The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
Sutherland Premonition

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Black Landscape’ 1939–40
Graham Sutherland OM
Black Landscape 1939–40
© The estate of Graham Sutherland

Graham Sutherland’s enigmatic work Premonition is the odd one out in this tour in that it has a single proven provenance. It is certainly by Sutherland…it is signed on the back, complete with date, 3rd November 1938. We know it was owned by Sutherland’s aunt, at whose house on the English-Welsh border it was painted. The work was then donated, along with several others, to the Tate in 1980.

What is unclear, and has created an impasse that remains for the moment at least unsolved, is which way the picture should hang. It is a dispute that has not only divided the experts, but has formed a massive public rift in the Sutherland family.

The aunt who owned the work, was by Sutherland’s own admission ‘eccentric’, and the painting was never formally hung, but was rather leant against the wall in various attitudes. The two sides of the family had seen it displayed at different times different ways up, and both assumed they were seeing it correctly. Sutherland himself never thought to say which way up it went, as no doubt for him it was taken for granted (very few figurative artists have ever felt the need to specify the way up a work goes). Experts have tried to match up easel marks to the stretcher, but the stretcher had been re-used several times, and the present canvas had been removed at least once for restoration with no guarantee that it was replaced precisely as before.

The work can therefore be seen as a highly stylised landscape one way up: a dark foreboding twilight hillside, dense and inhospitable. Certainly Sutherland was a fan of the highly charged and symbolic landscape with the spiritual overtones that he so admired in Blake and Palmer’s work.

However, he was also obsessed by the vanitas genre, and it is here that we can see it working the other way up…as a portrait, in this case of a skull. With the country on the brink of war, this certainly makes direct sense of the title Premonition.

Graham Sutherland Premonition (Black Landscape seen in portrait format) 1938 Oil on canvas

Graham Sutherland
Premonition 1938
Oil on canvas
© The estate of Graham Sutherlan

Scholarship that sides with the landscape interpretation, also suggest that the skull motif is still there (a double-edge that the portrait supporters can not claim). The suggestion is that it refers to the type of hidden momento mori made famous by Holbein in The Ambassadors, or by the robin that doubles as a skull in Millais’s Ophelia. However the portrait-camp point out that Sutherland was not impressed by tricksy illusionism in paint, but rather a direct emotional response, which is certainly true.

This problem as to which way up to show it has, of course, been inherited by the Tate. It was first shown as a landscape, but shortly after a series of very public complaints by members of the family including Dame Joan Sutherland, it was re-hung as portrait. Following further complaints, it was withdrawn from exhibition for a number of years, while research failed to turn up any decisive answers.

The decision was finally taken to show it both ways up. The painting is now mounted on a specially swivelling bracket, and it is turned weekly, giving the public a chance to see it properly both ways.