A Study For The Infamous Portrait of Winston Churchill Featured in The Crown is For Sale

The story of artist Graham Sutherland’s infamous 80th birthday painting of Winston Churchill was brought to life for a whole new audience in season one of The Crown. But while it is true that, just as shown in the Netflix drama, the final painting that Churchill hated was burned, a study of the work has survived and is now being sold at auction.

Sotheby’s auction house is selling what it has described as one of the best surviving portraits of Churchill relating to the 80th birthday commission by Sutherland. This painting, which was created in September 1954 in preparation for the final destroyed commission, is of Churchill’s head and shoulders and shows him looking into the distance. It has an estimate of £500,000 to £800,000 ($620,000 to $1,000,000). The work will be on view at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, before traveling to Sotheby’s in New York from May 3—16 then returning to London for auction on June 6.

Churchill sat for Sutherland on several occasions in 1954, giving the artist an unparalleled insight into his character. “[Sutherland] caught him in a relaxed, intimate way. It’s a very different depiction to the picture which Churchill didn’t like,” Sotheby’s Head of Modern British & Irish Art, André Zlattinger, said today. “Churchill was quite a difficult sitter…I think he was always quite distracted, he was always getting up dictating letters. Plus he was an artist in his own right and he wanted to constantly see what Sutherland was painting and Sutherland didn’t want to show him.” Of the studies that were created ahead of the original painting, Zlattinger said, “this is probably the masterpiece of that group.”

woodstock, england april 16 one of the best surviving portraits of sir winston churchill by graham sutherland is unveiled at blenheim palace on april 16, 2024
Tristan Fewings

The creation of the original painting is central to the plot of The Crowns series one episode nine, entitled “Assassins.” Churchill is depicted posing for Sutherland on multiple occasions throughout the episode where he is shown seeking to influence the artist to paint him in a more flattering light before being enraged by the final result. The end of the episode depicts the painting being burned outside as Churchill’s wife Clementine looks on.

In real life, Sotheby’s points out that it is understood to have been Churchill’s secretary Grace Hamblin who engaged her brother to take the painting away and burn it with Clementine’s approval. When the painting was unveiled at Westminster Hall in November 1954, news footage can still be viewed of Churchill saying only of it, “The portrait is a remarkable example of modern art.”

“Sutherland quite famously reacted very badly to when it was destroyed, he called it an act of vandalism,” Bryn Sayles, Sotheby's Head of Sale, Modern British & Irish Art, said today. She added that after the painting featured in The Crown there was an “uptick” of interest in Churchill paintings. “I think it was a combination of cultural factors,” she added. “There was The Crown episode that came out, and around the same time there was Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour…so culturally there were quite a few things coming out that were Churchill focussed at the time.”

The painting is being sold by a private owner who was gifted it by framer Alfred Hecht, who had received it directly from Sutherland.

For more information on the auction visit the Sotheby's website.

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