By Michael Faris
Stu Sutcliffe was one of the original members of the Beatles and a talented Abstract Expressionist artist. A friend of John Lennon from art school, he became the bass player for the new band, then known as the Silver Beatles. He eventually quit the band in 1961 to continue his career as a visual artist.
Sutcliffe was exposed to music throughout his childhood, singing in the church choir, taking piano lessons, playing the bugle for the Air Training Corps, and learning some guitar chords from his father. He was also interested in visual art, and attended the Liverpool College of Art. He was a star at the school, a talented artist who was one of the best painters in the College. This is where he met Lennon through a mutual friend. He and Lennon eventually moved in together, sharing a dilapidated Liverpool flat that had bare lightbulbs and mattresses on the floor.
Lennon introduced Sutcliffe to another musician, Paul McCartney. McCartney and Lennon planned to start a band, and they persuaded Sutcliffe to become the bass player for the new band. They discussed their plans at the Casbah Coffee Club, a place owned by Mona Best, the mother of Pete Best. It was during this time that McCartney said that he was jealous of the relationship that Sutcliffe and Lennon had, stating that he always “took a back seat” when they were together.
In May, 1960, Sutcliffe, Lennon, McCartney, and guitar player George Harrison started a band. Within a short time, Sutcliffe, Lennon, and Cynthia Powell (Lennon’s girlfriend) came up with the name “the Beetles” for the group, because they thought it sounded similar to “the Crickets,” Buddy Holly’s band name. They eventually went through other band names, such as “the Silver Beats” and “the Silver Beatles,” before they settled on “the Beatles.”
The Silver Beatles embarked on a European tour in May, 1960, with Sutcliffe on bass and Tommy Moore on drums. The members adopted crazy aliases for the tour. Lennon became “Long John,” McCartney became “Paul Ramon,” Sutcliffe became “Stuart de Staël,” and Harrison became “Carl Harrison.”
Sutcliffe was apparently an average bass player. Drummer Pete Best liked playing with him, saying that he was good with the audiences. He had a habit of turning his back to the spectators, which made some viewers believe that he was concerned about his playing skills. Klaus Voorman described him as a good bass player, but others found him to be a mediocre talent.
At this time, his art school friends complained that his visual art was suffering because of his time with the band. They felt that his true talent was in painting. Sutcliffe was torn by this concept. He continued with the band, but remained as active as possible with his painting.
At this time, Sutcliffe was one of the coolest of the band members. He dated a stylish German photographer, Astrid Kirchherr. He wore tight pants and Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. He let his hair get a little longer than the standard. In 1961, he was one of the coolest people in England. When he sang Love me Tender at concerts, he received more applause than any other song in the set.
The popularity of the band, and the attractiveness of the individual members, sometimes caused jealous hostility from audience members and the general public. Band members were sometimes challenged and accosted by antagonistic people who were envious of the success of the group. In January 1961, Sutcliffe was attacked outside Lathom Hall in Liverpool by a group who were offended by his “long hair,” which they said made him look like a girl. Sutcliffe hit his head against a brick wall during the altercation and would have been beaten further if Lennon and Best would not have intervened. Sutcliffe suffered a broken skull and Lennon had a broken little finger from the fight.
Always torn between the world of visual art and world of music, Sutcliffe was awarded a scholarship to graduate school at the Hamburg College of Art in June 1961. He left the band, by now known as “the Beatles,” and studied with the famous Eduardo Paolozzi at the school. He loaned McCartney his bass, and Paul became the bass player for the band. By this time, Pete Best was the drummer for the band. Sutcliffe started school full time in Hamburg.
Paolozzi considered Sutcliffe to be a very talented student. He wrote that he was “very gifted and very intelligent” in one of his evaluations. He became one of the best students in the school. He sold some works, and continued to improve with the help of Paolozzi.
But he was having headaches. They were bad headaches, accompanied by sensitivity to light. They gradually became more and more regular and more severe. There were times when the headaches made him temporarily unable to see. In March 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in pain in one of this art classes. Local doctors ran several tests on him, but were unable to determine the cause of his problems. They suggested that he return to England for tests at more sophisticated medical facilities, but he ignored the doctors. He moved in with the Kirchherr family, but his condition continued to worsen.
Sutcliffe collapsed again on April 10, 1962. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Astrid rode with him in the ambulance, but he died before they reached the hospital. The cause of death was diagnosed to have been a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a ruptured aneurysm. Stu Sutcliffe was dead at the age of twenty-one. It is unknown what caused the aneurysm, but the earlier broken skull certainly might have been a contributing factor in the death of this young man.
Said Kirchherr later, “He died in my arms on that journey. I cannot say it was unexpected but the suddenness. The loss to me was great, and to anyone who knew him, because he was a genius, with a great mind and an original talent as an artist. He would have been outstanding, if he’d lived.” Neither Kirchherr nor any of the Beatles attended his funeral.
In retrospect, what are we to make of the life and work of this talented young man? His art could best be described as Abstract Expressionist, being produced at a time when Abstract Expressionism was on its last years of peak popularity. However, the works are great examples of this type of painting. As Harper Levine, an art collector and Harper’s Books founder, asserted, “Sutcliffe is really one of the great undiscovered artists of the 20th century. Because he is so often remembered as the so-called fifth Beatle, many people don’t realize that he was a genius in his own right. When I discovered his work I was so struck by how modern and fully-formed it was in concept and its use of different media; it looked like what contemporary artists now are trying really hard to do but in Stuart’s case, it looked completely effortless. That’s why, with the recent exhibition, I was so keen to decontextualize Stuart’s work within the paradigm of today’s contemporary art world.”
There are still Stu Sutcliffe artworks for sale from his estate. The work is just as vibrant today as when it was produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We have included some reproductions of his work here. You can also visit the website of his estate works here:
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About the Writer
Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com.