Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) led a fascinating life and became famous as a witty satirist of the post-colonial world, such as through his novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage. The writer stated that he has ‘never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many’ (Preface to Creatures of Circumstances, London, 1947).
Sutherland met Maugham when they were staying on the island of St Jean Cap Ferrat, Côte d'Azur. The artist remarked to a mutual friend that Maugham was the sort of man that he would like to paint. This wish was communicated to Maugham, and the first sitting took place on 17 February 1949. Maugham, then aged seventy-five, gave the painter ten sittings of one hour each day. Sutherland produced pencil sketches, which he later worked from to create the finished oil Somerset Maugham (Tate, London). The power of this painting stems largely from the depiction of the head and from the artist’s precision of drawing, capturing his fascination with the folds, pouches and wrinkles in Maugham’s face. This was Sutherland’s first venture into portraiture and something of an experiment. Douglas Cooper comments that, ‘the result, however, justified the hopes of both the sitter and artist and marks an important turning point in Sutherland’s oeuvre. The painting of it enabled Sutherland to gain experience which has affected the conception and execution of all his subsequent works, and has showed him how to reconcile his way of looking at nature with his observation of man’ (see D. Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London, 1962, p. 50).