‘Malignant’: Winston Churchill’s Most Hated Portraiture Is Headed to Auction

Churchill was irritated by a birthday gift in 1954, believing the painting made him look “half-witted.”
The prime minister was no fan of his portrait.
The prime minister was no fan of his portrait. / Tristan Fewings/GettyImages

UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led England through the worst of World War II, was so offended by a portrait painting that he nearly skipped its public unveiling in 1954. Unfortunately for Churchill, a version of it lives on—and is now on public display before it likely goes into private hands in a June auction.

The painting, which is currently being exhibited at Blenheim Palace—Churchill’s birthplace and ancestral home—was commissioned by the Houses of Parliament in 1954 to mark Churchill’s 80th birthday. Parliament hired highly regarded painter Graham Sutherland to capture Churchill’s stately appearance, The Guardian reports.

The end result did not meet with Churchill’s approval. Finding fault with his likeness and the overall composition, he declared it “filthy” and “malignant.” He also bemoaned that it “makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t,” as well as a “down and out drunk” and suggested that it might have been unflattering on purpose at the behest of political rivals.

The official unveiling of the work was broadcast on live television, which may have further irritated Churchill. Having seen a photograph of it prior to its debut, he knew he would hate it and nearly skipped the ceremony. Instead, he brought it to his home, where a personal secretary and her brother later set it on fire in an effort to curb requests to have it put on public view.

Graham Sutherland is pictured
Graham Sutherland labors on his Churchill portrait. / Evening Standard/GettyImages

So how can it be in Blenheim Palace, the 187-room “country house” where Churchill was born? Sutherland first did studies, or drafts, of the Churchill portrait before the final composition. It is one such preliminary work that survived and is now able to be viewed. Unlike the official portrait, this one features Churchill in profile. It’s not clear whether Churchill ever saw this iteration, or whether he would have approved of it.

Churchill might have had more reason to blanch at Sutherland’s work than mere ego: The prime minister was himself a painter. He took up art at age 40 and was said to travel with art supplies in the event he was struck by inspiration. By the time of his death in 1965, Churchill had completed roughly 550 works. His last, The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell, was completed in 1962. He sometimes gifted his works to family, friends, and associates. Goldfish was given to his bodyguard, Sergeant Edmund Murray.

The painting will move from England to New York to London throughout May. Afterward, Sotheby’s will be selling the painting at auction on June 6, where it’s expected to fetch somewhere between $622,000 and $995,000.

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