What I Learned From Winston Churchill and ‘The Crown’

Why Winston Churchill was mortified when he saw Graham Sutherland’s painting unveiled before Parliament.

This 1979 “sand painting” attempts to reproduce Sutherland's painting of Churchill, “a remarkable example of modern art”. Lady Churchill had the original destroyed.
This 1979 “sand painting” attempts to reproduce Sutherland's painting of Churchill, “a remarkable example of modern art”. Lady Churchill had the original destroyed. (photo: Source: Brian Pike, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The artist was standing before a bulldog.

And both of them knew it.

His subject stood dressed in his stately parliamentary attire. Cigar champed between his teeth, his eyes periodically glowering when they were not searching the artist’s face and hands. Impatiently, he shifted from one foot to the other. The bulldog wasn’t sure he trusted this modern artist.

For in 1954, Graham Sutherland had accepted a sizable commission. He was asked to paint a portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The occasion for the portrait was Churchill’s 80th birthday. Serving his second term as Great Britain’s Prime Minister, both Houses of Parliament raised a large sum of money to secure the skills of a celebrated artist. Graham Sutherland was deemed worthy and subsequently charged with artistically immortalizing the iconic victor of World War II. Though Sutherland was aware of the mettle of which Churchill was still made, it was clear that the Prime Minister had aged appreciably with accustomed weight gain and physical frailties. And so, Churchill’s interest in a flattering remembrance of “his finest hour” was quite keen.

What actually transpired in the sessions held between Graham Sutherland and Winston Churchill is surely lost to history, but the Netflix series (The Crown) about Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill does its level best to poignantly help us to imagine.

(***Spoiler alert*** if you are planning on watching the much-acclaimed series)

In the ninth episode (out of ten episodes in Season 1) called Assassins, we witness the initial exchange between the reserved artist and the brash Prime Minister. Both figures are guarded and deftly sizing one another up.

Churchill: So, where do you want me? So, will we be engaged in flattery or reality? Are you going to paint me as a cherub or a bulldog? I imagine there are a great number of Mr. Churchill’s.

Sutherland: Yes, indeed there are.

Churchill: Well, as you search for him, perhaps I can implore you not to feel the need to be too accurate.

Sutherland: Why? Accuracy is truth.

Churchill: No. For accuracy we have the camera. Painting is the higher art.

Churchill recognizes not only has his body tired, mind slowed and weight climbed, but moreover that his indispensable role as the roaring lion of 1940 has passed. He fears that, in spite of his continued hold on the Prime Minister’s position, his power is increasingly ceremonial and phantom…that his age has defeated him. And the stroke of an artist’s brush, if not assiduously coaxed, may tell this story without mercy.

Sutherland, on the other hand, feels there is mercy in tenderly surrendering to the inevitable truths (warts, Churchill may call them) of age, that our heroes are human, and that proud ideals are more easily approached when we sense their accompanying twinges of sadness and musty decay.

The ideal inspires, leads and ennobles says one. The real humanizes, humbles and assures says the other.

In another scene, not allowed to see the portrait in the making, Churchill would badger with a touch of anxious anticipation. Could he give advice to Sutherland to better represent his finer points? Could he help him shave of the bad and smooth over rough edges? After all, Churchill would remind:

I find in general people have very little understanding of who they are. One has to turn a blind eye to so much of oneself in order to get through life.

When Sutherland gently insists that the artist’s call is to draw out and represent the good as well as the bad, Churchill huffs:

Just concentrate on the good, and all will be well. You’re not just painting me, you know. You’re painting the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and everything that great office represents. Democracy. Freedom. The highest ideals of government and leadership. Just remember that.

As the sessions continued and the day of presentation drew near, Churchill grew more apprehensive. He began to research Sutherland’s style and questioned him on it, playfully and then, pointedly. Likewise, Sutherland analyzed some of Churchill’s paintings and responded in kind. The resulting dialogue was a pinnacle of poignancy that captured the ideal beauty of art fed by the deep pain of reality.

Churchill: Do you think I’ll like it?

Sutherland: I think that’s possibly too much to ask for.  But I do take comfort from the fact that your own work is so honest and revealing.

Churchill: Oh, thank you for the compliment. Well, are there any works that you’re referring to in particular?

Sutherland: I was thinking especially of the goldfish pond here at Chartwell.

Churchill: The pond? Why the pond? It’s just a pond.

Sutherland: It’s very much more than that. As borne out by the fact that you’ve returned to it again and again. More than twenty times.

Churchill: Well, yes, because it’s such a technical challenge. It eludes me.

Sutherland: Well perhaps you elude yourself, sir. That’s why it’s more revealing than a self-portrait.

Churchill: Oh, that’s nonsense. It’s the water, the play of light. The trickery. The fish, down below.

Sutherland: I think all our work is unintentionally revealing and I find it especially so with your pond. Beneath the tranquility and the elegance and the light playing on the surface, I saw honesty and pain, terrible pain. The framing itself, indicated to me that you wanted us to see something beneath all the muted colors, deep down in the water. Terrible despair. Hiding like a Leviathan. Like a sea monster.

Churchill: You saw all that?

Sutherland: Yes, I did.

Churchill: Perhaps that says more about you than me?

Sutherland: Perhaps.

Churchill: May I ask you a question, Mr. Sutherland? It’s about one of your paintings. It’s about the one you call “Pastoral”. With all that gnarled and twisted wood. Those great ugly dabs of black. I found something malevolent in it. Where did that come from?

Sutherland: Well, that’s very perceptive. That was a very dark time. My... my son, John, passed away, aged two months.

Churchill: Oh my. I am sorry.

Sutherland: Yes. Thank you. You have five, yes?

Churchill: Four. Marigold was the fifth. She left us at age two years, nine months. Septicemia.

Sutherland: I’m so sorry. I had no idea.

Churchill: We settled on the name Marigold, on account of her wonderful golden curls. The most extraordinary color. Regretfully, but though perhaps mercifully, I was not present when she died. When I came home, Clemmie roared like a wounded animal. We bought Chartwell a year after Marigold died. That was when... I put in the pond.

For a moment, in grief, the artist and the bulldog understood one another. For a moment, they were unlikely brothers. Their art served as an outlet that both obscured and revealed the depths of their despair. The brushstrokes painted images of ideal beauty, yet very real woe.

When Graham Sutherland’s painting was unveiled before Parliament, benefactors and Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister was mortified. In it, he saw decay and demoralization. Privately, he called the portrait malignant and had it cut up and burned. Sutherland, however, saw the lion of Britain no less heroic … only tempered by the bittersweet surety of age.

Both men went their separate ways.


And then, both began to paint again.

(The Crown, a brilliant series, is available only on Netflix.)