Technically gifted and endlessly imaginative, Graham Sutherland is one of the 20th century’s most influential and inventive voices, capturing the character of Britain before, during and after the Second World War.
His extensive career spanned a wide range of styles, from intricate etchings and painterly landscapes to society portraits and avant-garde abstraction, yet uniting all these strands was a singular vision to portray the reality of life as it swirled around him.
Lauded in his day as a leader of the neo-Romantic movement, his reputation fell from public view following his death, but since the early 2000s his artwork has seen a renewed surge of interest by artists, museums and collectors.
Graham Sutherland was born in Streatham, London in 1903. During family holidays he would roam the British countryside, observing and sketching the natural phenomena around him with wide eyed wonder. He began his early career as an engineering draughtsman to appease his father, before moving on to study etching at Goldsmith’s College of Art.
Training in London
As a student, Sutherland made detailed etchings based on the British landscape, illustrating run-down barns and quaint houses nestled amongst tangled weeds and overgrown hedges. Influences came from William Blake, Samuel Palmer and James Abbot McNeill Whistler.
Sutherland’s etchings were almost immediately popular, and his first one-man show was held in 1925, while still a student. Soon after, he was elected as an Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. Following graduation, Sutherland took on teaching work at Chelsea School of Art in the printmakers department, while continuing to develop his own practice, and soon found a steady stream of collectors for his etchings.
When the Wall Street Crash hit, many of Sutherland’s buyers were bankrupted, and he had to find alternate ways to earn money. Among the various jobs he took on, graphic design proved the most lucrative, leading Sutherland to make iconic poster designs for companies including Shell Petrol and the London Passenger Transport Board.
During a holiday in 1934, Sutherland first visited Pembrokeshire and the lush, dramatic landscape became a constant source of inspiration. It inspired him to make sketches on location which he would work up into a series of ominous and atmospheric paintings, including Black Landscape, 1939-40 and Dwarf Oak, 1949.
Documenting the War
Sutherland was made an official war artist from 1940-45, making haunting, devastating drawings and paintings of bomb sites during the London Blitz, a patriotic move that helped raise his public profile. His artworks capture the quiet unease of a city torn to shreds and cast into darkness, particularly in his macabre and unsettling Devastation series.
In the late 1940s, Sutherland was commissioned to create a series of prominent religious commissions, including Crucifixion, 1946, for the Anglican church of St Matthew in Northampton and the tapestry Christ in Glory, 1962, for Coventry Cathedral. A deeply religious man, these commissions gave Sutherland room to explore his internal spirituality in a more direct, illustrative language.
Sutherland found work as a portrait painter in the late 1940s and 1950s, although his direct, uncompromising approach was not always popular. Notable portraits were made of acclaimed writer Somerset Maugham and newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, who were less than pleased with the results.
It was Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, in 1954, which caused the most trouble. The painting was meant to hang in Westminster Abbey, but Churchill was so offended by its unflattering likeness that it was kept hidden away in the cellar of Churchill’s estate and eventually destroyed.
With his wife Kathleen, Sutherland moved to the South of France in 1955. Many felt the paintings he made during this time lost their subversive edge, away from the sprawling countryside of Wales.
In 1967, Sutherland made a return visit to Pembrokeshire and he fell in love once again with the rugged, unspoilt landscape, visiting again many times over the final decades of his life to find source material for a vast array of Surrealist-influenced drawings, paintings and prints, capturing spiky, angular forms and curling, biomorphic tendrils.
Sutherland made a final visit to Pembrokeshire just one month before his death in February 1980, revealing his enduring infatuation with the raw energy of the Welsh landscape.
Sutherland’s artworks were made in a wide range of media, from oil paintings to drawings and prints, which vary in price at auction depending on scale and materials. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Did you know?
In his early career Sutherland pursued a range of commercial work to earn money, working as an illustrator, graphic designer, ceramicist and painter.
Pablo Picasso’s art had a profound influence on Sutherland, particularly his Guernica series. Sutherland commented, “Only Picasso … seemed to have the true idea of metamorphosis, whereby things found a new form through feeling.”
Comparisons are often made between Sutherland and Picasso’s art, since both were pioneers of early abstraction, but while Picasso turned humans into rock-like forms, Sutherland worked the other way around, turning boulders and hills into insects or animals.
His method of abstracting nature has prompted some critics to call Sutherland’s art “Natural Abstraction.”
Sutherland’s distorted, Surreal language had a profound impact on Francis Bacon’s work, allowing him to delve into some deeply unsettling and macabre material.
Sutherland’s painted portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was destroyed as arranged by Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, who asked the couple’s private secretary, Grace Hamblin, to deal with the matter. Hamblin told her brother to burn it on a bonfire, while Clementine took the blame. Deeply offended, Sutherland called the covert destruction of his work “without question an act of vandalism.”
Preparatory sketches for Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill still exist today and are now held in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Canada.
In 1976, Sutherland established the Graham Sutherland Gallery at Picton Castle in Wales, a benevolent act of donation to Wales. Sadly, the museum was closed in 1995 and the collection of works was transferred to Amgueddfa Cymru, The National Museum of Wales.
During his heyday Sutherland was one of Britain’s most popular artists. But following his death the stature of his art fell, and in 2003, there was no major centenary exhibition to celebrate his birth.
In 2011, British Turner Prize nominee and painter George Shaw curated a display of Sutherland paintings titled Unfinished World, at Modern Art Oxford, forming part of a resurgence of interest in Sutherland’s practice for a new generation.