For twelve years we lied about it

Portrait of Winston Churchill (1954) by Graham Sutherland

Kenneth Rose was a journalist and biographer famous for his access to high-profile British figures, tales of whom are scattered through his extensive diaries. On the day he wrote the following entry in 1985, Rose had spent some time with Mary Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill, and discussion had turned to an infamous portrait of her father by Graham Sutherland—pictured above—that was commissioned to celebrate Churchill’s 80th birthday in 1954. The painting was not well-received by Churchill or his family, to say the least, and its fate became a topic of much speculation. For over a decade, the family maintained that the painting was safe, only to later admit its destruction. It wasn’t until 2015 that the real culprit was revealed: Grace Hamblin, Churchill’s private secretary.

The Diary Entry

6 October 1985 

Talk with Mary Soames. [Churchill’s official biographer] Martin Gilbert is considered very untrustworthy by the Churchill family. One episode was when, having been given complete access to papers and photographs for the purpose of the official life only, he produced an illustrated short biography full of young Winston’s inherited photographs – without asking permission. The money for the biographical volumes has now almost run out – and that for the companion volumes has run out altogether. 

She is most interesting on the burning of the Graham Sutherland portrait of Winston by Clemmie. ‘For twelve years we lied about it, maintaining that it was safe and sound. But on the death of my mother we insisted on an announcement being made between her funeral and the memorial service.’ So the storm broke, died away and that was apparently the end of it. Then Mary heard that [British Prime Minister] Harold Wilson was saying the Soames family still had the picture and would one day produce it, when it would become immensely valuable. Perhaps Wilson did not realise the implications of what he was saying: that they were deliberately defrauding the Treasury by concealing an asset of Winston’s estate – or rather Clemmie’s – on which they should have paid death duties. At a party one evening, Mary bearded Wilson on this, and even gave him, as a sign of good faith, the name of the odd-job man who carried out the actual burning.

Further Reading

Kenneth Rose’s diaries are wry, pompous, candid, and entertaining, and they have been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in two volumes, both edited by Richard Thorpe:


Diary entry excerpted from Who Loses, Who Wins: The Journals of Kenneth Rose: Volume Two 1979-2014 by Kenneth Rose. Copyright © The Executors of the Estate of Kenneth Rose, Lord Waldegrave and Marie-Louise Spencer Hamilton 2019. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

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