Sunday 6 May 2018

Art For Arts Sake And Churchill

There is a lot of art out there on TV for those interested and in one form or another. One is the Factum Arte Sky Arts series on "Mystery Of The Lost Paintings" covering eight examples of major works gone but not forgotten.

Applying modern high tech' research and digitisation skills experts attempt to recreate them to as close to the original as possible. It is a long and intricate process which the programme has to simplify down to a few minutes that can be explained to the passing viewer.

The first one seems to be able to do without much of the imagery, noise, aggression and competitive requirements of most of TV these days leaving us to think about the artist, the work, the people involved at the time and what really happened.

The first was a question more people will know about. It was the lost painting by Graham Sutherland of Winston Churchill that was intended to be for the Houses of Parliament to add to the portraits of Prime Ministers of the past. These are images usually of dignity to present them as figures of state and standing.

My conclusion is that the fiasco that resulted can be put down to the Department of Bright Ideas and inevitably a committee was involved and making the decisions. The theory was that the members of the Lords and Commons would stump up a thousand or so smackers to pay for a portrait done by the best to be had.

What added was that Churchill was Prime Minister at the time, his 80th birthday pending on 30 November 1954. His lifestyle not a healthy one and he was trying to fight the Cold War dismantle the Empire and keep the welfare state going while staying Tory to the bone. He was not at his best by then.

Not least was the fact that while the Conservatives had more seats in the Commons, in the 1951 Election Labour actually polled more votes than the Conservatives and their vote increased slightly from the 1950 election. The Conservatives had increased their votes but owed their victory, if anything, to the long overdue reform of the constituency boundaries in the late 1940's, under a Labour Government.

It was a strange political world, made no less strange by the limited media and information available to the general public. The press were mostly governed by the Tory press barons, TV in the limited areas covered had only the BBC on one channel and very little discussion or coverage and the Pathe newsreels have to be seen to be believed, mostly shouting nonsense and propaganda.

The committee soon found that among the artists of the day, there was no great enthusiasm for the job of Churchill portrait. One reason is that their whole standing and reputation would be decided by this one work. Another was that Churchill, an artist himself, might well have his own ideas.

Eventually, it was Graham Sutherland who came forward and they were grateful for it, he was one of the Big Names in art of his day. Moving on from his early highly modern work he was involved in design and notably the newly built Coventry Cathedral replacing the former bombed one.

He had decided to try his hand at portraits and has come up several well received ones of notable personalities, one being the famous Somerset Maugham. They were vivid and interesting takes on people and the function of a portrait. Sutherland was in fashion and the committee was anxious to be there as well.

Yes, it was an accident waiting to happen. So what did? Apparently, Churchill and Sutherland got on well and when he eventually completed his picture both Churchill and Clementine his wife and public relations manager were content with it as a piece of art. But the painting was going to be judged by a wider world.

Westminster Hall, where the unveiling was had to be set up for the event. I can well imagine the comments that might have been made by the lower orders of manual workers who had the job.  At the event itself the thousand or so Lords, M.P's and others would have been largely male.

The Tories would have had serried ranks from the military, it was said that in the constituencies an M.C. carried a lot more weight that some degree or other from Oxbridge, as Margaret Thatcher complained. The Labour Party may have had a few intellectuals keen on modern art. But they had a lot more trade unionists from humble backgrounds and with an earthy sense of humour.

It did not go down well at all and many would have been of the view that whatever the artistic merit or modernism of the work it had no place at Westminster and if anything was of detriment both to the sitter Churchill and to the members that funded it.

The picture was taken down and never put up again at Westminster and it is only recently that we have learned that Clementine's young aides decided to burn it at Chartwell, the Churchill home. They were ladies who perhaps had had a gin and tonic too many for rational thinking.

But now we know and what do we do with the replica? My thought is that it should go to the Blenheim Palace Churchill Exhibition which is where he is born.


  1. Whenever it comes to committees making such decisions, why am I always reminded of Alec Issigonis?

  2. Reminds me of a visit to Coventry Cathedral with the future Mrs H.