so it’s little wonder it made an appearance in Netflix royal drama The Crown.
But what really happened between the painter and the prime minister? And where did the painting disappear to?
Graham Vivian Sutherland was a well respected English artist whose surreal works with watercolours and oils – primarily those featuring landscapes of the Pembrokeshire coast – established him as a leading modern artist. He served as an official war artist during World War II, and was commissioned to design a new central tapestry for Coventry Cathedral when the conflict was over.
Sutherland was commissioned to paint several portraits during the 1950s, but perhaps the most famous was that of Winston Churchill.
Why did Graham Sutherland paint a portrait of Winston Churchill?
A portrait of Churchill was commissioned by the members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons to celebrate the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday in November 1954.
How long did Graham Sutherland actually spend with Churchill while painting the portrait?
History tells us that Sutherland began work on the portrait in August 1954 at the PM’s home, Chartwell, beginning with preliminary sketches and oil studies.
He spent months working from the preliminary materials to create the final work on a large square canvas at his studio.
Sutherland didn’t want to give the PM any sneak peeks, as he wanted to capture the real Churchill as he was, not merely in the way he wished to be portrayed.
Artist Graham Sutherland works on the portrait of Winston Churchill, watched by his wife Kathleen, on 22nd November 1954
When and where was the portrait revealed?
Churchill and his wife Lady Clementine Churchill are said to have seen the portrait before its official presentation, but it was formally unveiled by the prime minister at Westminster Hall on 30th November 1954. Watch the unveiling in the video below, from 5 minutes 14 seconds in.
What did Winston Churchill really say about the portrait?
Churchill was not best pleased with the piece of art.
In the video above, he described it – with more than a hint of condescension – “a remarkable example of modern art”. The scene is recreated in The Crown, and was taken as a public humiliation of the artist.
What happened to Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill?
The portrait should have hung in the House of Parliament after Churchill’s death, but when he finally accepted it it was taken to Chartwell. It was never displayed there and never seen again.
The Crown suggests that Churchill’s wife, Clementine, had it burned in the back garden.
However, Sonia Purnell, who wrote a biography of the PM’s wife, says a long forgotten recording of the couple’s Private Secretary, Grace Hamblin, reveals the true fate of the portrait.
“It had been hidden in a sort of cellar at Chartwell. Grace thought about what to do. It was very, very heavy, so she got her big burly brother over to Chartwell in the dead of night, and they carried it out of Chartwell into her brother’s van. I think her brother was a landscape gardener or something like that. They put it in the back of his van and drove to his house several miles away, and then scurried round the side of his house into the back garden, built a huge bonfire and put it on so that no-one could see it from the street. The next day, she told Clementine what she’d done and Clementine said: ‘We’ll never tell anyone about this because after I go I don’t want anyone blaming you. But believe me, you did exactly as I would have wanted.”
“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.
Why did Graham Sutherland look so familiar in The Crown?
Because he was played by Games of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane.
And his wife, Kathleen, was portrayed by Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey’s Amelia Bullmore.