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Iconic Disdain: Churchill's Infamous Portrait from 'The Crown' Commands $840,000 at Auction

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Editor’s This story has been updated with the final sale result.

In a dramatic scene from "The Crown," Winston Churchill, portrayed by John Lithgow, vehemently rejects a portrait crafted by renowned painter Graham Sutherland, played by Stephen Dillane. The dialogue encapsulates Churchill's visceral disdain for his own likeness, branding it a "humiliation" rather than a celebration of his 80th birthday. The episode culminates with the incendiary act of burning the painting, epitomizing Churchill's vehement rejection.

While "The Crown" takes artistic liberties, the essence of Churchill's aversion to the portrait is rooted in reality. Churchill's scathing critique, labeling the depiction as "filthy and malignant," mirrors his genuine sentiments expressed in personal correspondences. The portrait's destruction underscores Churchill's acute sensitivity to public perception, particularly following his 1953 stroke and the subsequent political scrutiny.

Despite the demise of the original painting, a preparatory study by Sutherland survived. Displayed at the historic Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born, this study offers a glimpse into the artistic process behind the contentious portrait. Gifted to Alfred Hecht by Sutherland himself, it eventually found its way to auction at Sotheby's, commanding a substantial sum of £660,000 ($842,490). Though falling short of its estimated value, the sale reaffirms the enduring fascination with Churchill's enigmatic persona, securing its place as one of the most iconic portrayals of the iconic leader.

Sutherland's study captured Churchill in a far more intimate light," remarked Zlattinger, alluding to the small canvas painted in oils. "It's a stark departure from the later portrait, which Churchill clearly disdained and ultimately consigned to destruction.

Churchill's meticulous management of his image finds resonance throughout history, transcending his era. The practice of crafting and controlling portrayals extends back to ancient times, with Egyptian pharaohs meticulously sculpted to exude power. Notably, Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty went so far as to portray herself with a male torso, diverging entirely from reality.

In England, Queen Elizabeth I epitomizes the art of image manipulation. Robert Blyth, Senior Curator of World and Maritime History at Royal Museums Greenwich, highlights Elizabeth's strategic avoidance of aging in her depictions. Even in renowned works like The Rainbow Portrait, any signs of aging were meticulously concealed, underscoring the monarch's desire for unwavering authority.

Similarly, Queen Victoria, centuries later, utilized painting to obscure her age, albeit with a growing disdain for idealized portrayals as photography gained prominence.

Blyth suggests a common thread of vanity among monarchs, jesting, "Who would wish to be immortalized exactly as they are?" Yet, beyond vanity, leaders grappled with the imperative of projecting political stability. Elizabeth I's reign marked a precarious juncture, characterized by upheavals and threats to stability, prompting her to meticulously curate her image to quell suspicions of frailty.

Dr. Caroline Rae, an associate lecturer in History of Art at University College London, underscores the correlation between mortality and political instability in Elizabeth's era. Amidst looming threats, Elizabeth navigated a precarious balance, cognizant of the tenuousness of her position.

Churchill's own political trajectory epitomized volatility. While his leadership during World War II earned him acclaim, his subsequent political fortunes fluctuated. Despite a brief return to power in 1951, Churchill's tenure was marked by fragility, culminating in his resignation in 1955, shortly after the infamous birthday portrait debacle, citing health concerns.

The context of the era, marked by events like the Suez crisis and Stalin's death in 1953, added layers of complexity," noted Zlattinger. "Churchill's health and political stature during this period amplified his meticulous approach to the creation and reception of his portrait," added Bryn Sayles, Head of Sale, Modern & Post-War British Art at Sotheby's.

Churchill's propensity for micromanaging his image extended beyond the infamous portrait, reflecting a long-standing pattern. Even in earlier commissions, Churchill exhibited a fastidiousness about his portrayal, demanding adjustments to sculptural depictions to conform to his desired image. This attention to detail underscores Churchill's acute awareness of the significance of his public persona as a politician.

The practice of image manipulation wasn't confined to politicians; even the British royal family engaged in the alteration of historic photographs. Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, famously requested revisions to her 50th birthday portrait to reduce retouching, indicative of her discomfort with excessive alteration.

In contrast, Churchill's response to perceived imperfections in his portrait, immortalized in "The Crown," stands as a testament to his uncompromising stance on his portrayal. Ironically, the resurgence of interest in Churchill, spurred by portrayals in "The Crown" and "Darkest Hour," has sparked a newfound enthusiasm among collectors for his portraits. This renewed attention, while contrary to Churchill's wishes, underscores the enduring legacy of one of Britain's most iconic leaders.

While Churchill himself might not have welcomed the resurgence of interest in his reviled portrait, the fervor among buyers for the study affirms that his legacy remains vibrant and enduring in the annals of British history.

The context of the era, marked by events like the Suez crisis and Stalin's death in 1953, added layers of complexity," noted Zlattinger. "Churchill's health and political stature during this period amplified his meticulous approach to the creation and reception of his portrait," added Bryn Sayles, Head of Sale, Modern & Post-War British Art at Sotheby's.

Churchill's propensity for micromanaging his image extended beyond the infamous portrait, reflecting a long-standing pattern. Even in earlier commissions, Churchill exhibited a fastidiousness about his portrayal, demanding adjustments to sculptural depictions to conform to his desired image. This attention to detail underscores Churchill's acute awareness of the significance of his public persona as a politician.

The practice of image manipulation wasn't confined to politicians; even the British royal family engaged in the alteration of historic photographs. Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, famously requested revisions to her 50th birthday portrait to reduce retouching, indicative of her discomfort with excessive alteration.

In contrast, Churchill's response to perceived imperfections in his portrait, immortalized in "The Crown," stands as a testament to his uncompromising stance on his portrayal. Ironically, the resurgence of interest in Churchill, spurred by portrayals in "The Crown" and "Darkest Hour," has sparked a newfound enthusiasm among collectors for his portraits. This renewed attention, while contrary to Churchill's wishes, underscores the enduring legacy of one of Britain's most iconic leaders.

While Churchill himself might not have welcomed the resurgence of interest in his reviled portrait, the fervor among buyers for the study affirms that his legacy remains vibrant and enduring in the annals of British history.

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