Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait bust of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1954 

Willem Adolf Verbon (1921-2003)

Portrait bust of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1954, Willem Adolf Verbon
20th Century
25 ins. (63.5cm) high; 14 ½ in. (37 cm) protrusion
The artist’s estate, until 2003; Private Collection.
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‘It is magnificent, but you credited me with more character than I think I’ve got’. (Winston Churchill to Willem Verbon in response to viewing the bust at 10 Downing Street, 1954)

This remarkable likeness of the colossus and statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, was created from life in 1954 at the behest of the city of Rotterdam. Sculpted by Willem Verbon, the bronze bust stands there to this day, a compelling reminder of the reverence bestowed upon Churchill in the Allied nations such as the Netherlands. This deeply expressive work in terracotta represents the original maquette for the sculpture, which survived in the artist’s studio until it was sold in 2003 together with the above listed items of Churchill ephemera.

There are remarkably few sculptures of Churchill taken from life, a rather curious fact given his inestimable fame throughout his professional career. His importance for Rotterdam, both in an ambassadorial sense and as a figure of considerable repute, was substantiated with an honorary membership of their town council (granted in 1946) for which this bust was intended. Verbon was held in high regard as a civic sculptor, which ultimately led to his appointment as the artist worthy of completing such a monumental portrait. A work of impeccable provenance, this terracotta represents the first stage of Verbon’s portrayal process in capturing Churchill’s ineffable historical persona. It was a testing time in Churchill’s own life. His indomitable pugnacity and fortitude had been threatened by ill health. In 1953, Churchill had suffered his fifth and most severe stroke while attending a dinner in honour of the Italian Prime Minister, leaving him partially paralysed, a fact not widely known among the British public.

Verbon sought to remain loyal to the truth by portraying his subjects as he put it ‘neither prettier nor uglier’ than the reality. It was an approach that suited the subject: Verbon’s Churchill resonates with both the subject’s greatness and aging humanity, ranking it amongst the most expressive and successful portraits taken of the statesman. He is swathed in the robes and regalia, the same ensemble he wore when ‘he strode, the old soldier behind the young queen’ at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. His uniform of the Admiral of the Cinque Ports is just visible beneath the robes of a Knight of the Most Ancient Order of Garter, with the 'Great George' chain (lent to him by the Victoria & Albert Museum) draped around his neck. According to the artist’s biographer, Verbon imitated Churchill’s gruff voice magnificently recalling the Prime Minister saying ‘I think I belong to a kennel now, but must I say, a very distinguished kennel’ when receiving his honorary medal of membership form the Rotterdam council in 1946.

Churchill’s acclaim for this bust, noted in the correspondence between Downing Street and Verbon during May 1954 when he described it as ‘magnificent’, was in stark contrast to his pronounced distaste for a contemporaneous portrait of him by Graham Sutherland (commissioned by Parliament to celebrate his 80th birthday). His scathing remarks describing the work as ‘filthy’ and ‘malignant’ were published in The Times, culminating with the remark that it ‘made me look like some half dead thing’. Such pronounced distaste for Sutherland’s portrait only serves to magnify the admiration he felt for Verbon and his work. In the letters exchanged between Churchill’s secretary Anthony Montague Browne and the Dutch Embassy, he compliments the artist on ‘the remarkable result’ achieved for which he was ‘indeed obliged for the trouble’ he had taken.

Besides Sutherland’s painting (now destroyed by Churchill’s wife Clementine who also detested it), there remains only a handful of portraits from life produced during this period of Churchill’s career, namely, the work of Oscar Neman (Spirit of the Blitz and Churchill in his Siren Suit, 1950s), Jacob Epstein (bronze bust, 1946) and Clare Sheridan (bronze bust, 1942/3).

Verbon throughout was punctilious about his artistic requirements, using the services of those close to Churchill to assist with the logistics. At his request, he was given special access to the chamber of the House of Commons in order to observe and sketch Churchill first hand. Following a viewing of the bust at Downing Street, Churchill sent Verbon a signed copy of his book ‘Painting as a Pastime’, believing it to be a more meaningful gift for a friend and fellow artist than his customary signed photograph (now included with this bust).

Verbon was born in Rotterdam and attended the trade school and later the local Academy of Arts in pursuit of a career in the arts. Although his first exhibition was exclusively for paintings and drawings (1939), he had already been seduced by the tactile nature of clay, believing the three-dimensionality of sculpture to be a more honest medium. He listed the Dutch royal family among his many prestigious patrons, and after winning a postgraduate scholarship from the British Council moved to London in 1947, setting up a workshop in Sloane Street and Jewry Street. Here, he befriended the sculptors Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein, and found inspiration in the city’s vibrant artistic milieu. He described his years in Bloomsbury as pivotal to his development as an artist, and London’s fashionable elite welcomed him with open arms. He soon listed the Duke of Northumberland and Duchess of Kent amongst many eminent patrons.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Verbon preferred to curate the entire process of commissioning, from the sitting to the ceremonious unveiling. During his time in England, he stayed in Northamptonshire with the Duchess of Buccleuch, Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, enjoying her attentive hospitality. Churchill was known to be an admirer of her and once famously said that when Mollie Buccleuch entered a room it was ‘as though a light had been turned on’. It therefore seems highly likely that this connection may well have influenced Churchill’s consent to allow Verbon access to make his preparatory sketches in parliament.
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