December 8th, 2016
It so happened that his 80th birthday fell on the same day the British Parliament would begin another session of government. To commemorate that momentous coincidence, the United Kingdom’s highest legislative body elected to unite the two observances into a single event on the 30th of November, 1954.
But the centerpiece of the convocation would not be the typical speeches given to inaugurate a new season of policy deliberation. Rather, the occasion would culminate in the unveiling of a portrait, one commissioned by Parliament itself to both honor the service and mark the birthday of its then brilliant but curmudgeonly Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
The task of capturing the essence of Great Britain’s masterfully resilient but cunningly calculating “British Bulldog” fell to Graham Sutherland, an artist who’d worked in multiple media during his career but who’d come to be renowned for his paintings in the art world’s then modernist style. Sir Winston would sit for Sutherland on multiple occasions as the artist composed at first charcoal sketches and later the portrait itself. (A wonderful, but doubtless embellished, re-creation of the relationship that developed between artist and subject can be found in the recently released series, The Crown.)
One might imagine the pressure an artist might feel to portray with courage and clarity such a seminal figure in British history. At the time of the portrait, Churchill’s career as a civil servant was winding down, with many in the government over which he presided (even within his own party) believing he should’ve stepped down years earlier. The years of immeasurably intense effort during WWII and its aftermath; the loss of confidence on the part of the British public that at first turned him out of office, and then subsequently restored him to his post; the various health issues stemming from years of neglect, including multiple strokes (earnestly but in the end unsuccessfully concealed from newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II)–these challenging life experiences had all taken a visible toll on the hallowed statesman.
It was the confluence of two aspirations in the composition of this commemorative piece that makes the creation of this portrait a story worth telling. For in any given portrait there is an attempt not only to revere its subject, but also to allow the keen eye of the potraitist to depict without constraint what he sees.
When Sutherland began submitting sketches to Sir Winston and his wife, Clementine, the Prime Minister’s spouse of almost half a century found the representation essentially true to its subject, albeit to her a bit “cross”.
The Prime Minister himself however was practically scandalized by what he saw. He’d hoped (and expected) to see an adulatory rendering of himself, highlighting his steadiness, his commanding visage, his uncompromising and stalwart air. Instead the preliminary drawings conveyed to him frailty and beleaguerment–a man depleted by time and travail. Churchill in his own words decried the work in progress as “filthy” and “malignant.”
But with the momentous occasion rapidly approaching, and with neither time to retain another portraitist nor interest in offending Parliament’s honorable gesture, the work went forth. On the day of event, with both heads of government and Sutherland himself on the stage together to witness the public unveiling, Sir Winston was able to mute his inward scorn of the finished product by, in his inimitable style, hiding ridicule in an ostensibly affirming comment: “here we have a remarkable example of modern art.”
A man fearing to leave the public stage upon which he had performed so deftly and courageously was now seeing before him, as if cemented in time, a portrayal that to him failed to comprehend all he wished to believe about himself. And yet Sutherland, trying to be as true to his subject as he would be to any landscape or other revered figure, could only compose what he saw: a man in fact who’d lived through so much and had the aged scars to prove it.
In the end, the Kingdom briefly beheld Sutherland’s representation of their soon to be retiring Prime Minister. The original vision for the portrait was to have it displayed in Parliament as a gift to the British people following Churchill’s death. But in the interim the work was transferred to his residence at Chartwell House, where it was never displayed and was instead stored in its cellars.
Only months later, under cover of darkness, the private secretary of Lady Churchill, Grace Chamblin, transported the painting to a remote location. Behind an abandoned house, Chamblin and her brother lit a bonfire upon which they then placed the painting.
The artwork which had set its subject aflame with anger at what truths it told was now ashes, lost to the ages.
Last Sunday we explored how the gift of our union with Christ is that of a new identity. Comprising that identity was new eyes, a new heart, and a new voice–each dimension coming to new life on the basis of having come to grasp who Jesus is to us, and what He has done for us. In seeing Him as He is we are made new people.
But as a corollary to that miracle of becoming both objectively and inwardly new, in seeing Him we at last see ourselves–like we haven’t before, and perhaps like we might not have preferred to either.
For in telling us what He did, and in dying for the reasons He did, we are forced to see just how deep is the sickness within. It is a jarring experience to come to terms with our capacity for selfishness, hatred, indifference, cowardice, and folly, but it is at the same time a gift to be awakened to such. For only when we see our brokenness, and the guilt that accrues in indulging it, do we have the possibility of finding a remedy.
And immediately following that somewhat unpleasant “gift” of self-knowledge is an accompanying gift from God of a promise of love. Both in provision of help us live beyond our brokenness (more on that this Sunday), and in promise of steadfastness even when we find ourselves succumbing to that brokenness. His gift was unwarranted and unmerited, and yet it came to us as an immeasurable kindness in Christ.
Churchill chafed at the public depiction of his frailty. What he’d hoped to conceal or ignore was instead brought fully out into the open. For him weakness acknowledged was terrifying. The political cost of showing weakness made the personal application of it a bridge too far.
But the apostle Paul simply cherishes the sense of his own weakness (2 Cor 12:9). For it was in acknowledging it, not denying it, that God was able to act with strength within it, and in spite of it.
We may either try to conceal what in us is inauspicious, or gnarled, or what we think unpresentable. We may try, so to speak, to turn to ashes what cannot be burned up. Or we may let our frailties, the fact we are but dust, be known–displayed even. Not so much to bring attention to them, but so as to acknowledge what (or rather Who) is strength to us, what most defines us, what consoles us when all else cannot.
As Mr Sutherland sought to do for Sir Winston, so Jesus seeks to do for us: to tell us the truth about ourselves no matter how unnerving that may be. But then Jesus does not let the exposing end there. He shows just how committed he is to us, and dies to prove His point. In seeing the full extent of His love we find we need not fear seeing the full extent of ourselves.
And that is a story worth telling, too.