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Zoomable Image of Head study of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1943-5

Head study of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1943-5

Clare Sheridan (1885-1970)

Head study of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1943-5

Clare Sheridan (1885-1970)

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Price:

Price on request

Materials:

Plaster

Dimensions:

6 in. (15.2 cm) high

Provenance:

Gifted to the mother of the previous owner by Clare Sheridan

Inscriptions:

Inscribed on the reverse in later hand: ‘CHURCHILL/CLAIRE SHERIDAN/1945’

Technical Expertise:

We are grateful to Dr Jonathan Black, curator of a forthcoming exhibition on Clare Sheridan, for his assistance when preparing this catalogue note.

In spite of her pacifism, Sheridan spent the majority of the Second World War with Churchill and his wife, Clementine. Here she executed a series of penetrating likenesses of the wartime Prime Minister, sometimes in the bunkers of Downing Street themselves, where she recalled his appearance in the half-gloom as a ‘Hogarthian figure with cigar and spectacles’.

This head study of Winston Churchill was sculpted by his cousin Clare Sheridan during the Second World War, and as such is a rare glimpse of Britain’s ‘greatest statesman’ during the most challenging period of his life and career...

The head was started in 1943 and is mentioned in a letter sent from Sheridan to Churchill dated 3rd May:

Tell Clemmy I’m just finishing a small head of you for her, no larger than my first as I know she dislikes big things – they are rather unmanageable!’

The ‘first’ work Sheridan refers to is her portrait bust of Churchill taken from life-sittings the year before in 1942 and cast in bronze in 1943 in an edition of at least 6. The sittings were undertaken in two separate morning sessions at 10 Downing Street in late November and December 1942 whilst Churchill was sat working in bed.[1] Although working under difficult circumstances – Churchill would often disappear behind newspapers or distract himself by teasing his pet cat with his feet beneath the sheets – Sheridan nevertheless made a likeness which pleased Churchill. His only comment was regarding the mouth which he considered unresolved. Sheridan, however, was quick to point out that she had left this until last due to the cigar which was constantly rolling around his lips and obscuring her view.[2]

By the time the present head was sculpted in May 1943 Churchill had regained favour and the war was turning in favour of the Allied forces. In July 1942 Churchill had survived a vote of confidence and in November the British and Commonwealth allies had been victorious at the Battle of El Alamein, defeating the previously successful German and North African offensive under Erwin Rommel and bringing about the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Western Desert Campaign. In January 1943 Churchill and President Roosevelt met and agreed that only an unconditional surrender would be an acceptable conclusion to the war and two months later Allied forces invaded and took Sicily, precipitating the Italian Campaign later in September.

Sheridan evidently decided not to give the present work to Clemmy after all and instead kept it for herself. We know that Sheridan was a canny businesswoman and was very aware of the value of Churchill’s likenesses and it may be the case that she decided to retain the head for reference when making bronze casts or other reproductions later on. It remained in Sheridan’s possession for many years before it was given to a close friend who was the mother of the previous owner.

Clare Sheridan

Churchill was initially dismissive of Sheridan’s desire as an emancipated woman to find artistic freedom although they would eventually lay claim to a sense of artistic kinship. They had both taken to artistry – Churchill in oils and Sheridan in sculpture – as a means of escaping from personal crisis. The former to recover from the ignominy of having planned the disastrous Gallipoli landing, the latter to create a funeral monument for her first daughter, Elizabeth, who died during her infancy. A further need for artistic therapy came in 1915 with the death during the First World War of her husband, Wilfred – said at the time of their marriage to have been the best-looking man in England. When his body was found, its pocket contained a note to her that read, ‘I can leave you nothing, darling, except the memory of years, and you know what our life together has been. Surely if perfection is attained we have attained it’.

Distraught, Sheridan took both to art and to travel. In 1920, the sculptor fled to Moscow via Stockholm to see the Socialist experiment at first hand (to the considerable humiliation of Churchill, then the Secretary of State for War). When there, she quickly secured introductions to the highest echelons of the Soviet administration, executing busts of – among others –both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Enthralled by the single-minded, firebrand idealism of Trotsky, Sheridan embarked on an affair – one of many – with this, the antithesis of the British aristocrat in whom she was socially expected to find a match.

The scandalised upper-crust of English society indeed cast her out upon her return in 1921. A pariah, few, including the communist-loathing Churchill, continued to associate with her. No shrinking violet, Sheridan was little inclined to hush up her dalliance. Instead, prompted by literary ambitions that had been stoked in her youth by such figures as Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, she decided to move to the United States, where she could write up her Russian experiences in a book sensationally titled From Mayfair to Moscow. On her way, she used her vivaciousness and charm to secure an interview with Benito Mussolini, who expounded to her of his loathing of the lower classes. In America, her notoriety provided no stumbling-block in high society, where she swam with the biggest stars of the day, including Charlie Chaplin. So inseparable were the two that their engagement was mistakenly and inaccurately announced in the New York press.

By the mid-1920s, her reputation as a sculptor had begun to eclipse her one-time dalliance with the Soviets, and she was re-integrated into British society. Using her aristocratic connections, she began to acquire prime commissions, including of the Former-Prime Minister, Lord Asquith. Although continuing to write, her growing artistic success caused her to focus on her occupation as a sculptor of portrait busts. Yet, possessed of a wanderlust that could not be suppressed, this simply led the artist to complete still more daring feats of travel. In 1925, she moved as far afield as Algeria, purchasing a house on the outskirts of the inhospitable Sahara Desert that was to become the subject of one of her subsequent works of prose.

But tragedy continued to stalk Sheridan’s life. In 1937, her son, Richard, died at the tender age of twenty-one. As before, grief moved the sculptor to ever greater flights of creativity, and in the years that followed her art took on an exciting new lease of life. She moved to an artist’s colony in North America, where took up wood carving. The result was a series of totemic sculptures, which sought to channel the mystical spirit of the landscape in the fashion of the local Native American peoples. When she returned to London in 1938, the striking new work was well received, including the powerful Madonna and Child that served as the memorial to her son.

In spite of her pacifism, Sheridan spent the majority of the Second World War with Churchill and his wife, Clementine. Here she executed a series of penetrating likenesses of the wartime Prime Minister, sometimes in the bunkers of Downing Street themselves, where she recalled his appearance in the half-gloom as a ‘Hogarthian figure with cigar and spectacles’.

This was not enough to grant Sheridan academic recognition. A woman artist who operated outside the academy, Sheridan had difficulty getting her works exhibited at the Royal Academy. Even a bust of Churchill himself was not enough to gain entry to the Academy’s stuffy and exclusive summer exhibitions, with the sculptor complaining bitterly to her sitter that: ‘it seems to me that they should dare to throw out a head of you, the head of the nation’.

Nevertheless, few twentieth-century artists can lay claim to having made likenesses of the epoch’s greatest historical protagonists. Having depicted Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi and Churchill in bronze, Sheridan could at the end of her life reflect on her singular achievement in the peace that she found in Ireland, where she moved following the cessation of hostilities.


[1] Black, J. (2017), Winston Churchill in British Art: 1900 to the Present Day, The Titan with Many Faces. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. P. 115

[2] Black, J. (2017), Winston Churchill in British Art: 1900 to the Present Day, The Titan with Many Faces. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. P. 115

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