Andrew Lambirth

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Andrew Lambirth on a long-awaited exhibition of the work of Graham Sutherland

As a landscape painter, Graham Sutherland (1903–80) enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame through the 1930s and 40s, culminating in the Venice Biennale in 1952, a prestigious Tate retrospective in 1953 and the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest award, in 1960. His later years saw success as a portrait-painter to the rich and famous, and the scandalously destroyed portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. Yet there hasn’t been a decent Sutherland exhibition in Britain for more than 20 years, since, in fact, the rather-too-inclusive Tate retrospective of 1982. In the meantime his stock, once dangerously inflated by certain over-eager supporters, has sunk dramatically. This happens to many artists, who go through a quiet period before finding their proper level once the process of critical reassessment has taken hold. Interestingly, it seems not to have occurred to the fortunes of either Picasso or Sutherland’s contemporary Francis Bacon. The period in the wilderness for Sutherland has been surprisingly lengthy.

Many people who have been quietly wondering what happened to him will welcome Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits (1924–50), until 25 September. He was a remarkable painter, a Romantic who managed to imbue his work with the anxieties of a world at war, and to celebrate the British landscape for an embattled country looking to its island strengths. His moods are often dark, but these landscapes were painted in dark, tormented days. The postwar work, when his focus had shifted from Pembrokeshire to the South of France, has a brittle, neurotic quality which captures the same spirit as the ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptors like Lynn Chadwick and Reg Butler. His principal skills are linear and colouristic — the bounding, twisted contour lines of hill or root, the blood-stained palette, with the gush of purple-reds and dark orange which Bacon took over and exploited to such good effect.

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