Graham Sutherland developed his own incisive and personal language to become one of the most important exponents of the English avant-garde.He dedicated himself to engravings, book illustrations, costume designs and theatre sets and then went on to dedicate himself to painting, reestablishing it in an original, neo-romantic and typically British way. He began to be noticed when, together with other artists, he was commissioned to illustrate episodes of London life during the war. In landscapes devastated by bombardments, he immediately demonstrated the ambiguity of his art that moved on a slender thread between life and destruction, between organic and inorganic shapes. He was often criticized for the complexity and the modernity of his works, but his mark is unmistakable. A unique outline characterizes the figures that appeared to break out of the two-dimensional canvas.
MYSTERY OF THE LOST SUTHERLAND
PORTRAIT OF SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL (1954)
Destroyed in a garden
THE PORTRAIT OF A LEADER
In celebration of Winston Churchill’s 80th birthday, towards the end of his second term as Britain’s Prime Minister,Sutherland was commissioned by Parliament to create the portrait of the great statesman.Once Sutherland overcame his initial reluctance, mostly due to his limited experience in portraiture, he was soon is persuaded to accept the commission.
THE ASHES OF A FRIENDSHIP
Winston Churchill was 78 when he was re-elected as prime minister for a second time in 1951.To paint Winston Churchill’s portrait, Sutherland moved to the large country house in Kentwhere the Churchills usually hosted politicians, film stars and foreign leaders. The first sittings took place here in a friendly relaxed atmosphere, so much so that Lady Churchill wrote to her daughter: “Mr. Graham Sutherland is fantastic”.
However,Sutherland was worried about painting a predictable and saccharine image of the Prime Minister.He preferred to experiment, aiming to portray the raw, truthful side of the political leader. This research proved exhausting and less than a month away its presentation date, he had still not completed the outlines for the head and face.
The solution came when his photographer friend, Elisabeth Juda, was invited to a sitting. Using her photographs, Sutherland managed to find the necessary detachment to work objectively and thus completed the work.
Lady Churchill was the first one to see the finished work two weeks before her husband’s birthday; she was very struck by it and gave it much praise and compliments. The same was not true of Winston Churchill, who, on seeing the photo of the finished painting, sent a letter to Sutherland the following day. “My dear Graham Sutherland, thank you for sending me the photograph.
On the 30th November 1954, on the day of the presentation of the gift, the portrait was unveiled at a grand public event. Churchill’s refusal to see himself in the painting was categorical and he was vocal with his family and party members that the painting was an attempt to diminish his standing and to hasten his retirement. From that day on, the painting disappeared.
After it was returned to the country estate in Kent, Lady Churchill ordered her devoted assistant Grace Hamblin to destroy the canvas. In the depth of the night, the painting was taken out of the house in a van to be burnt in the garden.
The morning after all that remained of the work, and of the relationship between Sutherland and Churchill, was ashes.
THE REBIRTH OF AN “OLD LION”
Some drawings and preparatory studies, as well as a good number of the photographs taken by the famous fashion photographer Elisabeth Juda and photojournalist Larry Burrows escaped the fire. These provided the starting point for the Factum Arte team in Madrid to bring back this iconic image.
In the first phase of the re-materialization, an existing color photograph of the portrait was printed on a canvas. A Factum Arte portraitist then created some primary versions of the portrait, painting them by hand and taking time to research the tools used by Sutherland: the type of pencils, charcoal and the various browns and ochre oil colors used in the painting.
In the various versions produced, the brown tones were always slightly duller than expected and they did not express the freshness of the original painting. For this reason, the Factum Arte team paid a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London. This British Museum holds a sketch in oils of the portrait. It was this preparatory canvas that provided Factum Arte with the solution. Sutherland, in his use of oils, applied them directly on the canvas, which gave the painting luminosity and a bright appearance. The team also looked the numerous preparatory sketches for various details; it was clear that Sutherland had carefully studied every aspect of the sitter before very quickly producing a final version of the portrait, another reason to explain its intense vigour.
In addition, the team visited Henry Poole & Co., the historic tailors in Savile Row, where Churchill was a loyal customer. Here, they were able to see the copies of the clothing worn by the politician during the portrait and examine the fabrics and the cut made-to-measure on Churchill’s figure. Finally, the collaboration with the English artist and academic Tai-Shan Schierenberg proved crucial. He had discovered, thanks to a photograph of the era, that Sutherland frequently used a paint diffuser to soften the outlines of the figures on the canvas.
Once the team were back in Madrid, they used this highly-detailed information to guide and inform the recreation. This time, one of the recreations done prior to the London visit was printed on raw canvas, immediately making a difference to the brown tones of the portrait. Some further details were added in paint.
Once the final painted version was ready, it was photographed at high-resolution. By now, the team had also found another, better photograph of the portrait. It had been taken by the photographer Larry Burrows, who had used a colour chart in his documentation, thus making the colours obtained very accurate. The image was kindly provided to Factum by the photographer’s son, Russel Burrows.
This image was used alongside the physical reconstruction to produce the final the re-creation. It was used both to correct the tones as well as to provide greater detail in certain areas, making the final re-creation a cross between this excellent image and the energy of real paint.
The digital file produced in the previous steps was printed onto a canvas only lightly prepped with gesso to keep, again, the feel and texture of the raw fabric. Only in certain areas – the face for example – where Sutherland had used an impasto technique, was the gesso made slightly thicker and more textured to create areas with greater body.
Although the original painting has been lost, this re-creation of Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill reproduces as faithfully as possible the psychological depth and the life of this fascinating painting.
PORTRAIT OF SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
Digital Recreation of Graham Sutherland’s “Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill“ (1954)
2017 Pigment and gesso on canvas
Recreation by Factum Arte