Graham Sutherland
Biography of British Neo-Romantic Artist.

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Graham Sutherland (1903-80)


Career and Works
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The English Neo-Romantic artist Graham Sutherland became renowned for his printmaking and painting, as well as his tapestry art, much of which was influenced by his wartime experiences and his Catholicism. Best-known, to begin with, for his surrealistic landscape painting of the 1930s, he achieved even greater acclaim for his Christian art - notably his painting of The Crucifixion (1946, St Matthew's Church, Northampton) and his Christ in Glory tapestry (1954-62) for Coventry cathedral. He was also one of the great portrait artists of the 20th century, despite his highly controversial portrait of Winston Churchill (1954), which was destroyed on the orders of Lady Churchill who hated it. Sutherland's art was influenced at different times by Samuel Palmer (1805-81), William Blake (1757-1827), Paul Nash (1889-1946) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It also shares several features with that of his contemporary Francis Bacon (1909-92), but differs ultimately (one feels) due to Sutherland's outlook on religion. He is considered to be one of Britain's greatest modern artists, although he is more appreciated by foreign rather than some British art critics, who see him as rather old-fashioned.

Career and Works

While a student at Goldsmith's College, London, Sutherland specialized in printmaking (mostly etching and engraving), a subject which he taught in the early part of his career (1926-40) at the Chelsea School of Art. Only in 1935 did he begin oil painting, one year after his first stay in Pembrokeshire. In 1936 he exhibited with other British surrealists at the London International Surrealist Exhibition - probably the apogee of the Surrealism movement - which was organised by the British art historian Herbert Read (1893-1968). (Sutherland was a contemporary of Salvador Dali 1904-89.) Inspired by the theory of the "objet trouve" (found objects), he painted a series of Welsh landscapes which immediately associated him with a new form of Romantic art, in the vein of Paul Nash and John Piper. ('Neo-Romanticism gave a modern interpretation to the romantic, visionary works of the 18th century painter William Blake and the 19th century artist Samuel Palmer.) Sutherland's relationship with nature, both mystic and pantheistic is the keynote of his work at this time. Its poetic intimacy was typical of the contemporaneous movement in England (see "Entry to a Footpath", 1939, Tate Gallery).

In 1937 Sutherland installed himself at Trottiscliffe, a village in Kent, although from 1947 he spent part of each year on the French Riviera. His later work was more forceful in colour. Specific objects and abstract forms were sometimes isolated and took on an almost human appearance. Sutherland also excelled at portrait art (retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery London, 1978), his first commission being for Somerset Maugham (1949, Tate Gallery, London) - one of the greatest portrait paintings of the 20th century. Other celebrated portraits by Sutherland include those of Winston Churchill (now destroyed), Konrad Adenauer, Edward Sackville-West and Helena Rubinstein. (In turn, Sutherland had his portrait done by the great British photographer Cecil Beaton 1904-80.)

A Roman Catholic convert since 1926, Sutherland's catholic art includes the monumental and powerful "Crucifixion" (1946) for St Matthew's Church in Northampton - a work which by itself ranks Sutherland among the greatest 20th century painters in Britain. Other important works include the huge tapestry of "Christ in Glory" (1954-62) destined for the new Coventry Cathedral, and a "Crucifixion" for the Church of St Aidan at East Acton. He also produced a quantity of ceramic art and designs for stage sets.

Regarded during the 1960s as one of the most distinguished British artists of the 20th century (he received the Order of Merit in 1960) - see also Contemporary British Painting (c.1960-2000) - his later work was something of an anticlimax. He had several retrospective exhibitions throughout Europe and in the USA. In 1976 he made a gift to the nation of 200 of his oil paintings, watercolours, lithographs and sketches, which are housed at the Graham Sutherland Foundation, Picton Castle, Dyfed, Wales. Most British galleries have examples of his painting. In recent years his early prints have become much sought after - a reflection of the sway in the 1970s towards figurative art with a poetic, materialistic quality. English contemporaries of Sutherland include the sculptors Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), as well as the painters Carel Weight (1908-97) and Francis Bacon (1909-92).

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Paintings and prints by Graham Sutherland can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.


• For biographies of other British artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of 20th century painting in Britain, see: Homepage.

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