Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beatle People: Stuart Sutcliffe

Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe (23 June 1940 – 10 April 1962) was a painter, and the original bassist of The Beatles for eighteen months (January 1960 - June 1961). Sutcliffe earned praise for his paintings, which mostly explored a style related to Abstract Expressionism. Sutcliffe is one of the group of people sometimes referred to as "the fifth Beatle."

Sutcliffe and John Lennon are credited with coming up with the name for the Beatles, as they both liked Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets. Sutcliffe played with the Beatles in Hamburg, where he met photographer Astrid Kirchherr, to whom he was later engaged. He enrolled in the Hamburg College of Art after leaving The Beatles, and studied under future pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi.

Sutcliffe suffered from debilitating headaches while he was studying in Hamburg, and although tests were carried out by German doctors, no reason could be found for his worsening condition. He died of a brain haemorrhage on the way to the hospital on April 10, 1962, with Kirchherr sitting alongside him in the ambulance.

Early years

Sutcliffe's father, Charles Sutcliffe, was a naval officer, who was often at sea during his son's early years. His mother, Millie, was a schoolteacher. Sutcliffe had two sisters: Pauline and Joyce.

Sutcliffe was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion Hospital, in Edinburgh, Scotland, brought up at 37 Aigburth Drive in Liverpool, and attended the Prescot Grammar School. When Sutcliffe's father did return home on leave, he invited his son and art college classmate, Rod Murray (Sutcliffe's room-mate and best friend) for a "real good booze-up" and slipped £10 into Sutcliffe's pocket before disappearing for another six months. During his first year at the Liverpool College of Art Sutcliffe worked as a bin man on the Liverpool Corporation waste collection trucks. Lennon was introduced to Sutcliffe by Bill Harry, a mutual friend, when they were all studying at Liverpool College of Art, and according to Lennon, Sutcliffe had a "marvellous art portfolio", and was a seriously talented painter who was one of the "stars" of the school. Paul McCartney said that he was jealous of Sutcliffe's relationship with Lennon, as he had to take a "back seat" to Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe lived at 9 Percy Street with fellow art student and best friend, Rod Murray, before being evicted and moving to Hillary Mansions at 3 Gambier Terrace, with fellow another art student, Margaret Chapman, who competed with Sutcliffe for the best painter spot in classes. The flat was opposite the new Anglican Cathedral in the run-down area of Liverpool 8, with bare lightbulbs and a mattress on the floor in the corner. Lennon moved in with Sutcliffe in early 1960. Sutcliffe and his flatmates painted the rooms yellow and black, which his landlady did not appreciate. On another occasion the tenants, needing to keep warm, burned the landlady's furniture in the flat.

After talking to Sutcliffe one night at The Casbah Coffee Club, owned by Pete Best's mother, Mona Best, Lennon and McCartney persuaded Sutcliffe to buy an oversized (for tiny Stuart) Höfner President 500/5 model bass guitar on hire purchase from Frank Hessey's Music Shop, with some of the money he had earned in the John Moores art exhibition as a downpayment.

Sutcliffe was somewhat versed in music; he had sung in the local church choir in Huyton, his mother had insisted on piano lessons for him since the age of nine, he had played bugle in the Air Training Corps, and his father had taught him a few chords on the guitar. In May 1960, Sutcliffe joined Lennon, McCartney and Harrison (then known as The Silver Beetles). Sutcliffe's fingers would often blister during long rehearsals, as he had never played long enough for his fingers to become calloused, although he had previously played acoustic guitar. Sutcliffe started acting as a booking agent for the group, and they often used his Gambier Terrace flat as a rehearsal room.

In July 1960, the British Sunday newspaper The People ran an article entitled, "The Beatnik Horror", which featured a photograph taken in the flat below Sutcliffe's, with a teenaged Lennon lying on the floor. Allan Williams had set up the photograph. He took over from Sutcliffe booking concerts for "The Silver Beetles", as they were then known, which was Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe. The Beatles' subsequent name-change came from an afternoon in the Renshaw Hall bar when Sutcliffe, Lennon, and Cynthia Powell thought up names similar to Buddy Holly's band, The Crickets, and came up with The Beatals. Lennon later changed the name to "The Beatles," because he thought it sounded French and suggested Le Beat, or Beat-less.

The Beatles and Hamburg

Sutcliffe's playing style was elementary, mostly sticking to root notes of chords. Bill Harry, an art school friend of Sutcliffe's and the group, and founder and editor of the Mersey Beat newspaper, complained to Sutcliffe that he should be concentrating on art and not music, as he thought that Sutcliffe was a competent but not brilliant bassist. While Sutcliffe is often described in Beatles biographies as appearing very uncomfortable onstage, and as often playing with his back to the audience, Pete Best denies this, recalling Sutcliffe as usually good-natured and "animated" before an audience. When The Beatles auditioned for Larry Parnes at the Wyvern Club, Seel Street, Liverpool, Williams stated that Parnes would have taken the group as the backing band for Billy Fury, but as Sutcliffe turned his back to Parnes throughout the audition — because, as Williams believed, Sutcliffe couldn't play very well — Parnes said that he would only employ the group if they got rid of Sutcliffe. Harry has said that the story is not true, as Parnes' only concern was that the group had no permanent drummer.

McCartney has said that Sutcliffe was a typical art student, with bad skin and pimples, although in Hamburg, his stature grew after he began wearing dark Ray-Ban style clip-on flip-up sunglasses (like baseball players at the time used) and tight trousers. Sutcliffe's high spot was singing "Love Me Tender," which drew more applause than the other Beatles, and increased the friction between him and McCartney. Lennon also started to criticize Sutcliffe, and made jokes about Sutcliffe's size and playing. On 5 December 1960, George Harrison was sent back to England for being under-age. McCartney and Best were deported for attempted arson at the Bambi Kino, which left Lennon and Sutcliffe in Hamburg. Lennon took a train home, but as Sutcliffe had a cold he stayed in Hamburg. Sutcliffe later borrowed airfare money from Kirchherr in order to fly to Liverpool in early January 1961, though he returned to Hamburg, in March 1961, with the other Beatles.

About eight months after meeting fellow artist, Kirchherr, Sutcliffe decided to leave The Beatles and return to studying painting.

Stuart chose to spend his twenty-first (June 23 1961) and final birthday watching, rather than playing on, the My Bonnie recording sessions.

He later enrolled at the Hamburg College of Art under the tutelage of the pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. He lent McCartney his bass until the latter could earn enough to buy a specially made smaller left-handed Hoffner bass guitar of his own in about June, 1961. Sutcliffe had asked McCartney (who is left-handed) not to change the strings around, so McCartney had to play it upside down. In 1967, The Beatles included a photo of Sutcliffe among those on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (he appears at the extreme left, next to fellow artist Aubrey Beardsley).

Astrid Kirchherr

Kirchherr was raised by her widowed mother, Nielsa Kirchherr, in Eimsbütteler Strasse in the wealthy Hamburg suburb of Altona. Sutcliffe met Kirchherr in the Kaiserkeller club, where she went to watch The Beatles perform. After a photo session with them, Kirchherr invited the group to her mother's house for tea and showed them her bedroom, decorated in all black —- including the furniture -— with silver foil on the walls, and a large tree branch hanging from the ceiling. Sutcliffe began dating Kirchherr shortly thereafter.

Sutcliffe wrote to friends that he was infatuated with Kirchherr, and asked her friends which colors, films, books, and painters she liked. Pete Best commented that the beginning of their relationship was, "like one of those fairy stories." Kirchherr and Sutcliffe got engaged in November, 1960, and exchanged rings, as is the German custom. Sutcliffe wrote to his parents that he was engaged to Kirchherr, something they were shocked to learn, as they assumed he would give up his career as an artist. Kirchherr and Sutcliffe traveled to Liverpool in the summer of 1961, as Kirchherr wanted to meet Sutcliffe's family and to see his home city before their marriage.


Sutcliffe displayed artistic talent at an early age. Helen Anderson (a fellow student) remembered his early works as being very aggressive, with dark, moody colors, which was not the type of painting she expected from such a quiet student.

One of Sutcliffe's paintings was shown at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool as part of the John Moores exhibition from November 1959 until January 1960. After the exhibition, Moores bought Sutcliffe's canvas for £65, which was then equal to 6–7 weeks' wages for an average working man.

After meeting Kirchherr, Sutcliffe decided to leave The Beatles and enrolled at the Hamburg College of Art in June 1961, under the tutelage of Paolozzi, who later wrote a report stating that Sutcliffe was one of his "best students."

Sutcliffe's few surviving works reveal influence from the British and European abstract artists contemporary with the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States. His earlier figurative work is reminiscent of the kitchen sink school, particularly of John Bratby, though Sutcliffe was producing abstract work by the end of the 1950s, including The Summer Painting, purchased by Moores. Rod Murray remembered that the painting was painted on a board, not a canvas, and had to be cut into two pieces (because of its size) and hinged. Murray added that only one of the pieces actually got to the exhibition (because they stopped of in a pub to celebrate) but sold nonetheless because Moores bought it for his son.

Sutcliffe's works bear some comparison with those of John Hoyland and Nicolas de Staël, though they are more lyrical. His later works are typically untitled, constructed from heavily impastoed slabs of pigment in the manner of de Staël (whom he learned about from Surrey born, Art College instructor, Nicky Horsfield), and overlaid with scratched or squeezed linear elements creating enclosed spaces. Hamburg Painting no. 2 was purchased by Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery and is one of a series entitled "Hamburg" in which the surface and color changes produced atmospheric energy. European artists (including Paolozzi) were influencing Sutcliffe at the time. The Walker Art Gallery has other works by Sutcliffe, which are "Self-portrait" (in charcoal) and "The Crucifixion."

Lennon later hung a pair of Sutcliffe's paintings in his house (Kenwood) in Weybridge. McCartney had a Paolozzi sculpture in his Cavendish Avenue home.


Stuart Sutcliffe collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Kirchherr's mother had German doctors perform various tests, but they were unable to determine exactly what was causing the intense headaches from which he had been suffering. While living at the Kirchherrs' house in Hamburg, his condition grew steadily worse. After collapsing again, Sutcliffe was taken to a hospital by Kirchherr (who rode with him in the ambulance), but he died before reaching the hospital. The cause of death was cerebral paralysis, after bleeding in the right ventricle of his brain.

On 13 April 1962, Kirchherr met The Beatles at the Hamburg airport and told them that Sutcliffe had died from a brain haemorrhage a few days before. It has never been known precisely what caused the brain hemorrhage that took Sutcliffe's life. Some believe that the cause was an earlier head injury, having been either kicked in the head or thrown headfirst into a brick wall during a fight outside Lathom Hall after a performance in January 1961 (although Sutcliffe had been beaten up before). According to former manager Allan Williams, Lennon and Best went to Sutcliffe's aid, fighting off his attackers before dragging him to safety. Sutcliffe sustained a fractured skull in the fight, and Lennon broke his little finger.

Sutcliffe had refused medical attention at the time (and had not kept an X-ray appointment at the Sefton General Hospital). He saw a doctor only months later in Germany, when he began experiencing severe headaches and acute sensitivity to light. Kirchherr said later that some of the headaches left Sutcliffe temporarily blind. After Sutcliffe's death, Kirchherr wrote a letter to Millie Sutcliffe, apologizing for being too ill to attend his funeral in Liverpool and saying how much she and Lennon missed him:
Oh, Mum, he [Lennon] is in a terrible mood now, he just can't believe that darling Stuart never comes back. He just crying his eyes out ... John is marvellous to me, he says that he know Stuart so much and he love him so much that he can understand me.

Anthology 1

The Beatles' compilation album Anthology 1, consisting mostly of previously unreleased recordings from the band's early years, was released in 1995. Sutcliffe is pictured on the front cover, in the top right corner, as he was on the Sgt. Pepper album cover 28 years before. He is featured playing bass with the Beatles on three songs that the band recorded in 1960: "Hallelujah, I Love Her So", "You'll Be Mine", and "Cayenne."

Film portrayals

Sutcliffe's role in the Beatles' early career, as well as the factors that led him to leave the group, is dramatized in the film Backbeat (1994), in which he was portrayed by Stephen Dorff. He was also portrayed by David Wilkinson in the film Birth of the Beatles (1979) and by Lee Williams in In His Life: The John Lennon Story (2000).

Pauline Sutcliffe's memoir

In 2001, Sutcliffe's younger sister, Pauline (a former psychotherapist) published a memoir which included claims that Sutcliffe and Lennon had a homosexual relationship.

She also wrote that the cerebral haemorrhage that Sutcliffe died of was caused by an injury inflicted by Lennon in a jealous rage while in Hamburg (corroborated by the Lennons' Dakota neighbor (and the mother of Sean's playmate, Kaitlin), Marnie Hair, in Albert Goldman's Lives of Lennon book).

After Sutcliffe died doctors revealed he had an indent in his skull, which must have been the result of some kind of "trauma."

She claims that a few months before Sutcliffe's death, Lennon had viciously kicked Sutcliffe in the head in an unprovoked attack, as Lennon was bitterly resentful of Sutcliffe's affair with Kirchherr. The book received immense publicity. She moved to the United States in 2002, and settled in Wainscott, New York, and still owns most of Sutcliffe's art work and letters.

She said that she did not want to reveal what she believed until after the death of her mother, Millie.

Among the papers she presented was a letter from Sutcliffe to his mother discussing that both men and women were attracted to him:
“I'm waiting for my main meal of the day — beefsteak and mashed potatoes and a glass of milk — this costs 4 marks, every day. [I have just sung] and received the best applause of the night. Moments after I have finished singing, the people all look at me with sad wistful looks on their faces. Recently I've become very popular both with girls and homosexuals, who tell me I'm the sweetest, most beautiful boy. Imagine it, me, the one who has such a complex because I was small and thought I was ugly... It appears that people refer to me as the James Dean of Hamburg... I'm quite flattered.”

Pauline commented about the media reaction to the two claims in 2007: "I didn't throw out these two themes... They were extrapolated out by the media. I think I'm quite sophisticated, but, boy, was I naive."


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