Graham Sutherland and the Question of Portraiture
By Kristy MacFarlane
An artist is commissioned to paint a man in 1954. He is presented with his sitter, a familiar man with a familiar face and a reputation larger than that of any other man in the country. He is old, weakened by numerous strokes and prostrated by a decade of war and strikes. Every year of his life seems to be marked by a wrinkle on his face and the cigar in his right hand looks almost too heavy to hold. The sitter is Winston Churchill and the man deemed fit for the task of painting him is Graham Sutherland. The portrait that he will create will be destroyed in the coming years, ill-received by its subject and those who desired to uphold his undeniable legacy; it will be labelled as a “disgusting” depiction of a great man. Emerging from this small incident of taste and misinterpretation is doubt as to the function of a portrait artist – to flatter or to present the reality of his sitter.
The first portrait Sutherland was ever commissioned to paint was that of Somerset Maugham – a novelist and playwright who was perhaps most known for his novel, Of Human Bondage. The portrait is a distinct one, cementing Sutherland’s place in artistic circles.
There is no idealisation within this portrait, but what does not follow from this, however, is a lack of dignity or grace. Maugham, well into his seventies at the conception of this portrait, is portrayed as what he is, an elderly man. There is an inherent frailty; his slightly arched back and his pronounced laugh-lines make evident his many years of life. His head, however, is arched upwards in an almost optimistic fashion. He sits with his legs crossed and his arms gently folded; his presence is cemented by his elegant posture. He needs no idealisation to cement the strength of his character. While his body might be frail, his mind and spirit are anything but so. The very way that Sutherland paints lends itself to uncompromising honesty. His brush strokes are jagged and do not blend seamlessly together; instead, they are rough and vulnerable, evoking a visceral rawness.
This approach is mirrored in Sutherland’s portrait of Lord Goodman. Unlike with Maugham, Sutherland was confronted with a sitter who was not a writer or a creative, but a lawyer. The painting reflects this in its placated colour palette and its profoundly stoic quality; there is a sense of order and logic. Goodman sits in a partial profile. There is a starkness in his expression and a determination in the way he looks unflinchingly forward. While gravitas is certainly awarded to the sitter, we cannot escape the lack of flattery Sutherland gives to Goodman. The square-shaped canvas emphasizes the man’s body shape and the large amount of blank space at the top of the canvas dwarves him to the effect of making him seem short. This portrait is honest, perhaps a little too honest. Sutherland captures at once the best and worst of his sitters. He does not flinch from depicting crow’s feet or double chins. It is these distinct facial features that, to him, define a sitter. Goodman’s portrait is arguably much less flattering than Maugham’s, who is presented as tall and elegant, despite his age. There is a sense of relatability in Goodman’s portrait, which, perhaps, he did not achieve with Maugham. There is a sense that this powerful and influential man has been reduced to a figure that is tangibly real. This work is typical of Sutherland’s later style. The paint is applied more thinly, so thin, in fact, that his pencil lines can be seen underneath. This gives an almost unfinished aesthetic.
The portrait that would define Sutherland’s artistic career belonged to neither of these men, however; it belonged to Winston Churchill. After his well-received portrait of Maugham, he was chosen to depict Churchill, a portrait that was intended to hang in Parliament after the prime minister’s death, a portrait that would preserve a legacy. It is troublesome that perhaps Sutherland’s contemporary relevance seemed to coincide with the controversy that followed this portrait. His artistic career came to be summarised in one painting that, to many, was thought of as “too honest” and, to others, was the greatest portrait to have come from British Art since Reynolds and Ramsay. Unveiled in 1954 by Churchill, the painting came to face vicious criticism, particularly from those in Churchill’s immediate circle. Churchill’s reaction was particularly negative dubbing it “filthy” and “malignant,” which is perhaps ironic considering his wife did attest that it was “alarmingly like him.” He avoided praising it at the presentation, dubbing it “modern.” The painting was deemed too vulnerable and too unflattering for a man of such historical standing
Flattery has been an issue in portraiture since the genre began. There is an element of idealisation that is awarded to the sitter, in many portraits. While resemblance may exist, it is glossed over by a façade of smooth, poreless skin and eyes that perfectly glitter. Weakness and vulnerability come to be not a defining trait, but something to be hidden and concealed through the medium of paint. Sutherland does not conform to this, as shown by one of his preliminary sketches of Churchill, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. The deepness of his wrinkled flesh and the highlights on his chin and forehead provide dimensionality amongst the muddle of gestural brush strokes.
Shown above is the culmination of Sutherland’s many studies and sketches. This painting, while undoubtedly honest, is still intrinsically flattering in nature. Sutherland stated that he wanted to paint Churchill as a “rock”. This is gestured to by his robust pose, which conveys a sense reliability and strength in the leader. In the previous decades, war and social unrest had weighed heavily on Churchill’s shoulders; he emerges from the darkness of the background just as he had from an age of turmoil. He is old; the years have not been kind to him, just as they had not been to Britain. The very fact that he sits there, staring us in the eye, with a bold determined expression, despite numerous strokes and a body made weak by age, gesture at his undeniable work ethic and strength of character. His vulnerability as an elderly man is hinted at, but his bold and uncompromising character, captured by Sutherland perfectly, overshadows it. Age becomes not a weakness, but an inescapable reality, the result of the inevitable passage of time.
When Churchill first saw his portrait, he saw himself and it troubled him. He saw what Sutherland deemed to be a strength and took it as a weakness. He saw a legacy tarnished instead of one made believable; he saw a weak man nearing the end of his life, instead of a man who had survived and remained a cornerstone of British politics through great adversity. Opposing perspectives and polarising conceptions of the purpose of a portrait were undoubtedly the simple, yet unanswerable, cause of the scandal.
Sutherland’s portrait for many years remained in the basement of the Churchill residence, out of sight and out of mind. It was Churchill’s wife that carried the portrait to a solitary spot and set it alight. It was her desire for the portrait never to be seen. For her and her family, Sutherland’s work conveyed a very accurate image of a physically declining Churchill. Opinions on this piece, while more favourable in our century, still remain divided. A question still lingers on from this issue; can a portrait be too honest?
Jury, Louis, ‘Sutherland portrait of Churchill displayed for first time in 20 years’ The Independent (February 2003) Accessed on 21/11/2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sutherland-portrait-of-churchill-displayed-for-first-time-in-20-years-118129.html
Lancaster, James. ‘The 1954 Sutherland Portrait.’ Finest Hour 148, no.14 (Autumn 2010). Accessed on 21/11/2017. https://www.winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-148/the-1954-sutherland-portrait/
McNearney Allison, ‘Winston Churchill and his Wife hated his portrait so much she destroyed it’, The Daily Beast, (August 2016) Accessed on 21/11/2017. https://www.thedailybeast.com/winston-churchill-and-his-wife-hated-his-portrait-so-much-she-destroyed-it