Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill by John Leigh Pemberton (1965), after Sir William Orpen (1916)

The portrait of Sir Winston Churchill that hangs in the Dining Hall at Churchill College is a copy after a painting by William Orpen. It is not the image of Churchill we are most familiar with, in this painting he looks anxious, uncertain, subdued. Yet, it is a portrait that the wartime leader regarded as the finest of himself, one that “captured his soul”.

Hand on hip and clutching a top hat, there is an attempt at confident poise. However the painting draws the onlooker into the brooding, interior world of the sitter. Churchill appears haunted. The body language is similarly revealing. The shoulders are bent forward, sug- gesting some invisible burden. His expression speaks volumes. It is as if the vitality of the man has drained away.

This is not Churchill as we recognise him. Rather than the defiant, inspirational force that led Britain through its darkest hour during the Second World War, we see instead a much younger man, aged 42, sunk, it seems, in a slough of despondency. It is a portrait of Churchill at his lowest point, the most fraught period in his entire life and career. His down- beat demeanour is understandable. The original was painted in 1916, not long after the unmitigated disaster of Gallipoli, a campaign that Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had been largely held responsible for. By the time soldiers evacuated the Dardanelles strait and Gallipoli peninsula, in what is now Turkey, 46,000 allied troops had been killed. Churchill, who instigated the campaign, was forced to resign from the government and a commission of inquiry was held that year into the entire Dardanelles fiasco. It concluded he could not be held personally responsible.

While sitting for Orpen, Churchill was enduring the ignominy of blame for the deaths of 46,000 men. Quite apart from the professional disgrace, the thought of so many lost lives must have been an insufferable mental weight. Given that he was preparing to defend himself against charges of incompetent and reckless leadership, it is not surprising the portrait captures a mood of intense uncertainty. Paul Moorhouse, Senior Curator at the Na- tional Portrait Gallery, London, said: “We know as well that Orpen found the process of painting Churchill fraught and painful, he described him as the ‘man of misery’. All of that is in the portrait, you can see it.” While Orpen spoke of the misery, Churchill told the artist: “It is not the picture of a man. It is the picture of a man’s soul.”

Though in many ways a harrowing image, Churchill kept the painting throughout his life, and that, said Moorhouse, was probably because he thought the portrait “true, rather than flattering or idealising, perhaps it served as some kind of caution for the future”.

John Leigh Pemberton (1911–1997) was an artist and illustrator best known for his book illustrations, perhaps his best-known work was carried out for the Ladybird series of books for children, where he wrote and illustrated many of the series dealing with natural history subjects.

— Barry Phipps, 2016

Find out more about the College art collection