Graham Sutherland, OM (1903-1980)

Sutherland was an English artist, notable for his work in glass, fabrics, prints and portraiture. His work was much inspired by landscape and religion, and he designed the tapestry for the re-built Coventry Cathedral.

Prints of romantic landscapes dominated Sutherland’s work during the 1920’s. He developed his art by working in watercolours before moving on to using oils in the 1940’s. It is these oils, often of surreal, organic landscapes of the Welsh coast, that secured his reputation as a leading modern artist in Britian. He taught at a number of art colleges including Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmiths College, where he had been a student.

Between 1940-45, Sutherland was employed as official war artist. He recorded bomb damage in rural and urban Wales towards the end of 1940 and then bomb damage caused by the Blitz in the City and East End of London. Sutherland returned to Wales in 1941 to work on a series of paintings of blast furnaces. From June 1942 he painted further industrial scenes, first at tin mines in Cornwall, then at a limestone quarry in Derbyshire and then at open-cast and underground coal mines in South Wales. In 1944 Sutherland spent 4 months at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich Arsenal working on a series of five paintings for WAAC. In December 1944 he was sent to depict the damage inflicted by the RAF on railway yards at Trappes and at flying bomb sites at Saint-Leu-d’Esserent in France.

He was commissioned to design an enormous tapestry in the new Coventry Cathedral. He also  completed a number of controversial portraits. Sir Winston Churchill famously hated Sutherland’s depiction of him and publicly humiliated him when the painting was unveiled. In 1955 Sutherland and his wife bought a house in Nice and living abroad led to a slight decline in his status in Britain. However, following a trip to Pembrokshire in 1967, his creativity was renewed and that went some way to restoring his reputation as a leading British artist.


Graham Sutherland, OM (1903-1980), Le Serpent, 1978


19 x 29 in (48.25 x 73.5 cm)
Signed with initials

Collections: Pier Paolo and Marzia Ruggerini, Milan.

Exhibited: Trento, Museo Provinciale Graham Sutherland 1981 (78); Galleria Contini, Rome and Venice Graham Sutherland 1995 (49).

This is a study in gouache done in the summer of 1978 for Sutherland’s last major project, the series of eighteen aquatints inspired by Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire ou Cortѐge d’ Orphée, which were shown at the Marlborough Gallery in November 1979.

This was the third set of prints which Sutherland made on the theme of Bestiaries. His interest goes back to the preparatory sketches he made in connection with the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral between 1952-62, in which the Evangelists are represented as beasts.

The overtly sexual nature of The Serpent is emphasised in the finished print by the addition of three women imprisoned in a hut. These are the three celebrated victims of a snake referred to in the accompanying text from Apollinaire:

Tu t’acharnes sur la beauté.
Et quelles femmes ont été
Victimes de la cruauté !
Ѐve, Eurydice, Cléopâtre;
J’en connais encor trois ou quatre.

This gouache was part of the group bought by Pier Paolo and Marzia Ruggerini at the time of the exhibition of Sutherland’s war-time drawings organised by the British Council in Milan in 1979. The Ruggerinis first met Sutherland in 1965. Pier Paolo was a celebrated Italian film maker and in 1967 his documentary on the artist led Sutherland to return to Wales to paint there for the first time in twenty years. The Ruggerinis became great friends and collectors of Sutherland. Their house, Il Castello in Pavia near Milan, had a famous collection of the artist’s work.

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