Graham Sutherland (1903-1980)
Graham Sutherland was born in London the son of Vivian Sutherland, a barrister who later became a civil servant. Around 1910 the family moved to live at Sutton in Surrey and Sutherland became a pupil at a preparatory school there before attending Epsom College.
During 1919-20 he studied mathematics at Battersea Polytechnic with a view to training as an engineer and in 1920-21 duly became an engineering apprentice at Derby with the Midland Railway Company. However Sutherland really wished to become an artist and between 1921 and 1926 was a student at Goldsmith’s College of Art in London where he specialised in etching.
He quickly became an accomplished etcher and his first one-man exhibition of engravings and drawings was held at the Twenty-One Gallery, London in 1924. He was made an associate member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers & Engravers the following year. His early etchings, such as Lammas (1926), were clearly influenced by the idyllic, visionary rural landscapes of Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).
In 1926 Sutherland converted to Roman Catholicism and the next year married Kathleen Barry who was from a catholic family. The couple went to live in Kent and around that time Sutherland commenced teaching for two days a week at Chelsea School of Art, a post he held until 1939.
Initially Sutherland had made a reasonably comfortable living from selling etchings and teaching but demand for the former greatly diminished during the worldwide economic depression around 1930. Consequently he had to find fresh commercial outlets for his art and he was greatly assisted in this search by the business contacts of his lifelong friend, the graphic designer, Milner Gray. Gray introduced Sutherland to Shell Petroleum and the London Passenger Board (London Underground) and he produced travel posters for them which soon became collector’s items.
It was also through Gray’s contacts with the pottery industry that Sutherland gained introductions to companies such as Foley China and Wilkinson Ltd. and designed and decorated ceramics for them. Interestingly it was when working for Wilkinson Ltd. that Sutherland collaborated with Clarice Cliff, the famous ceramics artist and designer, on designs for tableware under her noted Bizarre label.
During the 1930s Sutherland began to work seriously on his painting and in 1934 he visited Pembrokeshire in South Wales for the first time. The landscape there became an enduring inspiration and he frequently revisited Pembrokeshire throughout his life. He developed a particular interest in natural forms of growth such as tree roots and thorn bushes which he often depicted from close-up, foreshortened viewpoints. These organic growth formations often appeared menacing or threatening with their hints of human or animal like characteristics. Sutherland exhibited two paintings at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.
The following year Sutherland moved to live at the White House at Trottiscliffe in Kent and it remained his English home until his death. In 1938 he held his first one-man exhibition of paintings in London but with the outbreak of the Second World War his teaching and commercial work virtually ceased. From 1940-45 he served as an official war artist and typical subject matter included bomb damage, mining and quarrying scenes and blast furnaces.
By 1946 Sutherland’s painting was becoming more widely known with his first one-man exhibition in New York and a major ecclesiastical commission in the form of a Crucifixion for St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. In 1947 he first visited the South of France and thereafter spent part of every year there for the rest of his life. In 1955 he purchased a house there, the Villa Blanche near Menton.
Sutherland’s work took a new direction in 1949 when he received an important portrait commission to paint the writer Somerset Maugham. It proved to be the first of a regular and lucrative series of portraits painted over the next thirty years. Major figures depicted included Winston Churchill (1954), Kenneth Clark (1962) and Konrad Adenauer (1965).
In 1952 Sutherland was commissioned to design a large tapestry for the new cathedral in Coventry and the work occupied him on and off for almost a decade. The gigantic figure of Christ in Glory is undoubtedly the work for which Sutherland is best known to the general public.
Sutherland regularly made prints throughout his artistic career, completing around two hundred graphic images in different media. Some of the highlights included a series of lithographs entitled A Bestiary and some Correspondences (1968) and two series of aquatints, being The Bees (1977) and Apollinaire Les Bestiaire ou Cortege d’ Orphee (1979).
During the last two decades of his life Sutherland held numerous one-man exhibitions around the world both of new works and retrospectives. He was made a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1948 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1960. In 1976 the Graham Sutherland Gallery opened at Picton in Pembrokeshire to which the artist donated many of his works. He died in London on 17th February 1980 widely regarded as one of the finest artists of his generation.