Picture of the Week: Churchill by Graham Sutherland, 1954

15 February 2021


We are starting a new regular feature where we will post a picture which can be an original artwork or photo. A short commentary, not more than 800 words will accompany the picture to say why you like it, why it inspired you, or made you think. Anybody is welcome to post an image and their comments. It does not even have to be 800 words. Dave Kellaway kicks it off this week.

Graham Sutherland, 1954, Winston Churchill

You may well ask, why is Anti*Capitalist Resistance showing a picture of Winston Churchill?


A redoubtable war leader, but also someone who sent troops in against striking Welsh miners, opposed the NHS and was a colonialist with racist views. Look again closely at this reproduction of the oil painting. Is it the sort of portrait that half a million BBC viewers who voted him the greatest Briton ever would hang on their walls? Does it show the resolute, confident leader who had the famous man of the people touch? Look at his rumpled clothes, the prominent paunch, slightly slouched pose. He looks old and grumpy, scowling, a little cold and distant. The colour tones are rather grim and brown.


It is all quite different from the pugnacious, statue overlooking parliament. By 1954 Churchill was already quite ill and had gone through the personal humiliation of being rejected by the British people in the 1945 Labour victory. There is none of the famous humour but just a defeated sort of look.


It was commissioned by parliament to immortalise the great war leader. One of Britain’s finest modernist artists of the time, Graham Sutherland, responsible for the huge tapestry at the restoration of bombed-out Coventry cathedral, was given the job.


Winston Churchill himself at the grand presentation in Westminster damned it with faint praise: “a remarkable piece of modern art”. Churchill himself was quite the amateur landscape painter but very conventional. He told friends it made him “look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand”. In fact, the man did indeed have a drinking problem. As Jonathon Jones, the Guardian art critic, noted in 2001: “This is a man alone, in the real wilderness years.”


It was never hung in parliament as intended and it was never displayed at Chartwell, the family stately home. In 1978 it was revealed that Lady Spencer Churchill had had the painting destroyed. Sutherland described it as an act of vandalism. Churchill’s friends said it was his ‘property’ so he could do what he liked with it. Works of arts always remain commodities in our society.


What I like about this story is the power of the artist to reveal a certain truth which in this case the very vandalism of Lady Churchill confirms. Sutherland had picked up both the decline in Churchill as a leader and a man. Is it too much to say he caught a certain coldness, even cruelty that reflected .actions and decisions in his life? I suppose you can read it as an image for us all. Whatever we may achieve we end up a little like that Churchill portrait.


Luckily the philistine Lady Spencer could not destroy all of Sutherland’s preparatory sketches and there are some in the National Portrait Gallery in London for us all to see. The story featured in the 2016 episodes of The Crown which is available on streaming services.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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