© The Artist's Estate


Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980)


127 X 101.5 CM
Accession number


A Neo-Romantic inspired by the pastoral subjects of Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland’s haunting paintings express a revul¬sion at the machine age and the oppressive forces of industriali¬sation, by tackling the rugged, difficult beauty of the countryside. For much of the 1930s he would attempt to convey the intellectual and emo¬tional essence of the Pembrokeshire landscape by means of dramatic shifts in light, unnaturalistic colouring and animal skulls. It is a bleak, primordial world in which man and nature are at odds with one another.

Sutherland had originally intended to study as a railway engi¬neer, and perhaps it was his aborted education in this field that led him to look with such a distempered eye on the march of progress. His real development as a painter dates from 1935, when he visited Pembrokeshire in the Welsh border country, and began a series of paintings based on landscape and natural forms. In ‘moments of vision’, he felt that things were taking on a life of their own, and undergoing a metamorphosis from a static, fixed shape, to an undefined, indetermi¬nate form. In his own words, he was fascinated by ‘the whole problem of the tensions produced by the power of growth’. In 1940, he was employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee, established by the art historian Kenneth Clark. The aim was to record Britain at war, from bomb damage in the East End of London to tin mining in Cornwall and steel works in Cardiff. Discouraged from painting dead bodies, Sutherland would paint the skeletal remains of burnt-out buildings as a metaphor for human damage. Thorn Trees was made at the end of the war and Sutherland has chosen a palette of intense, cold colours to reinforce the impression of a cruel and unapprehending world. It is one of the of the final paintings he executed before fleeing the sulphur¬ous realities of post-war Britain for the sunny environs of the South of France. The work was made after Canon Walter Hussey commis¬sioned the artist to paint an altarpiece for his church in Northampton. Sutherland chose to paint the Crucifixion, and Thorn Treeswas one of a number of paintings made shortly afterwards that focused on the crown of thorns pressed onto Christ’s head by the soldiers. The picture trans¬forms the trees into deadly weapons; the thorns become daggers and their razor-sharp edges glint like steel. Like a phoenix from the fire, this vicious aberration grows out of the barren soil, the mutant response to an evil world.