An artist in his time
In everything he produced as artist/designer Graham Sutherland was trying to communicate
deeper meanings he discovered in natural forms. To enter this highly personal world of rocks,
wildlife, and people, we have to discard any notions derived from popular images of beauty. We
need to accept that works of art depicting nature need not look 'natural' in a photographic sense.
Indeed, to Sutherland this conventional interpretation makes it impossible to create our own visual
vocabulary, either as artists or viewers, and get to the spiritual heart of places and objects. To fully
understand his Coventry tapestry, viewers need to appreciate his stylistic 'alphabet', and the visual
codes he invented to depict natural forms so that he could unlock their doors to original ideas. An
awareness of these symbolic keys enables us to trace his pictorial elements back to their origins
as real objects out of doors, which for some reason arrested his attention. He was already wedded
to this symbolic approach to reality when he took on the tapestry commission. It was therefore
inevitable that he would use it as an artistic vehicle to express his established conviction that we
are as much a part of nature as our features are part of us. He therefore set out to humanise the
tapestry's design specification by stretching it beyond the strictly religious rules to include an
important parallel message, that reality is a dispersed and disintegrated form of imagination. That
is to say, imagination is required to assemble truly meaningful pictures- of darkness and light- of
decay and life- of natural and supernatural.
Sutherland was situated historically in the mainstream of European art, which by his
discarded photographic realism. When trying to recreate landscapes of symbols, Sutherland was in
the realm of world-class symbolic artists such as Gauguin, although his major influences came
from a pair of more obscure English artists, William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who worked
between the 18th and 19th centuries. Even further back in time, painting in symbols had been the
self-imposed task of medieval artists of the fourteenth century. Sutherland's sympathy with the
symbolism of Blake, who saw 'a world in a grain of sand', and Palmer, who discovered Paradise in
an obscure Kentish valley, was really to revive and reinterpret many long-standing spiritual notions
Most of medieval art, of which Christ in Glory carved over church portals is a common
may be classified as open symbolism. That is to say, its pictorial elements are presented in a
language that every educated person was expected to understand. Thanks to his or her
conventional attribute, each saint could be instantly recognised. Most people today are illiterate in
this respect, and are bewildered by the very icon that was intended to enlighten them. To make it
even more difficult for us to read the tapestry, Sutherland's art is in the class of closed symbolism.
That is to say, each symbol in the composition is expected to resonate in the mind of the viewer,
and become amplified by highly personal, open-ended, mental associations.
The fact is that the impact of a work with closed symbolism, such as the Coventry
much more that the sum total of the symbols it contains. Any art described as symbolist has,
behind the shapes and colours on the picture surface, something else, another realm of nature,
probably with another order of meaning. In the case of Sutherland, the creative process of visual
abstraction applied to a cliff of stratified rocks could reveal spires and domes of cathedrals; a tree-
trunk cast up on the foreshore became a horned beast; the meeting of water and land became an
altar on which was placed a bowl of burnished metal containing a massive chain. This basic
process is not a rare gift. We are all able to take the first mental steps with Sutherland when we
look hard at any natural object. Faces, and strange embodied creatures appear as if by magic.
Sutherland's talent is to detach what he termed these 'figurative elements', and assemble them on
canvas as a uniquely balanced blend of lines, curves and colours. So, a small group of sea-eroded
rocks becomes a landscape of immense hills, full of drama. Because of this unique stylistic
signature, Sutherland's pictures yield more from concentrated mental effort than was originally
required for him, or us, to follow one form to another in the real location.
Graham Sutherland's methods of seeing fascinating things in nature, and then trying
the principles of what he saw, may be used as educational metaphors about how to establish
human relationships with nature, in a spiritual, if not a Godly, dimension. We have the tapestry as
his blackboard, and his own words to help us in this interactive meditation. Further, we may cross-
reference his images to those of Blake and Palmer, which he adopted and made his own. Unlike
Blake, Graham Sutherland, although he felt strongly enough about the place of God in his life to
become a convert to the Catholic Church, has said very little about his religious motivations, but
this is an advantage in providing a neutral background for us to use his interpretations of nature to
focus our own wonder.
The natural world of the tapestry
Eggs and insects
In religious art an oval shape, polarised with acute angles, is frequently used as
an icon of human
fertility. Its ancient origin is the shape of the nut of the almond tree, which also has a form
resembling the human womb. In outline the almond delineates the shape of the secondary sexual
characteristics enclosing a female vagina. Its conventional use as the mandorla to enclose 'Christ
in Glory' symbolises the birthing font of Christianity. In similar contexts, the shape has been
frequently encoded in pictures where the artist feels it necessary to emphasise the power of sexual
reproduction. Notably it occurs several times in Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus'. Graham Sutherland
used all devices available to him to personalise the concept of 'Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph'
with the main objective of creating a figure "of great contained vitality. However, it is clear
works that Sutherland's imagination was tuned to see the mandorla motive in almost everything- in
the soft folds of rock formations sliced across in sea cliffs,- in the rounded shapes of eroded fossils
projecting above the softer sediments in which they had been deposited. The detection of sexual
connotations in shorelines must have been an immemorial pastime of sailors longing for the next
harbour. Occasionally, this metaphorical pre-disposition has been written into maps. 'Deborah's
Hole is an otherwise meaningless label for an inaccessible cleft in the hostile Gower coastline of
South Wales, which can only be seen from a passing boat. The 'Grand Teton' in North America
was a comforting sexual metaphor for a forbidding mountain range seen by the first French
Within the mandorla is another icon of fertility symbolised in the strange egg-shape
of Christ's body
below the waist. In Michael Sadgrove's, meditation the mandorla triggered him to develop the notion
of 'the great world-egg in primitive mythology which when hatched becomes the living universe".
Sutherland appears to have selected this egg-shape as a paraphrase of the fecund abdomen of
insects, notably members of the order Hymenoptera, the bees and wasps. The selection of this
entomological group, defined by their 'hymen-like' wings may be a reinforcement of the birth-
message of his basic imagery. Applying Sutherland's method of contemplation to his own Christ
figure as a whole, transforms it into a gigantic Phasmid. These are insects in the entomological
Order Orthoptera which includes the Praying Mantis or Soothsayer. Laurens Van Der Post relates
in his account of the spiritual world of the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari, that talking to a Praying
Mantis was a way for them to communicate with their deities.
In his famous 1945 picture of the 'bee-lady', entitled 'Woman in a Garden', who's
lower body is also
modelled on an insect's abdomen, Sutherland has placed a grid of hexagons in the background
symbolising a honeycomb. Cross-links made to other works by Sutherland with the insect
paraphrase take us back to Exodus with the evocation of a 'land flowing with milk and honey'. In
other words, Sutherland's clever and powerful treatment of the mandorla has the potential to elicit
multitude of notions, many of which transport us to other works, times, gods and meanings. For
example, when his Christ is viewed as an insect, Man at His feet becomes an abdominal
appendage- an ovipositor through which man may reborn in, and through, Him. Sutherland's basic
idea of placing a man at Christ's feet appears to have been primarily an aesthetic one. But there
were spiritual overtones of Man's relationship to Gods derived from Egypt's complex pantheon.
In all of these aspects Sutherland has reached his stated goal of wanting the Christ
figure and its
immediate surroundings to be "something slightly ambiguous: a human form, but with overtones of
a nature form" "
Nature in the tetramorph
When it comes to the symbols of the evangelists, Sutherland's own idea about the Beasts
tetramorph was that they were to be representatives of created things and objects- men, animals
and plants. In this context, most of what we know about the artist's creative impulse emerged in
conversations with Eric Newton. Here he states that his aim was to give each animal its own
character and avoid any traditional symbolic messages coming from say, heraldry. He had in mind
that each animal should have its own special character displayed through its personal vitality. Only
through the "demonstration of their nature do animals pay unconscious tribute to the power which
created them; by their violence or their softness, their eagerness or their predatoriness".
There are many plant, or flower-like forms in the tapestry, but the only one which
expresses its own
vital plant-like attribute in the same way as the animals do, is the Yucca. This is the prominent
secondary object of the lion's box, or frame. As a member of the palm family the Yucca may also
symbolise Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the inevitable chain of events that it triggered which
turned a small Jewish sect into a major world religion.
Graphically, the Yucca turns the lion's space into a picture in its own right. In
fact all of the beasts
are framed and composed as self-contained landscapes. All contain examples of the icons
Sutherland created, to put physical and biological structure into his landscape paintings. A search
for symbolic landscapes in Revelation which could provide a model for the Lion/Yucca landscape is
found in the account of the river of life. This may be visualised in the symbolic tract of water, flowing
from a fractured rock above the lion window, which separates the lion's face from its mane.
Thereby, we can see the Yucca as the tree of life, beside the water of life, whose leaves are for the
healing of nations (Rev:22). This particular section of Revelation, which tells of the triumph of good
over evil, has, over the ages, been a potent source of Christian music, poetry, and drama.
According to Sutherland, trees are like people in a landscape that can be moved around
artist to introduce drama:
"Trees have extraordinarily
beautifully varied and rich shapes which detach them from their
proper connotation as trees; one doesn't think of them as trees really; rather as
figures&ldots;ready to lead a separate identity"
We occasionally get glimpses, within the tetramorph of Sutherland's idiosyncratic
posing, and characterising his objects. He is on record as saying he has 'little enthusiasm' for
eagles but 'loves' the form of the eagle owl, which was the species he actually used as a template
for this icon. He was trying hard to escape from heraldic conventions when he finally decided to
make the bird as if it had alighted. This gives it the certain strangeness and potency he was
The human image in Matthew's window evolved from the artist's idea of producing a
expressing a tense eagerness to come out of a confined space into the realm of God. The artistic
conception is of Man worshipping, eager to understand, eager to feel, eager to see. To the Old
Testament visionaries this humanised part of the tetramorph was actually only a quarter of a
complex winged cherubim, which had the combined attributes of ox, lion and eagle, and moved on
wheels. Revelation separates out the attributes into four angel creatures, and omits the wheels. In
medieval tetramorphs Mathew's symbol was an angel, and the other creatures were also winged.
We can only muse on why Sutherland chose to present 'angel as man'. Sutherland made great
graphic play with wing-like forms. This was also a trademark of Blake, and a Blake enthusiast can
immediately detect his signature in the tapestry. The eagle's wings express a raptors superb
breaking power when coming into land. The calf has a tuft of feathers on the end of a long arm
bone. It could not possibly fly. The man has a flame-wing. The lion has no wings. All boxes have
flickering flames rising through the upper margins, which is probably a reference to the prophet's
descriptions of the divine energy of the tetramorph.
In contrast to the vital tension in the other figures, there is a calm bovine quality
in the calf, which
he wanted to depict as 'slightly hysterical, very easily afraid'. Nevertheless, its contorted limbs
recall the herbivores depicted in Palaeolithic cave paintings. We may contemplate on the existence
of this bovine quality in art which is 35,000 years old, and may conclude that since then there has
really been no fundamental development in our imaginative and technical abilities to represent
natural forms that are close to us practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the whole
body of an animal is contained in the shape of the rock. It was the rock which revealed its animal
'spirit'. We are very close to Sutherland's metaphors. Their common mental ground is specific
material features, such as cracks and smooth, rounded surfaces, which are used to enhance
animal features in the mind of the artist.
Although the animal forms of Palaeolithic art have a high aesthetic profile, they
are usually found
together with abstract shapes, such as circles, spirals, and grids. These shapes emerge in the
trances of modern spiritualists, and people with certain sight defects, where they are generated
from particular regions of the brain. These findings have led to the belief that the rock faces played
a spiritual role in the social life of prehistoric peoples. Beyond the rock face is was their spirit
world; the rock wall is a spiritual place where shamans sought power in a personal interaction at an
important interface between the living and material worlds. Trances have a practical purpose-
healing people who are sick. In other words, in making art against stone, a spiritual healer was
trying to make sense of what the brain makes us feel. We are essentially human when we use
graphic ways of portraying other realities and the Palaeolithic artist deep in a cave, or balancing
a rocky mountain side, was expressing a mind identical to our own.
Of course, Spence, when he had the idea of clothing the sheer stone face of his cathedral
graphics was not consciously following these particular ideas, which are relatively modern. Their
juxtaposition gives Sutherland's art a remarkable timeless resonance nevertheless.
Other natural forms
Those observers who are tuned in to Sutherland's style will recognise his signature
in many other
natural forms woven into the tapestry. For example, there are two such elements on either side of
the Cross in the Crucifixion panel. They have gentle curves found in the logarithmic spiral of a rose,
and the arms of a crescent moon, but also exhibit extensions resembling sharp blades and thorn-
like weapons of cruelty. Reference to Sutherland's work before he took up the tapestry commission
reveals the curved orbits of animal skulls and water worn chalk. Connections through thorniness
may be made with windswept gorse and blackthorn, the only plants able to survive the salty storm
winds sweeping in off the Celtic Sea. They dominate his early landscapes of tunnel-like lanes and
windswept coastal rock-strewn slopes of Pembrokeshire. Sutherland had made a whole series of
thorn paintings before he came to the tapestry, and while on a walk in Pembrokeshire during the
1940s he reflected on the great implications of the Crucifixion:
"My mind became pre-occupied with the idea of thorns and of wounds made by thorns-
into the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, as they pierced the air
in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and as I did
so a curious change took place. While still retaining their own pricking space encompassing life,
the thorns re- arranged themselves and became something else- a kind of paraphrase of the
Crucifixion and the crucified head- the essential cruelty."
The form to the right of the Cross, is a paraphrase of the entangled vegetation at
the entrance to a
lane. It may be traced to the preliminary sketches he made of an overgrown opening which provided
access to Sandy Haven in Pembrokeshire. The actual picture 'Entrance to Lane' was completed in
Thorns are also horns. Horns become giant claws. Claws become cruel beaks. Blackened,
branches of burnt gorse lying on a path, become serpents- and so it goes on. The structure and
evolution of the natural forms was a vital aspect of Sutherland's art. His flights of fantasy in
paraphrasing nature were only checked by his desire to market his canvases to a public that, on
the whole, could not join him at the frontiers of his mind.
Sutherland's mission was to discover a way of making quite ordinary natural forms,
which we see,
but do not look at, available as extended ideas in paintings.
" If one duty of painting
is to explain the essence of things and emotions, may not it also be a
duty, sometimes, not to explain- but to accept? Do we need an explanation of the flight of a
bird, or a flash of lightening? Do we need to be told why a rose is shaped thus? Coleridge said
that poetry gives most pleasure when generally and not perfectly understood. These lines of
Blake are possibly obscure:
My spectre round
me night and day
Like a wild beast
guards my way:
My emanation far
for my sin.
but it may be argued that
their mysterious music is actually enhanced by that obscurity. So in
painting it might be argued that its very obscurity preserves a magical and mysterious purpose.
It could be said, on the other hand, that much contemporary work, which is thought to be
obscure, may be merely suffering the time- lag in appreciation which has so often operated
against painters in their lifetime."
It is possible that Sutherland came to Blake because his work unites the timeless
with the timely,
the sense of destiny with the sense of present. Blake certainly had an ear which caught the
whisper of the Everlasting Gospel in the everyday passions and objects round him. This was
evident in his artistic responses to his time; the move to factory work and the enclosure of common
land was putting the worker in a different place in his economy and in the living world. Much of this
imagery was drawn from the texts of the Old Testament but positioned in the teachings of the New.
In this perspective it covers, in one sweep of thought and symbol, from the crucifixion to the
resurrection, and can be thought of as his personal book of revelation.
Taking the view that Sutherland's mind set was in tune with Blake's, and firmly embedded
world of nature, it is not surprising that he accepted the Coventry commission which offered him the
Book of Revelation, the most powerful visionary book in the Bible, as a thematic menu. These
days, Revelation is usually reduced to a literal timetable of events. Sutherland, particularly by his
resistance to depicting the Last Judgement, saw it as something to catch his imagination and
activate him as an individual stylist and inventor. We may therefore see his handiwork as a poetic
and inspiring expression of real events in human history positioned in the vast time-line of notional
eternity. By meditating through his natural symbols and imagery we may, whatever our beliefs,
respond like the isolated and fragile congregation of John of Patmos, and seek to fulfil our desires
for peace, freedom, and security in a world where we are part of nature in everything we do.