Graham Sutherland OM

The Origins of the Land


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 4255 × 3277 mm
frame: 4338 × 3372 × 100 mm
Presented by the Arts Council of Great Britain 1952

Display caption

The Origins of the Land was made for the ‘Land’ pavilion at the Festival of Britain, on London’s South Bank, in 1951. The display there compared the geological and social history of the land of Britain with its present value, created by its mineral wealth. The coal industry had been nationalised a few years earlier. Sutherland here focuses on the earliest point in this history. His composition seems like a cross-section through the land. At the top the surface of the earth is aflame, while underneath strange root-like forms suggest the promise of life. 

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

The Origins of the Land 1951


Oil on canvas 4255 x 3277 (167 1/2 x 129)

Presented by the Arts Council of Great Britain 1952

Commissioned by the Festival of Britain Office in 1950 for the South Bank site, Festival of Britain, 1951 and reverted to the Arts Council at the end of the exhibition

‘Land of Britain’ pavilion, Festival of Britain South Bank site, London, May-Sept. 1951
Sutherland, Wadsworth, New Aspects of British Sculpture, XXVI Venice Biennale, June-Oct. 1952 (British pavilion 55)
Graham Sutherland, British Council tour, Musée nationales d’art moderne, Paris, Nov.-Dec. 1952 (55), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jan. 1953 (52), Kunsthaus, Zurich, March-April 1953 (52)
Paintings and Drawings by Graham Sutherland, Arts Council exhibition, Tate Gallery, May-Aug. 1953 (56, repr. pl.11)
Graham Sutherland, British Council, III Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna São Paolo, 1955 (13)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (113, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (220, repr. in col. p.187)

Toni del Renzio, ‘Redfern Gallery’, Art News and Review, vol.4, no.23, 13 Dec. 1952, [p.4]
William Gaunt, ‘Profile: Graham Sutherland’, Art Digest, vol.27, no.15, 1 May 1953, p.25
‘The Arts: Mr Sutherland’s Paintings’, Times, 19 May 1953
John Curtis, ‘Graham Sutherland’, Studio, vol.146, no.725, Aug. 1953, p.50, repr. p.51
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pp.44-6, pl.115 and during execution pls.113c, 113d
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.708-9
Andrew Révai, ‘Sutherland in Turin’, Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.753, Dec. 1965, p.649
William Feaver, ‘Rogue Males’, London Magazine, vol.12, no.2, June-July 1972, p.126
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, p.12, pl.78 (col.)
William Feaver, ‘London Letter’, Art International, vol.17, no.5, May 1973, p.36
Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: Complete Graphic Work, London 1978, pp.26-7
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.35, repr. p.94, pl.51
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, pp.29, 124, repr. p.125, no.94 (col.)
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, pp.146-7, repr. between pp.160 and 161 and during execution between pp.64 and 65
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, pp.79-80
Richard Holmes, ‘A Very Private Artist and his Mystery’, Times, 20 May 1982, p.12
William Feaver, ‘Reassessing Sutherland’, Observer Review, 23 May 1982, p.33
Marina Vaizey, ‘The Intelligent Dandy’, Sunday Times, 23 May 1982, p.41
John Russell Taylor, ‘Sutherland Revealed as a Miniaturist at Heart’, Times, 25 May 1982, p.13
Michael Clarke, ‘Single Master’, Times Educational Supplement, 4 June 1982
Nannette Aldred, Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1920-40, exh. cat., Goldsmiths Gallery, London 1988, p.23
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists, London 1988, pp.143, 329
Peter Fuller, ‘Nature and Raw Flesh’ in Boris Ford (ed.), Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, vol. 9: Since the Second War, Cambridge, New York and Melbourne 1988,
pp.123, 127
Peter Fuller, ‘Sutherland v. Bacon: Nature and Raw Flesh’, Modern Painters, vol.1, no.1, spring 1988, pp.24, 27
Virginia Button, ‘The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-56’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1991, p.227, repr.
Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, pp.74, 191, 219

Felix H. Man, Eight European Artists, London, Melborne, Toronto 1953, p.246 (col., during execution)
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1953, unpaginated (col.)
Ronald Alley, British Painting Since 1945, London 1966, pl.11
Charles S. Spencer, ‘Venice Biennale: Choosing the Artists’, Studio International, vol.171, no.878, June 1966, p.230
Enrico Crispolti, L’Informale: Storia e poetica, vol.1: Origine e primi, Assisi and Rome 1971, pl.278

This massive canvas was commissioned from Sutherland as a mural for the ‘Land of Britain’ pavilion on the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951. It was painted in the basement of the Tate Gallery in a space that had been used as a studio by Sir Edward Poynter while he was director of the National Gallery (of which the Tate was then a subsidiary).[1] That the theme of a historicised Nature should typify Sutherland’s painting and encapsulate one of the dominant strands of the Festival’s message indicates how and why the artist was seen to be one of the predominant figures of British painting at that time. This status was also reflected in the staging of his first retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the spring of that year.

The South Bank site - located between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges on the southern bank of the Thames - was the major showcase for the series of nationwide events that constituted the Festival of Britain. The festival had been conceived by the 1945-50 Labour government as a celebration of British culture to mark the beginning of a new era following the hardship of the Second World War. As such it combined nationalism and tradition with futuristic themes and styles. Though design dominated - it defined an aesthetic that lasted for much of the 1950s - the visual arts also had a prominent position in its activities. The Arts Council’s exhibition 60 Paintings for ’51 was a major event which stimulated the production of large-scale works, and a number of artists produced paintings and sculptures for the South Bank site. Some were employed by architects to provide pieces for individual buildings: Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore, for example. Others were commissioned by the festival management to produce more monumental works for the site; in addition to Sutherland, these included Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, John Minton, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and Feliks Topolski. The site was temporary and when it was dismantled the various works were distributed among different agencies; Sutherland’s painting passed to the Arts Council and thence to the Tate Gallery.

The Origins of the Land was commissioned by the Festival of Britain Office on 6 April 1950 for £1000.[2] It is not clear to what degree the theme or title was dictated by the commission, but the painting is generally referred to in the correspondence as the ‘Land Mural’, though the Festival of Britain file relating to it is entitled ‘Mural “Forces of Nature”’.[3] The first Schedule of work stipulated that the artist would submit designs to a scale of 1:2 or 1:4 by 1 May, but Sutherland postponed it until 1 June. The second Schedule stated that the design would be executed in time for delivery on site on 31 January 1951. He would be required to supervise the work’s installation and would be paid a retainer to maintain it for six months after that. On 30 May Sutherland wrote to say that, due to illness, he had been delayed and his ‘roughs’ could not be prepared until the middle of June; this was acceded to on 5 June. In fact, the designs were not delivered until 12 July and a memorandum of 12 September reveals that they were returned for further discussion as they were not up to standard. It is likely that this referred to the degree of finish of the designs rather than a reflection of their aesthetic quality. By 16 March 1951 Sutherland believed he had completed the first and second stages of Schedule II and claimed three-quarters of his fee and on 21 March an internal memorandum recorded that the work had been delivered and installed.[4]

As a result of this process there are a considerable number of studies relating to The Origins of the Land. Indeed, fifty-three such works, categorised as ‘large’, ‘medium’ and ‘small’, were shown at the Redfern Gallery in 1952.[5] These are mostly of details for the final painting, though they also record the development and adjustment of the composition. One particularly large study - 1257 x 864 mm (49 1/2 x 34 inches)[6] - is thought to be the design which Sutherland submitted to the festival office as it is approximately a quarter of the size of the original canvas for the final work which was cut down during painting. The upper section of this study is different to that of the large version, but photographs of the latter during production show that this passage was fundamentally altered at a relatively late stage.[7] The process of the composition’s development was not straight-forward, however, as the position of the pterodactyl in the large study is closer to the final painting than in the photographs of the latter during execution. This suggests either that the study is not the one submitted to the festival office or that the artist experimented with different compositions while working on the canvas.

Two of the published studies reveal early ideas for the painting: one includes the pterodactyl and sprouting plant forms,[8] and the other, with a red background, is based on the theme of volcanic activity, suggesting the significance of the flames in the final version.[9] Some of the compositional exercises are extremely cursory, consisting of little more than the outlines of the main forms.[10] Among the studies for details, images of the pterodactyl in a range of positions and situations are especially common and this may suggest that the artist was particularly uncertain of how best to include that motif.[11] The complexity of some studies and their proximity to the appearance of the finished painting show that Sutherland continued to produce them as he worked on the commission. A study which he originally gave to Kenneth and Jane Clark (Tate Gallery T02381) is extremely close, differing only in the lower right hand section. That a fine pencil grid was drawn over certain areas of this drawing, while other sections either have broader squaring up or none at all, may suggest that it served to secure certain sections into the overall composition. An earlier Tate Catalogue entry has observed that a comparison of photographs of the work in progress with the final painting reveals that, while painting The Origins of the Land, the artist reduced the height of his canvas to bring the upper section closer to the top edge.[12] That the Clark study is similarly proportioned to the final state may suggest that it was somehow associated with this adjustment. A horizontal study for this rocky section is in the Government Art Collection.[13]

The Origins of the Land was the victim of vandalism before the festival had opened when it was wilfully slashed with a knife in the bottom left and right hand corners. Sutherland was abroad at the time and a memorandum of 4 April 1951 records the decision that a Mr Lawson should back-patch it and retouch the damage.[14] The picture was painted on the reverse of a commercially prepared canvas which the artist had prepared with a white oil ground. The paint is probably oil, yet to be confirmed by analysis.[15] It would appear that the scale of the work required Sutherland to adjust his technique. The lower part is so thinly painted that the white paint can barely be distinguished from the ground, though the background is typical of his post-war work in the layering of several tones of paint - here oranges over a yellow base. As in most of his paintings up to this time, squaring-up is widely evident. The general colour scheme of purple and white, with touches of red and other strong colours, against the orange and yellow background had been formulated in the studies. The paint has been abraded around the edges, especially in the two lower corners, perhaps as a result of its position at the festival. In 1963 the edges of the canvas were found to be weakened by the large number of tack holes; it was restretched, copper tacks were substituted for the originals and three alloy struts were planted across the stretcher for added strength. In addition, the remains of a large paper label had to be removed from the bottom right hand corner and a new frame was made.[16]

The Festival of Britain was didactic in conception, claiming to tell ‘a continuous story’ through which visitors were guided from one themed pavilion to the next.[17] The ‘Land of Britain’ pavilion, for which this painting was commissioned, was the first in the itinerary. The guidebook explained: ‘The land is the beginning of the story, and it is the land that gives the story its continuity.’[18] The exhibit focussed on the actual fabric of the land and its duality as an embodiment of Britain’s geological history and as a source of future wealth:

our forebears ... were practical men with their feet on the ground; but they were also pioneers ... exploring it downward and bringing up from it the nourishment and profit that lies beneath ... the stones thrown up by the pioneers ... have been cracked open and studied like pages from a buried book, until now we know the birth pains and the growth of this motherland of ours, and how much wealth lies latent in her still.[19]

The history of Britain was thus presented in terms of millenia, the geological nature of the land becoming implicitly linked to the human history of the nation. It was to this grand historical perspective that Sutherland’s painting was related: ‘This growth has been a gradual and continuous process, in which our present is only an instant ... this is the kind of reality that can best be translated into images by a painter; Graham Sutherland’s mural, then, sets the mood for this pavilion.’[20]

The nature of the commission meant that Sutherland’s subject was unusually prescribed and this is reflected in the relatively literal reading that he offered for the work. He wrote to the Tate Gallery in 1957:

Broadly speaking the picture is divided as if in sections through the crust of the earth. You will notice the layers one on top of the other. It is as if you were looking at a cliff face. In the foreground the forms (and this is a very generalized statement) represent principals of organic growth, the pterodactyl flying is a hint of pre-history, while the rocks at the top of the cliff are intended to represent the action of water and wind on the earth’s surface. There are some flames at the extreme base and they naturally represent a sort of symbolism of heat of the interior of the earth.[21]

It was this account of its content that prompted the critic William Feaver’s retrospective description of the painting as ‘a pterodactyl-invested gravel pit’.[22] In his major monograph on the artist, Douglas Cooper summarised the scheme:

In the lower half of this picture, Sutherland confronts us with the consuming and fructifying process which goes on below ground, the hidden forces at work fashioning from the past the shape of things to come; while in the upper part he evokes the ageing process, the depraving forces of the wind and water which eat into solid matter ... Time and history are therefore invoked obliquely, but so too, as I shall show is man.[23]

While fitting closely to the theme of the pavilion, Sutherland’s scheme continued concerns already present in his painting. Almost all of the forms had precedents in his work and Cooper has demonstrated that they ‘all had their origins in real objects’.[24] The rock forms in the top layer, he wrote, derived from stones found in a dry river-bed in Provence and studies of them show this to have been some years earlier.[25] Some of these were supposed to have suggested to the artist a human head, studies of which are close to the oval in the painting’s top right hand section.[26] A universal organicism in which the form of a stone echoes that of the landscape and both are read anthropomorphically typifies Sutherland’s approach and is a characteristic of Romanticism. Crescents, of which two oppose each other here, had previously been used by Sutherland to denote winding roads in such early paintings as Welsh Landscape with Roads, 1936 (Tate Gallery N05666) and Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate Gallery N06190). The conjunction of these forms with a horizon in the Government Art Collection study reveals that they originally denoted roads in this composition. The pterodactyl was said to have been modelled on a specimen in the Natural History Museum, London.

Of the three vertical forms in the lower stratum, Cooper does not identify a source for that on the right, the upper part of which, in its curving, articulated morphology, suggests a spine. The central ‘figure’ is shown to be developed from several studies of a root, such as Articulated Forms, 1948 (whereabouts unknown);[27] it would reappear in Standing Forms II, 1952 (Tate Gallery T03113). The Standing Forms were said to have derived from the sight of a figure against a hedge[28] and, despite Sutherland’s description of the stratified composition, such a figure/ground relationship persists in The Origins of the Land. The left-hand ‘figure’ had appeared in his work two years earlier in Two Standing Forms against a Palisade, 1949 (Vancouver Art Gallery)[29] and was one of numerous such forms from that period. It seems to combine both animal and vegetable characteristics, invoking associations with roots, insects and chrysalises. Edward Sackville-West summarised the ambiguity of such ‘disquieting objects’, when he described them variously as ‘seed pods bursting or budding, sections of organic substance fitted to handles of bone or box ... spruce and tidy ... They also look delicate ... Perhaps it is most useful to think of them as hieratic emblems.’[30] The artist described such forms as human equivalents:

My ‘Standing Forms’ ... are based on the principles of organic growth ... to me they are monuments and presences. But why use these forms instead of human figures? Because, at the moment, I find it necessary to catch the taste - the quality - the essence of the presence of a human figure ... as if one had never seen it before - by a substitution.[31]

Thus, this major work could not only be associated with symbolic paintings like the Thorn Tree series (1945-6), but also with such early works as Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1940 (Tate Gallery N05139).

Like the scuptures of Henry Moore, Sutherland’s painting combined an organic archaicism with a modern style and it was this quality which lead to both artists being favoured by the agencies of state support such as the British Council. Similarly, this suited their work to the theme of natural, national continuity fused with a process of modernisation that the Festival of Britain promoted. That the artist explained the imagery of The Origins of the Land in terms of a sea-cliff - an established symbol of Britain’s distinctiveness - is thus significant. Glossing over the division of Ireland, Britain’s island status allowed the prehistoric, geological perspective of the ‘Land of Britain’ pavilion to take on a nationalistic tone which no continental nation could adopt. A necessary link between the nature of Britain - the earth, the landscape and so on - and British culture was a recurring theme of the festival and reflected a wider phenomenon. The concept of the landscape as a palimpsest, a historical document in which the nation’s history was encoded also informed such texts as Jaquetta Hawkes’s A Land (London 1951) and W.G. Hoskins’s The History of the English Landscape (London 1955). Prehistory had been addressed by British modernists before the war when Stonehenge, Avebury and the standing stones of west Cornwall were the focus of attention for artists like Hepworth, Paul Nash and John Piper. If a concept of national continuity had been implicit in their invoking of such sites, it had become explicit in the cultural expressions of the war years and after.

A different association of the land and modernisation is suggested by Sutherland’s stratified iconography and its implicit associations with mining. The latter was a particularly prominent theme in the ‘Land of Britain’ pavilion, which also contained a mural of miners by Josef Herman and which would have had a particular significance so soon after the nationalisation of the coal mines in 1947. Thus, while typifying Sutherland’s work of the period, this monumental painting resonates with the redefinition of Britain’s national identity and social structure after the war.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.708
[2] Details of the commission’s progress in Public Records Office, Kew, Festival of Britain files, SB 12A subsection X/2, works 25/Box 260, file 3/150
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Graham Sutherland, Keith Vaughan, Contemporary French and English Lithographs, Redfern Gallery, Nov.-Dec. 1952 (301-53)
[6] Private collection, repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.129, no.167
[7] The Origins of the Land during execution repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pls.113c-d
[8] Study for ‘Origins of the Land’, 1950 (private collection), repr. Alley 1982, p.128, no.164
[9] Study for ‘Origins of the Land’, 1950 (private collection), repr. ibid., p.127, no.163
[10] See, for example, Study for ‘Origins of the Land’, 1951 (private collection), repr. Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Picton and Geneva 1982, p.177, pl.56
[11] See, for example, Cooper 1961, pls.112a-b and lot Christie’s, London, 8 June 1990, lot 273A
[12] Repr. Cooper 1961, pls.113c-d and Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, between pp.64 and 65
[13] Origins of the Land No.6, 1950, repr. Government Art Collection of the United Kingdom: The Twentieth Century, London 1997, p.141, no.7084
[14] Festival of Britain files, SB 12A subsection X/2, works 25/Box 260, file 3/150, Public Records Office, Kew
[15] Tate Gallery conservation files
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ian Cox, The South Bank Exhibition: A Guide to the Story it Tells, London 1951, p.4
[18] Ibid., p.11
[19] Ibid., pp.11-12
[20] Ibid., p.12
[21] Letter to Tate Gallery, 15 Nov. 1957, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[22] Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier, (eds.), A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain 1951, London 1976, p.49
[23] Cooper 1961, p.45
[24] Ibid.
[25] Tourettes, 1948, repr. ibid., pl.101a, Barren Landscape with Rocks, 1951, repr. ibid., pl.116a
[26] Head, 1951 studies, repr. ibid., pls.117a-d
[27] Repr. ibid., pl.101c
[28] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, 6 Sept. 1951, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Picton and Geneva 1982, p.72
[29] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.103a
[30] Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, Harmondsworth 1943, rev. ed. 1955, p.14
[31] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, p.72

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