It must have been quite the awkward situation.
On Nov. 30, 1954, a proud British Parliament gathered for a large ceremony at Westminster Hall to present their beloved leader, Sir Winston Churchill, with a portrait of him in celebration of his 80th birthday.
After concocting the idea for this gift, the ringleaders commissioned renowned British artist Graham Sutherland to do the honors, convincing their busy prime minister to make time for the sittings.
Now the day they had been waiting for had arrived. But, after being presented with the portrait, Churchill had a decidedly unpleasant look on his face. In his official statement, he diplomatically commented that the painting was “a great example of modern art. It certainly combines force and candor.”
But, unofficially, he hated it. And his wife Clementine agreed.
One can imagine the scene the night that Churchill brought the unwanted new resident to his country home, Chartwell, the portrait vulnerably propped up against the wall as Sir Winston and Lady Clementine stood before it surveying the effect, their mouths beginning to twitch into identical grimaces as they looked at each other and declared, “To the basement!”
Whatever the turn of events, the portrait was stashed away and never seen again. It didn’t go on display with the other works of art—both those collected and those painted by the lord of the house; it wasn’t trotted out for visiting friends or dignitaries; it didn’t get a good dusting during spring cleaning, or whatever those with British country houses do to their fine possessions when the seasons turn.
Instead, its whereabouts became something of a mystery to all outside the Churchill inner circle. Whatever had happened to the Sutherland portrait of the prime minister?
To step back a few paces, this was not poor Sutherland’s fault. The painter was one of the country’s celebrated artists and he had led a storied career in the years leading up to the fateful portrait.
Born at the turn of the century, Sutherland didn’t begin painting until he was in his thirties.
His early work followed the realist tradition, and he served as an official war artist during the Second World War. Following those years, his style slowly changed as he experimented with surrealism (Picasso was one of his idols).
Sutherland became known and admired for his landscapes and portraits, and he enjoyed the attendant honors that came with that recognition.
He was asked to participate in the 1952 Venice Biennale and he received retrospectives at both the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Tate Gallery.
Two of his religious commissions still hang in their holy homes—The Crucifixion painted in 1946 for St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton, and a tapestry that took him 10 years to complete for the Coventry Cathedral.
In 1960, Sutherland was awarded the Order of Merit, and his work lives on in the collections of such vaunted establishments as the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Sutherland died on Feb. 18, 1980 at the age of 76. A day later, his obituary in The New York Times opened with, “Graham Sutherland, one of the most distinguished British artists of his time, with an international reputation above all for his portraits of the great, the rich and the old, died in London yesterday.”
But Sutherland’s biography will forever be dogged by the story of the one prominent client who was not so pleased with his work.
From the outset, the two great men had opposing missions. Sutherland was intent on depicting a true portrait of Churchill.
As with most subjects of the brush or camera, Churchill, for his part, had more particular ideas about how he wanted to be immortalized, ideas that didn’t quite match up with the image he presented at the time.
As John Russell’s New York Times obituary of the painter diagnosed, “[Sutherland] found himself confronted with a great man who had recently been very ill. As a man of truth and a man of honor, Mr. Sutherland set down what he saw.”
What he saw was a stately, but aging man. Churchill sits on a chair in his dark brown three-piece suit with a white handkerchief peeking out of his pocket and a bowtie tied tight (he allegedly would have preferred to be shown in his official Knight of the Garter robes).
His posture looks slightly uncomfortable, and his face is scrunched up in a look that can only be described as irritable.
The portrait is an unvarnished depiction of a serious politician, who is wise, but who is also dealing with the indignities and flaws that plague all men as they age.
To add insult to injury, the painting originally showed Churchill holding one of his favored Cuban cigars, but Sutherland decided to edit that bit out at the last minute.
“[Sutherland’s career as a portraitist] was one with which he had an immediate and lasting success,” Sutherland explained in his obituary for the painter. “Working almost always with sitters who bore the mark of a long lifetime of activity, he had a gift for pose and a gift for telling detail. He also knew how to convey the impression that he and his sitter had been locked in a battle of strong wills that had ended in deadlock. Never was this more the case than in the portrait of Sir Winston.”
Whatever Sutherland’s intentions, this was not how Churchill wanted to be seen. (He allegedly commented that the portrait “makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t.”)
Churchill himself was something of an accomplished amateur painter, so he approached this situation not just as subject and critic, but also as an artist in his own right, and one with his own ideas about what made for a good painting.
“[Churchill] liked painting to look effortless, and it may even be that one of the reasons for which he so much disliked his portrait by Graham Sutherland was that it looked like a difficult job, dourly done,” Russell wrote in a later piece in The New York Times.
Whatever the personal or aesthetic reasons for disliking the portrait, the Churchills' reaction to it was so visceral that hiding it away at Chartwell wasn’t enough. Lady Clementine determined there was only one possible solution—it had to be burned.
For 23 years, the sad fate of the Sutherland portrait was kept quiet. But after Clementine Churchill died in 1977, her estate decided to reveal the truth and end the speculation and mystery surrounding the infamous birthday gift.
They confirmed that the painting had been destroyed, and that the perpetrator was none other than the good lady herself “on her own initiative before Sir Winston’s death.
She neither consulted anyone nor informed anyone of her intention,” the statement read. It has since come out that the people who most likely carried out this act of destruction were her closest employees (naturally), but the fire was lit in service to their lady’s deepest wishes.
The portrait “which both she and Sir Winston disliked, preyed on her husband’s mind.” The Sutherland portrait of Winston Churchill had to be destroyed.