Portrait of a prime minister: The Crown's view of Churchill
Netflix's monarch memoir also paints a unique view of the influential Winston Churchill
As the camera zooms in on actor John Lithgow's face in episode nine of Netflix's new series The Crown, viewers are confronted with two sides of a man. The person Churchill believes himself to be, and the person others see. In the series, Lithgow excellently portrays Winston Churchill, who, at this moment, is about to be presented with a portrait commissioned for his 80th birthday.
Standing at the front of Westminster Hall, surrounded by members of Parliament and television cameras, Churchill jokes with the crowd before the velvet curtains part to reveal his portrait. His smile tightens to a scowl as his eyes narrow.
"You see Churchill's vanity," said Lithgow in an e-mail.
"You see he hurts in old age. You see his inability to face growing old."
In both reality and the series, Clementine, Churchill's wife, has the painting burned, sparing her husband further embarrassment. Though the painting doesn't survive, the artist, Graham Sutherland, created 19 studies of charcoal sketches and smaller oil works before producing the main piece, and those pieces are still with us, closer even than Westminister Hall – hanging on the walls of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, in Fredericton, N.B.
Lord Beaverbrook was a patron of the arts, and an avid collector in New Brunswick. In 1910, Beaverbrook moved to London, and later became minister of aircraft production under Churchill. It was he who suggested the modernist Sutherland for the commission. Beaverbrook had sat for a portrait from Sutherland two years earlier, and similarly despised the work, though he said it was a "masterpiece."
"Sutherland … didn't just do one drawing or two drawings or three drawings. He did countless drawings. And often would zoom in on an eyebrow, or the nose itself or the lips," explained Terry Graff, curator of the Beaverbrook. "[Sutherland] didn't idealize his subjects."
Researchers spent two years compiling possible stories for the show. They ultimately focused on the portrait because it passed without much fanfare.
"It's an historical moment that only people who are true history nerds know about. And yet it reveals more than anything," Lithgow said. A member of the show's research team agreed. "While some would argue that coming face-to-face with his portrait only motivated Churchill to hold on to power for longer, we believed it provided our narrative with a significant moment of honest reflection that allowed him to come to grips with his age and standing in political life."
Now the studies are all that remain of this historical moment. They are part of the Beaverbrook's Master Works collection, and will hang in the gallery's new pavilion, set to open in the summer of 2017. Until then, there's always another Netflix binge.