Phillip Sutton RA

Featured Artist
October 3, 2020
OBERBILLEG, 1982, watercolour, 29.5 x 40cm, £750
OBERBILLEG, 1982, watercolour, 29.5 x 40cm, £750
Oberbillig is a municipality in the Trier-Saarburg district, in Rhineland-Paltinate, Germany.  It is situated on the Moselle River, a situation reflected in the design of its coat of arms.  The town’s foundation dates back to the Roman era.  There is a car ferry across the Moselle that connects Oberbillig in Germany to the city of Wasserbillig in Luxemburg – in the middle ages these two towns were known as Billig.

Sutton painted this view on his travels around Germany in 1982 – at this period in his life he was living in London in Battersea.  The Sutton household was described the Sunday Times Art Critic ‘an outpost of Eden’.  However, Sutton enjoyed travelling abroad to see varying landscapes rather different to those of Battersea Park!!


This same year, 1982, Sutton has an exhibition at the Contemporanea Galerie für Moderne Kunste, Germany and it is highly likely that this watercolour would have been shown.


Heather’s Meadow, 1996, titled, signed and dated, watercolour, 56 x 75cm [sold]


Philip Sutton married Heather Coooke in 1953 at St Pancras Register Office in London.  In 1988 just as Sutton retired from teaching at the Slade, Heather inherited the property in Manorbier, a quiet seaside community in South Pembrokeshire and the birthplace of the twelfth-century churchman and chronicler Gerald of Wales who called it “the pleasantest spot in Wales”.  The couple finally sold their London house in 1989 and were able to buy the house next door in Manorbier and there they created a studio for Philip.  In front of the two houses the Suttons have a meadow, a copse and a kitchen garden where Heather grew vegetables.  This tranquil spot, alive with trees, birds, flowers, the sound of the sea and the beautiful skies became Philip’s principal muse.  “You can see the sea through the trees here, it’s a presence, a comforting thing, like someone you know being always nearby.  Being in the country gives you a personal tranquility; you can absorb things in a different way”.


Tenby, Wales, signed, titled and dated 1996, watercolour, 55 x 75cm [sold]


Tenby is a harbour town and resort in southwest Wales. It’s known for its 13th-century town walls and its stretches of sandy shoreline, including Castle Beach. The ruins of Tenby Castle are on a headland overlooking the harbour. Sutton painted landscapes all around his home in South Pembrokeshire – Tenby is on the West side of Camarthen Bay.  This will be a view from one of the sandy beaches and back towards the land.  Sutton had an exhibition in 1995 at the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery.



For me colour is all about invention, having the freedom to choose from a kaleidoscope of options that than matching reality.  I feel like a wild musician running through and orchestra, playing any instrument I wish.”

The 1980’s was a busy decade for Philip Sutton, during which he discovered a new versatility and was invited to test his techniques and style in commercial projects for the first time as his name became increasingly well known. He continued to teach at the Slade and he emerged from this period with a confidence and ease in the depiction of form and colour for which he had been striving.


In 1976, the new president of the Royal Academy, Sir Hugh Casson invited Sutton to tea.  He had been impressed with an exhibition of paintings by Sutton shown at the Cork Street dealers, Rowland Browse and Delbanco (later Browse & Darby). Following this introduction Sutton became an associate of the Royal Academy and he was elected a full Royal Academician in 1988.  At which time Casson persuaded him to have a retrospective exhibition at the Academy.  This was a rare accolade for a newly elected member and one that demonstrates how eager Casson was to recruit him.   Sutton found himself in an environment in which his own reputation, firmly established in the market by now, began to take on a wider dimension.

During the 80’s & 90’s Sutton travelled widely around Europe painting many watercolours ‘en plein air’ depicting his travels.  In 1984 he was commissioned by Shell to create a tapestry and the watercolour sketches painted in and around the Shell’s North Sea oil rigs and the massive refinery at Sullom Voe in Shetland, are as light of touch and colour and show nothing of the artist’s actual feelings for the rigs “like something out of Dante’s hell, scary but fascinating.” The tapestry was completed and installed in 1985.



At the same time Philip Sutton was commissioned by the chief executive of the venture-capitalist group ‘Investors in Industry’ or 3i, to designed their logo.  Months of intensive work eventually resulted in a design that was liked.  Almost a quarter of a century later it is still the brand logo!


In 1986 the Labour Party commissioned Sutton to come up with a new logo.  They agreed on a rose in line with European Socialist parties.  The commissioners studied a range of works by Sutton among them ‘two or three watercolours, which, although they were much less powerful than some of the others, managed to combine humanity and sensitivity with clarity as a rose – and redness of the rose’.  It subsequently became and remains the basis of the party’s logo.

In 1988 Sutton created a poster for the London Underground “Soho by day, by night by Tube” following on from an earlier poster for the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition.


Philip Sutton
Philip Sutton


This Royal Academy poster depicted the artist’s daughter Saskia.  It was spotted by a friend of the film director Sam Wanamaker who said it reminded him of his daughter Zoë.    Sam Wanamaker was the guiding inspiration behind the planned reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.   With the RA poster in mind Wanamaker went to see Sutton in his studio.  He was to commission a poster for the Globe.  The resulting painting was a large and ruddy portrait of Shakespeare with scenes from his plays in the background.  This was to be the first of a steady stream of Shakespearean paintings in particular depictions of Agincourt from Philip’s favourite play Henry V.  The Shakespeare series toured the country in 1997 saw an uncharacteristic departure into fantasy for Sutton.  The series became the subject of a television documentary, filmed over two years, and Wanamaker agreed that when the Globe was completed they would have a foyer exhibition of the Sutton paintings, which would be the conclusion of the TV film.


Philip Sutton


In 1988 The Royal Academy invited Sutton to design crockery for use in its restaurant and to sell in the shop.  He painted delicate leaves in light-hearted greens, pinks, yellows and pale blues, bound into the shape by zigzag lines; a simple kind of folk art.  In the same year Sutton retired from teaching at the Slade and at the same time Heather inherited a property in Manorbier, a quiet seaside community in South Pembrokeshire and the birthplace of the twelfth-century churchman and chronicler Gerald of Wales who called it “the pleasantest spot in Wales”.


The daring use of brilliant colour of the artist’s work from the 70’s onwards was not yet there in the early Slade days.  Craigie Aitchison recalls that Sutton was more preoccupied with form and line, working out systems of harmony in both mood and colour to find unity and rhythm in a composition.  Euan Uglow was later to observe “I know everybody thinks Phil is a colourist but I think he is very good draughtsman”.  In one respect, Sutton agrees with Uglow that his pictures are not paintings at all but drawings using colour and using colour with growing freedom.


Sutton’s style, much influenced by Matisse, started with his early career at the Slade School of art and continued throughout his life – it was Matisse’s observation and invention that Sutton admired ‘It seemed to be a wonderful mix of play and seriousness – a bit like the ocean coming onto rocks, something that moves very fast and is very powerful meeting something static and hard, so what you get on the seashore is a sort of marriage of two very different elements’.  Sutton could see how Matisse would start with a realistic representation and then simplify it until it became not quite abstract, but it was a process that baffled him “I couldn’t wear Matisse’s clothes; I had to find my own.  What I evolved was that if I did a number of presentations of one thing I could change the original format and make it vary direct from the object, but I only alter it between the canvases”.  As each impulse fades he will go to a clean sheet or canvas and try something else.  “If you’re lucky, each bit of the jigsaw is as fresh as a daisy and it all fits together”.  It was something that the art critic, Charles S. Spencer noticed when he stayed with the family: “In a way, this explains the remarkable intensity of his landscapes; the feeling of conflict and the spontaneity”.


Sutton has painted landscapes throughout his life from the flat expanses of the East Anglian countryside when he lived in Suffolk in his early married life, to those of Battersea Park around the corner from Soudan Road where the family lived for very many years and where their children grew up;  Cornwall from his years living and teaching in Falmouth Art School in the 70’s; to his endless wanderings of the landscapes of Europe; in his home in the seaside village of Manorbier, where he moved in 1989 and his final home in West Dorset where he still continues to paint.


Sutton is represented by 7 works in the Tate Gallery London.


His “Tree” below is the highlight.


Philip Sutton


Collections:  The Royal Academy, The Tate, The Globe, The Welsh Assembly, Kensington Palace, & The UK Parliament.

Exhibitions: London, Paris, Sydney, and Chicago.

Bibliography: Philip Sutton “Life & Work”, Simon Tait and John Russell Taylor, Royal Academy of Arts 2008

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