Graham Sutherland

Graham Sutherland, photographed in 1958

Last updated: 13 January 2011

Graham Sutherland is one of the forgotten men of 20th century British art.

In 2003, the centenary of his birth, there was no major retrospective of Graham Sutherland's work on show. Yet he was once a household name in Britain.

When an artist was needed to create a massive centrepiece for the new cathedral at Coventry, which was to be a showcase of English modern art, Sutherland was the obvious choice. His reputation eclipsed that of contemporaries including Francis Bacon.

Born in London in 1903, Sutherland worked as an engineering draughtsman at Derby railway works at his father's insistence, before studying etching at Goldsmiths' College of Art.

He dedicated himself to print-making during the 1920s, producing romantic landscapes, and later worked with watercolours, and finally, during the 1940s, in oil. Sutherland taught at a number of establishments, namely Chelsea School of Art, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and at Goldsmiths'.

It is for his surreal, organic oil paintings inspired by the wild coastline of Pembrokeshire that Sutherland is best known. He was a member of the 1940s neo-Romantic movement and, like the 19th century Romantics, eulogised a natural British landscape untouched by the ravages of industrialisation and war.

Sutherland had first-hand experience of war. From 1940 to 1945, he worked in the War Artists' Scheme, drawing bomb-sites, blast furnaces, tin-mining and quarrying.

He was not the kindest of portrait painters. His portrait of Lord Beaverbrook pictured the newspaper baron as a cunning, reptilian creature. On receiving the present, commissioned by his staff, Beaverbrook said, "It's an outrage, but it's a masterpiece!"

Winston Churchill detested Sutherland's portrait of him as a declining old man. At the official unveiling he said, tongue firmly in cheek, "It is a remarkable piece of modern art - it certainly combines force and candour".

Churchill's wife had the painting burnt a year or two later. However, Sutherland's final preparatory sketch was exhibited publicly at the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair in London in 2003, having been lost for 25 years.

In the late 1940s, Sutherland started holidaying in France and in 1955 he and his wife Kathleen bought a fashionable modernist house near Nice. Having left Britain, his work lost something of its original edge.

However, in 1967 he visited Pembrokeshire for the first time in years with an Italian TV company who were making a film about him. His return to the Welsh landscape that inspired him sparked a second flowering of his creative powers.

Sutherland died in February 1980.


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