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), Thorn Tree, 1978


Signed with initials and dated
23½ x 15½ in (60 x 39 cm)

Collections: Private Collection, Milan

The thorn tree is one of the most important and re-visited themes in Sutherland’s art. It had been the spiky shapes of thorn bushes, evoking the cruelty of the Crown of Thorns, which inspired him at the end of the War, when he began thinking about religious subjects such as the Crucifixion and Christ carrying the Cross.
This work is one of his later variants of the motif, although the freshness and power of the drawing show no diminution in the artist’s passion for the subject. As with the present drawing, Sutherland’s metamorphic shapes are imbued with a menacing tension and strength, often evolving into cross-like structures and set against contrastingly bright backgrounds. A similar, smaller drawing formerly in the collection of the artist’s wife is illustrated in Francesco Arcangeli Graham Sutherland 1973 fig.193.

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