The motif of the thorn head originated in the commission Sutherland received in 1944 to paint a large Crucifixion for St. Matthew's Church, Northampton. This was eventually executed in the second half of 1946, but in the meantime, the artist noted, 'my mind became preoccupied with the idea of thorns (the crown of thorns) and wounds made by thorns: then on going into the country I began to notice thorn trees and bushes. Especially against the sky, the thorns on the branches established a limit of aerial space. They were like dividers pricking out points in space in all directions, encompassing the air, as it were solid and tangible. I'd never noticed this before: but all kinds of ideas for pictures started to come into my mind. Apart from the large 'Thorn Trees' I had several ideas for Thorn Head. A sort of 'pricking' and demarcation of a hollow headshaped space enclosed by the points' (see 1946 statement, reprinted in M. Hammer, Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-1950, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2005, p. 156).
In the extended series of pictures that resulted from this epiphany, the forms of thorn bush and human head become inextricably fused, evoking Christ's Crown of Thorns but also wartime imagery such as barbed wire, and a general air of menace and violence. When the thorn pictures were first exhibited, in early 1946, they certainly possessed a powerful contemporary resonance, causing one critic to remark that 'these jagged forms are the flora appropriate to a crucified world in which atrocity has become endemic' (see R. Marvell, 'New Pictures', The New Statesman and Nation, 16 February 1946, p. 119).
Sutherland returned to the Thorn Head image obsessively during the post-war years, and this picture is one of his final variations on the theme. In comparison with its predecessors, the treatment here is notably severe and sculptural, typifying a move in Sutherland's art away from the more colourful and decorative idiom that he had evolved during the late 1940s, in response to the light and landscape of the South of France. A revealing contrast may be drawn with the 1949 Thorn Head in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In creating the present picture, Sutherland may have had in mind the bather and head pictures that Picasso painted around 1930, contemplating the Apollinaire monument project, which likewise featured emphatically modelled, grisaille forms set against flat backdrops.
Around the time that he executed the work under discussion, Sutherland talked revealingly about his thorn pictures in a radio interview, explaining his preference for blue backgrounds. The pictures were, in essence, 'about cruelty': 'I attempted to give the idea a double twist, as it were, by setting them in benign circumstances: a blue sky, green grass, Crucifixions under warmth - and blue skies are, in a sense, more powerfully horrifying ...' (see G. Sutherland, 'Thoughts on Painting', The Listener, 6 September 1951, reprinted in Hammer, op. cit., p. 145).
In a letter to Peter Meyer dated 2 November 1951, Sutherland wrote, 'My Dear Peter, I'm delighted that you are to have the Thorn Head & that you like it. To tell the truth I had forgotten that when you said, in my studio, that you liked it - you had implied that you might like to own it. Robert assured me that such was the case & that is why - with great temerity, I left it with him. I'm very glad you like it. But I am wondering if I may ask you the inevitable question - which is awful cheek & a worse nuisance. Would you lend the Thorn Head if I need it for the Venice Biennale? [Thorn Head] is rather special & I do want to try & collect my very best things. If you don't want to lend, I shall understand & I won't blame you. When I painted that picture I did have in the back of my mind the fact that it would make a good 'pendant' for another Thorn' (private correspondence).