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Mystery of missing Churchill portrait

PUBLISHED: 17:05 27 January 2010 | UPDATED: 10:30 12 August 2010

RETREAT: Chartwell House was adored by Churchill and opens to the public in March.

RETREAT: Chartwell House was adored by Churchill and opens to the public in March.

MYSTERY still surrounds the whereabouts of an infamous portrait of Winston Churchill 45 years after his state funeral. It was probably the most expensive piece of firewood ever burnt, or so it would seem - a portrait of the wartime Prime Minister - an 80

MOURNED: Churchill’s funeral in 1965.

MYSTERY still surrounds the whereabouts of an infamous portrait of Winston Churchill 45 years after his state funeral.

It was probably the most expensive piece of firewood ever burnt, or so it would seem - a portrait of the wartime Prime Minister - an 80th birthday gift to honour his dedication to the country.

Churchill sat for the infamous portrait at his home in Chartwell, near Westerham.

Paid for by MPs and Lords in 1954 and painted by the esteemed artist, Graham Sutherland, it would be worth a small fortune if it came to auction.

But legend has it the painting was handed to his gardener with instructions for it to be burnt on the lawn.

Sutherland did many preparatory works of the legendary former Prime Minister between August and November of 1954, the most famous of which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

In some he wore Robes of the Garter, which may have sowed the seeds for a level of expectation by Churchill and his wife, Lady Clementine, for the final masterpiece.

Instead, at the insistence of the painting's commissioners, MPs wanted him to be depicted wearing his Commons' attire.

Another complication was his inability to sit in one position without his features drooping, possibly due to a stroke he suffered in 1951. Sutherland aided the situation by using photographs taken by Elsbeth Juda.

Accepting the final masterpiece in the Commons in November 1954, the great man described his gift as "a remarkable example of modern art."

But Lady Clementine later said it cast her husband as a "gross monster," forbidding the picture ever to see the light of day, allegedly ordering the gardener to burn it.

Observers have said it depicted a Churchill "bewildered and devoid of humour."

The portrait vanished from Chartwell shortly after it was presented, but the theory of how it vanished only came to pass after Lady Clementine's death in 1977.

Kent historian, Bob Ogley, investigated the mysterious disappearance in 2003.

Gardener Ted Miles, a faithful servant of many years standing who lived in Puddledock Cottages, Toys Hill, is believed to carried out the act of vandalism under orders on a work valued at over £1 million in December 1954.

Mr Ogley said: "I always had this belief that nobody would have destroyed a painting by Sutherland of Winston Churchill, no matter how simple they were.

"I thought, he must have hid it in a shed. Nobody ever saw it burnt, it's one of those mysteries.

"If I was the gardener I would have put it away for a rainy day."

Another theory is that the painting was burnt in the boiler at Churchill's Hyde Park Gardens residence.

Regardless of the portrait's true fate, Churchill loved his Kent retreat at Chartwell, bought in 1922.

Mr Ogley said: "He absolutely adored the house and gardens. He also liked the town of Westerham, they made him president of their branch of the British Legion, opening their fete in 1938. They have a signed picture of Churchill hanging in the Legion.

"He did his shopping in Westerham and used to go to the newsagents.

"People knew when he was in town because he used to order every daily newspaper, including the Daily Worker, then official newspaper of the British Communist Party.

"He always attended the crowning of the annual Gala Queen whenever he could. The day involved a procession with floats.

"After VE Day he was given a tremendous welcome, the green was packed."

In 1965, despite the crisp January weather, over 320,000 members of the public queued to file past Churchill's coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall from January 27 for three days.

After the funeral service at St Paul's, Churchill's coffin was taken to Tower Pier and loaded onto a Port of London authority launch to cruise along the River Thames to Festival Pier and then onto Waterloo station.

As the launch left Tower Pier, the Royal Air Force gave their final salute to the once wartime leader with a flypast, only to be equalled by London's dockers lowering their cranes one by one as the launch sailed past.

He was buried alongside his mother and father at the family estate near Blenheim Palace.

n Chartwell House opens to the public on March 13. The gardens are open all year round. For information contact the National Trust on 01732 866368.

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