A Study of the Portrait Infamously Destroyed by Winston Churchill Heads to Auction

The Graham Sutherland portrait was so detested by the Prime Minister that his secretary had it destroyed by fire within a year of its creation.

Dark oil painting depicts profile of bald man
Graham Sutherland’s 1954 study of Winston Churchill. Courtesy Sotheby's

For his 80th birthday in 1954, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill received more than 150,000 gifts from around the globe. One gift in particular, a portrait commissioned by the Houses of Parliament, was so detested by Churchill that it was later burnt at the request of his secretary.

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The fate of painter Graham Sutherland’s portrait has since been memorialized on television in Netflix’s The Crown, and relics of the infamous artwork remain, as Sutherland left behind several studies created in preparation for the work. Now one of these studies is heading to auction at Sotheby's with a £500,000 ($622,000) to £800,000 ($996,000) estimate.

Unlike the slumped and scowling figure depicted in the final portrait, “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,” said André Zlattinger, head of modern British and Irish art at Sotheby’s, in a statement.

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Sutherland at the time was one of Britain’s most well-renowned artists, having participated in the Venice Biennale in 1952 and starred in major retrospectives across Paris, Zurich, Amsterdam and London. Churchill, meanwhile, was in a fragile state due to political in-fighting and health issues that included a 1953 stroke. While the duo struck up an unlikely friendship, the painting that came out of that relationship has a colorful story.

A portrait that went down in history

“How are you going to paint me? As a cherub or the Bulldog?” Churchill asked Sutherland when the artist began the portrait. “It entirely depends on what you show me, sir,” responded the artist, who would later comment that the prime minister had primarily shown himself as the “Bulldog,” a nickname Churchill earned for both his looks and his temperament.

Black and white photo of man sitting in front of faceless portrait
Graham Sutherland in 1954 posing with his unfinished portrait of Churchill. Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Churchill, who didn’t see the portrait during its creation, was dismayed at the final product. He described it as “filthy and malignant” in a letter to his personal doctor Lord Moran, and later told Sutherland it was unsuitable for presentation at the Houses of Parliament and that he would not go to the ceremony. Although he ultimately attended its unveiling, Churchill in a backhanded compliment described the portrait as a “striking example of Modern art,” to laughter from the audience.

Presented amid rising pressure for his resignation, the politician considered the portrait part of a conspiracy to break him down. Within two years, it was quietly burnt to ashes by the brother of Churchill’s loyal secretary Grace Hamblin—a move that received the approval of the prime minister’s wife Clementine, who initially admired the portrait but later considered it a betrayal.

Several of Sutherland’s studies, however, survived. The preparatory painting in question was gifted to framer Alfred Hecht, who later gave the work to its present owner. It will make its auction debut on June 6 after an exhibition at Blenheim Palace, the Oxfordshire home of the Churchill family, that will coincide with the famed politician’s 150th anniversary.

“The name Churchill evokes for each person a different snapshot of a multifaceted man,” said Zlattinger. “In this rare portrait, Churchill is caught in a moment of absent-minded thoughtfulness, and together with the backstory of its creation, it gives the impression of a man truly concerned with his image.”

A Study of the Portrait Infamously Destroyed by Winston Churchill Heads to Auction