A Study for the Portrait Winston Churchill Famously Abhorred Is for Sale

The final painting, dramatized on Netflix’s “The Crown,” was secretly burned in the middle of the night

Portrait of Churchill
Artist Graham Sutherland painted this study of William Churchill in preparation for a portrait that the politician famously despised. Sotheby's

As Winston Churchill approached his 80th birthday, the Houses of Parliament commissioned Graham Sutherland, a highly esteemed British Modernist, to paint his portrait as a gift. The former prime minister famously hated the final product, once calling it “filthy and malignant.”

Now, an oil-on-canvas study for the divisive artwork is heading to auction at Sotheby’s, where it’s expected to fetch between £500,000 and £800,000 (about $622,000 and $995,500). The piece is on display at Churchill’s family home ahead of the sale.

“It’s not a formal portrait, but an intimate portrayal,” André Zlattinger, the head of modern British and Irish art at Sotheby’s, tells the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. “Churchill is caught in a moment of absent-minded thoughtfulness.”

When Churchill and Sutherland first met, the politician asked the artist, “How are you going to paint me? As a cherub, or the bulldog?” Sutherland replied, “It entirely depends on what you show me, sir.”

Full Churchill Portrait
Study of Sir Winston Churchill, Graham Sutherland, 1954 Sotheby's

The famous painting was even featured in the first season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which dramatized the friendship that formed between the two men. Despite Churchill’s many requests, the artist refused to let him see the portrait until it was finished.

When Churchill’s wife, Clementine, saw the painting for the first time, she appeared to like it. But when Churchill took his first look, he was repulsed. As the Guardian writes, he even “believed it was part of a conspiracy to bring him down.”

He ultimately agreed to attend the unveiling on November 30, 1954. In his speech, he joked that the painting was a “remarkable example of modern art.” After the ceremony, the piece was taken to the politician’s home in Kent, where it was stored in a cellar.

Churchill receives portrait
Churchill speaks at the unveiling ceremony for the portrait, which was commissioned as an 80th birthday gift. Bettmann via Getty Images

Eventually, Clementine, who had changed her mind about the work, asked Churchill’s secretary, Grace Hamblin, for advice. Hamblin called in her brother to help carry the heavy portrait to his garden. In the middle of the night, he set it aflame.

Meanwhile, the study survived. Sutherland gave it to the collector Alfred Hecht, who later bequeathed it to the current owner.

Although the work is no substitute for the final piece, it provides a new perspective on the British leader and his connection with the artist.

“The late, low sunshine in Churchill’s study at Chartwell (his former family home) on this day gives his skin a transparency, and the pose is also notably less direct than the final work, lending a charming intimacy to the portrayal,” says Sotheby’s in a statement. “The work demonstrates a thoughtful vulnerability and an insight into the depth of the unlikely friendship that blossomed between the two men during this period.”

The artwork is on display at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace in Oxfordshire, England, through April 21. It will then travel to New York City, where it will be exhibited in early May, before returning to London for the auction on June 6.

“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,” says Zlattinger in the statement. “Having remained within the close circles of the artist and the sitter for generations, the sale of this work is an opportunity to acquire a piece of history.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.