Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait Bust of Sir Winston Churchill KG 1942 1942

William Reid Dick 

Portrait Bust of Sir Winston Churchill KG 1942, William Reid Dick
Oil on canvas
20th Century
12 ½ inches, 31.75cm high excluding base
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It is perhaps unsurprising that there are so many portraits of a man who, when asked by his grandson if he was the greatest in the world, replied, “Yes… now bugger off.” This example, however, must rank among the very few portraits that can claim to have captured Churchill’s character and likeness so faithfully during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’.

Sir William Reid Dick was the only professional sculptor to be granted sittings with Churchill during the war. The commission was ordered by the Royal Academy, and the finished bust was to be presented to Churchill himself. Initially, Churchill was, understandably, reluctant to pose for a portrait, but the intercession of the King – whose Sculptor-in-Ordinary for Scotland Reid Dick was – persuaded him to accept. Furthermore, arrangements for sittings were complicated by another sculptor, Clare Sheridan, who in the early summer of 1942 wrote a series of a wild letters to the Prime Minister demanding that he sit for her too. She threatened to commit suicide on the steps of 10 Downing Street if Reid Dick was granted access, but not her. The ensuing row drew in Brendan Bracken, the Minister for Information, who advised against a plan to give joint sittings, warning that you [Churchill] would be required to act as arbiter between them. This was certainly an odd argument in which to involve any Prime Minister, not least a war leader who was facing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons; Britain had suffered a series of heavy losses in Malaya, Singapore and North Africa, and the success at El Alamein – Churchill’s “end of the beginning” – was still some months away.

Nevertheless, Reid Dick was given priority, and sittings went ahead in September 1942 in Downing Street. Our best record of the sittings comes from the artist Alfred Egerton Cooper, who, keen to paint Churchill, had persuaded Reid Dick to take him as an ‘assistant’. As Reid Dick began to take preparatory measurements Cooper sketched Churchill''s profile in chalk and pastel [formerly with Historical Portraits], calling it “Profile For Victory. Then, taking a calculated risk, he showed it to the Premier, and asked if he might paint the PM''s portrait in that pose. Churchill protested at being caught unawares and under false pretenses, but soon calmed down and consented to sit for Cooper. The resulting portrait, considered by Cooper to be his finest work, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1943 and later published as a morale-boosting poster for the general public.

Reid Dick completed his sittings by the end of October 1942. This working plaster would have been cast from the finished clay model before casting into bronze. Reid Dick produced a number of bronzes of varying sizes, some of which were numbered as part of a series of 9. Another version [whereabouts unknown] would appear to show a more refined (or flattering) Churchill, without the craggy physiognomy and determined characterisation that it is so evident here.

In this example, Reid Dick has successfully captured the qualities of a statesman, not least with Churchill’s visionary gaze, courage, and resolution. Its success is partly due to the soft tangibility of plaster. Though bronze is undoubtedly the medium most suitable to public sculpture, bronze busts tend to accord a degree of monumentality to sitters at the expense of natural realism. In addition, many Churchill busts have, through countless reproductions, lost both detail and rarity, and in some cases have become clichés of the man himself. This intensely animated example, therefore, is perhaps the most life-like three-dimensional representation of Churchill during the war. A smaller plaster maquette was given by the sculptor to his neighbour during the war, Landreth Harrision of the US State Department is similarly characterful [Bonhams London March 2004] but lacks presence for not being life-size.

Great portraiture should not merely reproduce a likeness, but replace it, so that with one look we know of the sitter only what chapters of biography could otherwise tell us. Here, the man who stood unflinchingly in the face of Britain’s greatest challenge is vividly portrayed not as a hero, or a cigar-chomping ‘bulldog’, but as a sombre, determined and inspiring leader on whose genius a nation depended.
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