Graham Sutherland was born in Streatham, London in 1903. After leaving school, under the instruction of his parents, Sutherland began an engineering apprenticeship at the Midland Railway Works in Derby. In 1921 he finally persuaded his father that he was not destined for a career in engineering and he began to study engraving at Goldsmith’s School of Art.
Sutherland’s early prints show a great influence of Frederick Landseer Griggs and Samuel Palmer, both prolific British etchers and printmakers. Sutherland’s first one-man exhibition was in 1925, the same year that he was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. In 1926 he converted to Roman Catholicism. He taught at the Chelsea School of Art from 1928 to 1939.
Following the collapse of the print market due to the Great Depression in 1929, Sutherland began to design posters, china, glass and fabrics, and took up painting. His early watercolour and oil paintings are predominantly landscapes. Sutherland’s skill as an etcher is evident in the linearity of these early landscapes and in his ability to translate minuscule objects into greater scale.
In 1934 Sutherland and his wife Kathleen first visited the West Country and Pembrokeshire and he was profoundly inspired by its landscape, and returned to the area many times in the subsequent years. Sutherland’s landscapes from the 1930’s show an affinity to the work of Paul Nash, the great British Surrealist painter and War Artist. In 1936 Sutherland exhibited in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.
Sutherland was employed as a War Artist from 1940 to 1945. He was mostly employed to work in Britain during this time and he painted armaments factories and the devastation of shattered masonry and twisted iron in blitzed cities. He also painted mining and quarrying scenes in Wales and Cornwall. Sutherland’s work in the 1940’s was greatly influenced by Pablo Picasso, most notably his more expressionistic paintings such as Guernica.
In 1944 Sutherland received his first religious commission to paint The Crucifixion for St. Mathew’s Church, Northampton. In 1950-1 he painted the Origins of The Land for the festival of Britain, and in 1952 designed the huge tapestry of Christ the Redeemer Enthroned in Glory in the Tetramorph for the new Coventry Cathedral. Sutherland also painted portraits of friends or distinguished public figures, including Somerset Maugham and Sir Winston Churchill (later destroyed by Churchill’s wife Clementine).
Sutherland’s work in the 1950’s and 1960s was based on natural forms, which were often blended into his religious work. His anthropomorphic head-like forms of this period have an organic appearance, but the subjects themselves are entirely invented. Sutherland’s use of colour tended to be sharp and acid, and he applied paint in with a dry brush to create texture.
Sutherland exhibited widely during his career and major retrospective shows have been held at the ICA (1951), the Tate (1982), The Musee Picasso, Antibes (1998) and the Dulwich Picture Gallery (2005). His work is held in many collections, including Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery.