Sothebys Graham Sutherland Churchill 2639NE03A 17 04 2024

‘Study of Sir Winston Churchill’ by Graham Sutherland, estimated £500,000-800,000 at Sotheby’s.

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It is estimated at £500,000-800,000 and will appear at Sotheby’s Modern British and Irish art evening sale on June 6.

Dating from 1954, the study and is one an unspecified number of detailed sketches that Sutherland created for his portrait of Churchill which was commissioned by the Houses of Parliament for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday.

The artist’s ‘restless, investigative’ approach means each study offers a different insight into the commission – it has been suggested that 12 drawings and six oil studies were made in total. Most of them were acquired by Lord Beaverbrook, one of the politicians most supportive of the commission, and are now in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Canada.

The 2ft x 20in (61 x 51cm) oil on canvas at Sotheby’s however remained with Sutherland who later gave it to his friend, the modern art framer, Alfred Hecht. When Hecht died in 1991, he bequeathed it to the Ogilvy family who were relatives of both Churchill’s wife Clementine, as well as related by marriage to the extended Royal family*. It has come to Sotheby’s from their collection.

Sotheby’s head of Modern British & Irish art André Zlattinger said: “This version shows Churchill closer to how he wished to be perceived, his less austere and gentler side, and so it is tempting to imagine how his reaction might have differed. Having remained within the close circles of the artist and the sitter for generations, the sale of this work is an opportunity to acquire a piece of history.”  

Sothebys Graham Sutherland Churchill 2639NE03B 17 04 2024

Sutherland’s study of Churchill will be exhibited at Blenheim Palace, the sitter’s birthplace, ahead of the Sotheby’s auction.

The picture at Sotheby’s, which shows Churchill in profile, is very different from the final destroyed work which depicted him face-on sitting in a chair. The auction house said it “stands out among Sutherland’s Churchill studies in terms of its quality, character and effect”, noting that the late sunshine in Churchill’s study on the day it was painted lends “a charming intimacy to the portrayal”.

“The work demonstrates a thoughtful vulnerability and an insight into the depth of the unlikely friendship that blossomed between the two men during this period,” it added.

Sothebys Graham Sutherland Churchill 2639NE03C 17 04 2024

Churchill was known as a difficult man to paint as he was painfully aware of the impact of portraits on his public image.

On their first meeting, a nervous Sutherland was greeted by Churchill, who asked, “How are you going to paint me? As a cherub or the Bulldog?” Sutherland replied: “It entirely depends on what you show me, sir.”

In the end, the finished work showed a man languishing during an immensely challenging period of his life – the Prime Minister had a suffered a stroke the year before and pressure was growing on him to resign. 

Historian Simon Schama described the final painting as “an extraordinary homage to Churchill” in his 2015 TV series Face of Britain. “What Sutherland saw in front of him was a magnificent ruin,” he said. “Churchill said it made him look half-witted. It doesn’t. It is a man of years.”

When he first viewed the finished portrait, Churchill was not shy about expressing his displeasure. Describing it as “filthy and malignant” and making him look like “a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand”, he wrote to Sutherland and his wife that it was not suitable as a presentation from the Houses of Parliament.

Within the context of the political ructions breaking around him, Churchill incorrectly concluded that the painting was part of a conspiracy to break him down. In the end, Churchill attended the presentation ceremony but uncharitably derided the work as a “striking example of Modern art”, to a peal of laughter from the audience. That evening, at the party at Downing Street, the portrait was nowhere to be seen, yet Churchill seemed more relaxed, letting Sutherland know that despite their artistic differences, they were to remain friends.

Within two years, such was the rancour with which the painting was viewed at Chartwell, that Churchill’s loyal secretary Grace Hamblin employed her brother to take it away and burn it (a move that received Clementine’s approval, who despite her original enthusiasm for the work had gradually turned against it too).

The study at Sotheby’s has been exhibited three times in the UK: at the National Portrait Gallery in 1977, the Tate Gallery in 1982 and Parliament’s Portcullis House in 2004. On the latter occasion, members of the Commons Works of Art Committee consulted Churchill’s family before hanging the portrait according to The Times – “just to make sure no one would be offended”.

Prior to the auction, the painting will be exhibited at Blenheim Palace, the Oxfordshire home of the Churchill family, from April 16-21. It will then travel to Sotheby’s New York in early May before returning to London for the sale.

*Sir Angus Ogilvy married Princess Alexandra of Kent, the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1963 and their son James Ogilvy, a landscape designer who launched the magazine Luxury Briefing is a second cousin of the King.