I have not been sent to Coventry for ages, which is a shame. I always enjoyed a stop there for an hour or so to say hello to Lady Godiva, then a change of tone going into the ruins of the cathedral which was bombed on the night of 13th November 1940 in the first major air raid outside London in the winter of the blitz. I would always encourage people to go into Basil Spence’s modern church built at right angles to the old one. Some might mention the theory that Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed in ‘Operation Moonlight’ so that they would not realise that we had broken their communication codes (highly dubious) while others might wonder why the old cathedral had not been rebuilt.
To this I would say that Coventry has always been a forward looking city and so they commissioned the Scottish architect Basil Spence to build a brand new cathedral but paid homage to the past by keeping the ruins of the old one. Spence used modern artists to decorate the church so the stained glass windows are by John Piper while the great tapestry of Christ in Majesty is by Graham Sutherland. Not everyone, of course, likes modern art but you are unlikely to forget this representation of the saviour surrounded by a winged man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle representing the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Unusually for a modern artist Sutherland was both a religious man and was married to and inseparable from the same woman for his whole life. He painted the crucified Christ for a church in Northampton and a small picture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane which I saw recently at Chichester Cathedral.
While anyone can visit Coventry to see Sutherland’s tapestry, no-one will never see is his portrait of Winston Churchill. The story is well known although the details are unclear. For his eightieth birthday the great statesman was honoured by parliament with a portrait by the great artist but, despite (or because of) his own work as a painter Churchill hated the result which he felt showed him as all too human and frail. Either he or (more probably) his widow Clementine destroyed it in what must surely be the greatest act of artistic vandalism of the twentieth century. It showed Churchill as old and frail and he was notoriously reluctant to admit that time was taking its toll on him. I do not think the Churchills come out of the story well. His vanity had been pricked and he did not like being reminded that he was mortal. Both the writer Somerset Maugham and the newspaperman Lord Beaverbrook were subjected to the Sutherland treatment and had the grace to recognise that the results, while unsparing, were truthful.
When Churchill finally took the many hints directed at him and retired he spent much of his time in the French Riviera where, ironically, Sutherland also ended up in his later years. I doubt if there were many social calls between them.