Churchill’s most-hated portrait is up for auction, set to fetch up to £800k

Unveiled amidst historical intrigue, a poignant relic from the annals of art and politics emerges: Graham Sutherland’s intimate study of Sir Winston Churchill. Predating the infamous portrait torched in Churchill’s disdain, this canvas captures the essence of a statesman grappling with his twilight years. Sotheby’s presents this poignant portrayal, shedding light on Churchill’s complexity and the tempestuous relationship between subject and artist. A compelling glimpse into the soul of a titan, set to fetch £500,000 to £800,000 at auction.

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By Sarah Rappaport

A relic from a piece of art history depicted on The Crown is hitting the auction block at Sotheby’s. The oil-on-canvas study by Graham Sutherland preceded the portrait Winston Churchill so famously despised that it ended up getting set on fire, as portrayed in the first season of the Netflix series.

Parliament commissioned the portrait for the prime minister’s 80th birthday and hired Sutherland, one of the leading British artists of the time, according to André Zlattinger, Sotheby’s head of modern British and Irish art. 

WOODSTOCK, ENGLAND – APRIL 16: One of the best surviving portraits of Sir Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland is unveiled at Blenheim Palace on April 16, 2024 in Woodstock, England. This June, Sotheby’s will offer the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, an intimate painted study for the infamous work that was destroyed following Churchill’s rancour. In a fitting tribute to Churchill’s 150th anniversary, the painting will be on view to the public from 16 – 21 April at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace and the Oxfordshire home of the Churchill family. The painting will then travel to Sotheby’s New York (3-16 May) and London (25 May-5 June), before going under the hammer in its auction debut at Sotheby’s London on 6 June with an estimate of £500,000 – 800,000. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s) Photographer: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Europe

“Churchill wasn’t an easy person to paint,” Zlattinger says. The aging statesman, an artist himself, was conscious about the image he showed to the nation. “Churchill asked Sutherland if he was going to be painted as a cherub or a bulldog, and Sutherland replied that it depends on what you show me.” 

“Graham Sutherland was known for his gritty realism,” says Kevin Ruane, author of Churchill and the Bomband he painted what he saw in 1954.  That was an almost 80-year-old man who’d suffered a stroke a year earlier, Ruane says.

“When I look at a photograph of the painting, I see a man who has been carrying the weight of the world and is a bit of a ruin, but a glorious ruin—like the Parthenon,” he says. “You can still see the greatness that was there, but it’s crumbling.” 

When Churchill saw his portrait, he despised it so much that he almost refused to go to its unveiling in Parliament, Ruane says. (John Lithgow gives a “mostly accurate” depiction of this as Churchill in The Crown, he says.) 

He likely hated the Sutherland portrait because of his vanity, Ruane says. “This is a man who, his supporters as much as his detractors would say, had a bit of a super ego, and by 1954 he was more and more conscious of his declining power and physical infirmity.” 

When the painting was presented to him at the state opening of Parliament, Churchill derided the work as a “remarkable example of modern art,” to laughter from the crowd. It was never displayed in Parliament. Instead it was taken home to Churchill’s country house, Chartwell, where it was stuffed into a cellar before eventually being set on fire by his secretary, Grace Hamblin, and her brother, with the blessing of Clementine, his wife. Sutherland called the piece’s destruction an “act of vandalism.” (On The Crown, Clementine watches the portrait burn in a bonfire.) 

What remains of Churchill’s sittings with Sutherland is what’s now being sold by Sotheby’s, with an estimate of £500,000 to £800,000 ($622,000 to $996,000). It was painted in the late, low sunshine in Chartwell, as Sutherland’s artistic process involved doing investigative studies to understand his subject before producing the final version.

Sotheby’s Zlattinger characterizes the study as more intimate than the final portrait, as well as revealing an insight into Churchill’s state of mind at the time Sutherland was focused on depicting his face. “It is probably a better portrayal of what Churchill was actually like,” Zlattinger says, “and we regard this to be the best surviving portrait of Churchill by Sutherland.” 

WOODSTOCK, ENGLAND – APRIL 16: One of the best surviving portraits of Sir Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland is unveiled at Blenheim Palace on April 16, 2024 in Woodstock, England. This June, Sotheby’s will offer the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, an intimate painted study for the infamous work that was destroyed following Churchill’s rancour. In a fitting tribute to Churchill’s 150th anniversary, the painting will be on view to the public from 16 – 21 April at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace and the Oxfordshire home of the Churchill family. The painting will then travel to Sotheby’s New York (3-16 May) and London (25 May-5 June), before going under the hammer in its auction debut at Sotheby’s London on 6 June with an estimate of £500,000 – 800,000. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s) Photographer: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Europe

The painting will be exhibited April 16-21 at Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds, in the same ornate room the famous statesman was born, before going on public view at Sotheby’s New York from May 3 to May 16. Zlattinger says that there’s a “massive fascination” with Churchill in the US and that there are collectors of Churchill memorabilia and art from around the world.

In January, Steve Forbes consigned Churchill books and memorabilia—including his old personal writing desk—to a rare-book dealer in New York. In 2021 a Moroccan landscape Churchill painted himself and later gifted to President Franklin Roosevelt sold for a record $11.6 million at Christie’s, from the collection of Angelina Jolie. 

After the study’s public view in New York, it will head back across the pond and appear at Sotheby’s London from May 25 to June 5. The auction takes place on June 6.

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