In 1951, the Institute of Contemporary Arts held a retrospective of Graham Sutherland's works which featured, as 'no. 5' in the catalogue, Vine Pergola. This picture had been painted only four years earlier, but the emphasis of the show on Sutherland's more recent works revealed his own enthusiasm for the shift in tone and content that had occurred during that time. The catalogue featured a preface written by Raymond Mortimer, who was the owner of Vine Pergola; it would subsequently pass from him to the architect Paul Hyslop; in turn, Hyslop's collection was inherited by the eminent author and historian Jack Lander.
Sutherland painted Vine Pergola in 1947, the year of his first visits to the South of France, where he had partly been encouraged to visit by Francis Bacon, then staying in Monte Carlo. Looking at the picture, it is clearly the scenery, the light and the atmosphere of the South of France that has inspired Sutherland: there is a sense of warm light, of heat from the sun, of the abundant foliage hanging from the pergola of the title. Vine Pergola shows flora in a landscape, continuing one of the subjects that Sutherland had explored a great deal in previous years, yet here he has advanced the theme, spurred on by his fascination for the South of France.
It is an indication of Sutherland's complete seduction by the Mediterranean area of France that, following his first visit at the beginning of 1947, he eagerly sought to return there later that year, travelling with Lucian Freud. Where during his first stay, he had returned with sketchbooks crammed with ideas and motifs, on his second trip he stayed for a prolonged amount of time, painting extensively. He would visit year after year, eventually acquiring a place of his own in Menton in 1955. The pergola would appear in a number of paintings over the years, including works now in public collections such as that of the British Council, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Before visiting France, where he would come to meet the titans of Twentieth Century painting, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Sutherland had been exploring the theme of thorns, with the notion of the Crucifixion constantly present. In Vine Pergola, the thorns have been replaced with the darting, bowing forms of the vine, itself trellised upon the structure; at the same time, there appears to be a hint of a spectral figure within the vines, with arms raised, as is the case in several other pictures on the theme, providing an analogue for Christ.
Meanwhile, there is a complex interplay between the geometric rigidity of the frame's struts and its bowing beams, as well as the organic vine that snakes its way up and to the sides. In a sense, this is a vision of a plant thriving, providing shelter. And yet, against the stark landscape, it appears all the more stark, thrust into relief and granted an intense, almost surreal expressiveness. In its composition, it can even be seen as an analogue to the Crucifixions that had been lingering in his mind. It is intriguing, considering the epiphany that occurred for Sutherland in the South of France, that his friend and supporter Kenneth Clark had been anxious about the effect his first visit might have on the artist (see R. Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London, 1982, p. 132).
When Vine Pergola was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951, Mortimer's essay on Sutherland explained that his own reaction to his works was complicated. They did not appeal to his 'taste or temperament; but greatly impressed him. 'It is ... against my ingrained predipositions that I salute Mr. Sutherland, subjugated by the intensity with which he projects his so personal and imaginative vision,' he wrote. 'To live with his pictures entails, I have found, facing a continual challenge which brings with it a life-enhancing experience' (R. Mortimer, Graham Sutherland Exhibition 1924-1951: A Retrospective Selection, exhibition catalogue, London, 1951, n.p.).