Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill KG (1874-1965) 

Bernard Hailstone 

Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill KG (1874-1965), Bernard Hailstone
Oil and Canvas
20th Century
17 7/8 x 14 in. (45.5 x 35.5 cm)
London, The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, 1960.
This important portrait is a rare life study of Churchill painted in 1955. It shows him at the age of eighty-one, during his second term as Prime Minister, and was painted during sittings for his last commissioned portrait. The artist, Bernard Hailstone, had been commissioned to portray Churchill as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, the ancient union of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings. The finished full-length portrait is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, and shows Churchill in full dress uniform and decorations. The present sketch, however, shows Churchill as he sat informally to the artist in his famous siren suit, the outfit he habitually wore during his wartime leadership.

The success of the present portrait in showing Churchill’s character and indefatigable spirit (despite the fact that by then he had suffered three successive strokes) was no small achievement, for the Prime Minister was by no means an easy sitter. Churchill was hard to please, and the Hailstone portrait was in part an attempt to succeed where Graham Sutherland’s earlier portrait of 1954 had so famously failed. When Sutherland’s portrait was unveiled to Parliament in 1954 Churchill made a civil acceptance speech, but privately called it ‘filthy’ and ‘malignant’. His wife Clementine likened the image to a ‘gross and cruel monster’. The painting disappeared, and it was only in 1979 that the national press revealed Clementine had burnt it.

Churchill took matters into his own hands, and stormed into studio of Bernard Hailstone, by then a well-established society portraitist, demanding that he execute an alternative portrait: ‘It was a Friday afternoon’ the artist recalled, ‘and I was up in the attic, arranging it as a studio, when Sir Winston came in. “Graham Sutherland”, he snarled, “made me look like some half dead thing. I’m not, am I?”’(1). Hailstone found Churchill a frustrating sitter, ‘[he] refused to sit for very long at a time and was constantly moving. As a matter of fact he was dictating his “History of The English Speaking Peoples” as I was trying to paint him, and we eventually came to some sort of agreement involving sign language…the hand turned sideways, veering to either right or left, was the indication of where I wanted his head to move”’ (2).

The resulting portrait therefore captured Churchill as he saw himself. Churchill’s concern over his own image is reflected in his famous remark that history would be kind to him ‘because I shall write it.’ And his experience with Sutherland was repeated with the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose first attempt at a bust was struck down with the angry denunciation that it made the sitter look like a ‘shifty warmonger’. The present head study is however remarkably personable. This is Churchill behind the public facade.

As an artist, Hailstone was an apposite choice for Churchill. Hailstone’s whole persona conveyed optimism; his gregariousness was much commented upon by his sitters, who included members of the Royal Family (Princess Anne, Prince Charles, and Queen Elizabeth II - in 1978) as well as cultural heavyweights such as Peter Ustinov and Sir Laurence Olivier. His ability to convey charisma derived from observation of nuanced facial expression, and he often surrounded his still sitter with a body of impressionistic brushwork which lent entire compositions animation. In this case, artist and sitter got along well, and both Churchill and Clementine praised Hailstone’s achievement.

Hailstone’s own career trajectory was an eccentric one. As a member of the Auxiliary Fire Services, he began painting scenes of the Blitz and the Royal Academy featured them in an exhibition. This attracted the attention of Kenneth Clarke, who asked Hailstone to represent the Merchant Navy an Official War Artist. With typically enterprising spirit he requested a posting to the Far East to paint Lord Mountbatten and his Chiefs of Staff. After the war he focussed entirely on portraiture.

This picture was purchased from the artist by a member of Churchill’s family, from whom it has passed by descent. The quirk of its date – a fudged 1957 – needs explanation however. It is reported by the present owner that it was reframed by Hailstone in 1967 and he mistakenly dated it that year. Remembering the true date of 1955, he felt that it was easier to change the 6 than the 7 – accordingly one digit remains erroneous. Two replica versions of this preparatory study are recorded, however they lack the vitality of the original.

1. See profile on the artist, Capital Choice, The London Hotel magazine, pp. 8-11, p. 9.

2. Capital Choice, p. 9.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.