Artist: Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), one of the neo-romantic painters who dominated British art during the second world war and its aftermath. Sutherland’s style, thorny, charred, tinged with wintry colours, is visibly influenced by Picasso and Matisse – yet unmistakably British, harking back to the great landscape painters of the early 19th century.
Sutherland brought together his passionate sense of landscape and modern awareness of violence in paintings of bomb damage during the Blitz. However, Sutherland’s star never quite rose as high as his supporters hoped. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was outshone by the younger, harsher Francis Bacon; then, by the time of pop art, was left looking old.
Sutherland was championed notably by the 1980s critic Peter Fuller, who saw his romanticism as a viable, moral option for artists now. But he seems destined to remain an also-ran of 20th century art history.
Subject: Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) had already suffered a stroke, concealed from the public, when he was returned as prime minister in the 1951 election.
After a career marked by extraordinary achievements – war correspondent during the Boer war, Liberal home secretary (hated for setting troops against striking miners) and his finest hour as wartime prime minister – Churchill’s strangest, least celebrated times came after the war.
For all his popularity abroad, the British electorate rejected him in 1945. He was reduced to lecture tours in the US, where his melodramatic image of an “iron curtain” fired nascent cold war imaginations. Churchill, however, became prime minister again at the beginning of the 1950s, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his six-volume The Second World War.
The war leader’s final period of power was marked by dwindling health and, in 1955, he retired. Sutherland was commissioned by both Houses of Parliament to paint a full-length portrait of Churchill in 1954, for which this is a study. The finished painting was presented to Churchill. It was destroyed by his wife Clementine.
Distinguishing features: The destruction of Sutherland’s painting is one of the most notorious cases of a subject disliking their portrait. This painted sketch of Churchill’s head, a study for the lost, full-length painting, suggests why. It’s not simply that Sutherland’s modernist tendencies irked the conservative tastes of the Sunday painter prime minister. This is a very unhappy painting. Old, grumpy, with an anger that no longer seems leavened by the humour and verbal creativity of the Churchill of legend, this is a reactionary curmudgeon surrounded by the shades of night.
The painting is black and rough, as if burnt, as if Churchill were emerging from the ruins of Europe, from a world not saved but shattered. The man himself still has a stoic authority; he might be the ancient Roman Cicero waiting to be murdered. There’s a sculpted quality to his sturdy bald head that reminds you of Roman busts. There’s also a sadness and sense of defeat, rather than the assertion of indomitability in the Churchill statue outside the Houses of Parliament. This is a man alone, in the real wilderness years.
Inspirations and influences: Walter Richard Sickert’s earlier picture of Churchill (1927) catches an impressionistic enigma in its subject – best known at that time for his savagery toward the 1926 General Strike, changing parties, and veering from reformism to class hate.
Portraits of British prime ministers have often recorded vulnerability. Millais painted Disraeli when he was dying; John Singleton Copley painted the death of Pitt the Elder in 1778, when he collapsed on the floor of the House of Lords after coming from his sick bed to speak (all in the National Portrait Gallery). This week, the first official portrait of another wartime British leader was unveiled: Jonathan Yeo’s intense take on Tony Blair.
Where is it? National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020-7306 0055).
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