Portrait drama

different strokes

Portrait drama

“Maugham, the subject of more than fifty portraits, was probably painted, drawn and sculpted more than any other writer in history,” observed Jeffrey Meyers in his biography on the famous short-story writer, novelist and playwright (Somerset Maugham: A Life/2004).

Maugham (1874-1965) modelled for several painters and sculptors in his lifetime and believed that portraits were “to some extent a collaboration between the painter and his sitter; the sitter must give something; there must be something in him which excites the painter’s sensibility.”

One of the most spoken-about portraits of Maugham was painted by Graham Sutherland (1903-80) in 1949. Already well known for his imaginative landscapes, still lifes and war pictures, the 46-year-old Sutherland had not ventured into portraiture till then. The first sitting on 17 February, 1949 was followed by nine others of one hour each day. Sutherland made pencil sketches during the sessions, and carried them to his studio to study.

The final picture — approximately 54x25 inch oil on canvas — presented Maugham wearing a red scarf, chocolate-coloured socks and a smoking jacket, seated on a low bamboo stool with crossed arms and legs. The expression on his face, highlighted by pouched eyes and deeply grooved cheeks, was honest but unflattering.

Initially taken aback, Maugham came around to accept Sutherland’s penetrating portrait. “The first time I saw it I was shocked,” he confessed in an interview in 1951. “I was really stunned. Could this face really be mine? And then I began to realise that here was far more of me than I ever saw myself. There is no doubt that Graham has painted me with an expression I sometimes have, even without being aware of it.”

When it came to paying the artist, he was not as generous. Sutherland suggested a fee of 500 pounds, but all he got was 300. Maugham’s secretary explained that “as it was in cash (and not taxable), it really represented 500 pounds, and anyway, Mr Maugham couldn’t afford more.” Sutherland was not pleased.

Maugham’s portrait went on to receive critical examination. British art historian Kenneth Clarke called it as “undoubtedly the greatest painting of the 20th century.” There were many who disagreed; for them the painting was not only limited in scope, but also aesthetically unpleasant and untrue to life. Jeffrey Meyers observed: “His disdainful yet defiant expression suggests a lifetime of intense but disillusioned scrutiny.” Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (who had painted Maugham earlier) was scathing in his remarks; he quipped that in the painting the ageing author had looked “like the madam of a brothel in Shanghai.”


A twist to the painting’s tale was added when Maugham got the portrait removed from his villa, as he found “it a terribly difficult picture to hang... It is a museum picture rather than a picture for a private house.”

Several years later, in his 1959 essay On Having My Portrait Painted, he asserted: “I think it is no exaggeration when I say that this portrait made Graham Sutherland’s fortune. Since then he has painted several excellent portraits, but I do not know that he has ever painted a better one than mine.”

By all accounts, Maugham, the prolific author of more than 75 published books, was among the most commercially successful writers of his time. Most of his novels including Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930) and The Razor’s Edge (1944) had global readership and were immensely popular. He was vastly wealthy, owned a yacht and an expensive villa. His personal collection of art included paintings by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Henri Matisse, among others.

Besides penetrating insights and a keen thirst for new experiences, Maugham’s life was exemplified by his wide travels across continents and many affairs he had with both sexes. While his unorthodox choices and lifestyle brought him infamy and made him the butt of many distasteful jokes, he remained an enigma and a broken man in his later years.

By the way, the prolific author had a keen interest in Indian mysticism. He reportedly confessed in his later years that “his one wish was to go back to India and write a final book on Shankara before retiring to a monastery.”

Churchill’s agony

On the other side, Sutherland, whose early influences were William Blake, Paul Nash and Henry Moore, developed a distinctive, personal visual language; and went on to become the most-talked-about British portrait painter of the 1950s. As a key post-war portraitist, his piercing images captured the true personality of his sitters. Though his style of rendering was authentic, it was not always pleasing and acceptable. A natural charmer and handsome man, he had several retrospective exhibitions throughout Europe and in the US; and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1960.

Five years after Maugham’s picture was painted, Sutherland’s portrait of a scowling Winston Churchill produced its own drama. The painting was commissioned by members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to mark Churchill’s 80th birthday in 1954. The final image was disarmingly honest and showed Churchill as a frail, half-witted and physically exhausted old man; not to be seen was the powerful, heroic and warrior statesman who had defied the Nazis.

After it was presented to them at a great gathering in Westminster Hall, the Churchills consigned it to the dark corners of the cellar of their house. Both of them hated the painting, with the wily politician calling it “filthy and malignant.” Later, Lady Churchill gave vent to her anger and even got it burnt! Sutherland described the disposal of the painting as an “act of vandalism.”

Churchill, who was himself an enthusiastic amateur painter, held strong views on modern art. “If I saw Picasso walking down the street ahead of us, do you know what I would do?” he is supposed to have asked one of his friends. “I’d kick him up the arse!”

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