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National Portrait Gallery presents Winston Churchill at his Darkest Hour

he National Portrait Gallery has been lent a major portrait of Winston Churchill, a rarely seen life-size painting by William Orpen, one of Britain’s most significant portrait painters and war artists. It goes on display at the Gallery from tomorrow, Thursday 1 November 2012.
Painted in 1916, during the darkest moment in the statesman’s career, Churchill regarded it as the finest portrait of himself. Capturing a mood of uncertainty in this introspective portrait, Orpen spoke of the misery expressed in the face. Churchill told the artist, ‘It is not the picture of a man. It is the picture of a man’s soul.’

Winston Churchill by William Orpen, 1916, Lent by the Churchill Chattels Trust; Image © National Portrait Gallery, London

Throwing himself into military strategy in the First World War, Churchill’s level of involvement ran the risk of his being held personally responsible for failure, as turned out to be the case in the Battle of Gallipoli, 1915-16, fought in the Dardanelles Straits and the Gallipoli peninsular. At Kitchener’s urging Churchill had tried to secure the Straits in a naval campaign, but it ended in disaster. By the time the troops were evacuated in 1916 some 46,000 allied troops had been killed. As a result of this event, Churchill resigned. His public reputation was only partly rehabilitated by the Dardanelles commission, 1916-1917, which concluded that he was not personally responsible for the failure of the operation.

This portrait was painted in the year of the Dardanelles commission. At this date Churchill had lost his position in government, and was preparing to defend himself against charges of incompetent and reckless leadership. Meetings of the commission were held in secret and Churchill was constrained in the evidence he was able to submit, reluctant as he was to damage Kitchener’s reputation.

Orpen’s portrait captures an important moment – a crisis in Churchill’s career – which evokes a very different impression from that of the defiant hero of later popular imagination. This questioning, deeply personal portrait illustrates a painful episode in Churchill’s early career, offering insights not only into the sitter, but also of the harrowing responsibilities of military leadership during the First World War.

By agreement between the estate of the late Winston S. Churchill (the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill) and the National Portrait Gallery, the portrait is now on long term loan to the National Portrait Gallery. This arrangement respects the wishes of the late Winston S. Churchill that the portrait should be shown at the Gallery, and meets the current requirements for public access for exempted works of art.

The five-by-four feet portrait is displayed prominently in the Gallery’s early 20th-century room, illustrating Churchill’s significance in the context of the First World War. In future years the portrait will be made available to the Churchill Museum (Imperial War Museum) for special displays.

The National Portrait Gallery owns paintings of Churchill by Ambrose McEvoy (c.1911-15), Walter Sickert (1927) and Graham Sutherland (1954). Churchill is also depicted by Sir James Guthrie in the large group portrait Statesmen of World War I.

Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘I am very pleased that the Churchill family has agreed that this outstanding portrait by William Orpen of Winston Churchill, the nation’s greatest 20th century statesman, should now be on public display.’ –