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The Lion at Bay

sutherland churchill portrait

Winston Churchill faced an awkward moment in 1954, when Parliament unveiled a portrait on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The ceremony took place before a crowded Westminster Hall, and no one present, one observer said, “will forget the idiosyncratic nonsound with which a thousand people stopped breathing when the canvas was revealed.”

The painting, by Graham Sutherland, was a decidedly modern take on the octogenarian statesman. “Its chief defect was that it looked unfinished in as much as his feet were concealed in a carpet that seemed to have sprouted a dun-coloured grass,” wrote Studio editor G.S. Whittet. “The artist had obviously been unhappy about them and they had been painted over since it would have been impossible to ‘cut off’ his legs below the knees without radically altering the proportions and placing of the picture on the canvas.”

One MP called the portrait “a study in lumbago,” and Lord Hailsham said it was “disgusting, ill-mannered, terrible.” Churchill accepted the gift with a measured good humor, but privately he muttered, “It makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t.” After the unveiling, the painting was never seen again — shortly before Churchill’s death, his wife had it cut up and burned.

See Immortalized.