Contentious Churchill Portrait Hits Auction Block at Sotheby’s


In the tapestry-adorned walls of Blenheim Palace, which sits some 60 miles northwest of London, a contentious piece of art history begins its grand public display. The object of contemplation is an oil-on-canvas study of a renowned British leader, Winston Churchill. Graham Sutherland, a well-known figure in the world of modern art, is the craftsman behind this unique and slightly controversial glimpse of Churchill.

It is important to note that Sutherland, who was commissioned by the Houses of Parliament to commemorate Churchill’s 80th birthday in 1954, is an artist whose work Churchill himself despised. Nevertheless, the full-length portrait had been unveiled in Parliament with Churchill wryly describing it as, “a remarkable example of modern art.”

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Churchill, however, was not flattered by the depiction found in this painting. In fact, he is alleged to have been so offended that he criticized it, saying it “makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t.” The painting was later delivered to Churchill’s estate and has not seen light of day since. The Churchill family revealed years later that the controversial painting was destroyed, its fate was shown in a dramatically poetic fashion in an episode of the well-known television series, “The Crown,” in which Churchill’s wife, Clementine, incinerates the portrait.

Now this preliminary study of Churchill’s head against a dark backdrop is expected to turn heads and open wallets, fetching between 500,000 pounds and 800,000 pounds ($622,000 and $995,000) when it goes up for auction at Sotheby’s in London on June 6th. Andre Zlattinger, Sotheby’s head of modern British and Irish art, comments that in the surviving study, “Churchill is caught in a moment of absent-minded thoughtfulness.” This characteristic, along with the painting’s dramatic history, creates the enchanting impression of a man who was deeply concerned with his image.

In an effort to share this important part of British art history with the world, Sotheby’s is showcasing it in the very room where Churchill was born 150 years ago in Blenheim Palace. It will remain there until Sunday to be admired by visitors from near and far. Later, it will be showcased at Sotheby’s offices, first in New York from May 3-16, and later in London from May 25 to June 5.