Sutcliffe's father, Charles Sutcliffe (1905 – 18 March 1966), 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. After his family moved to England in 1943, he was brought up at 37 Aigburth Drive in Liverpool. He attended Park View Primary School, Huyton (1946–1950), and Prescot Grammar School (1950–1956). When Sutcliffe's father did return home on leave, he invited his son and art college classmate Rod Murray (Sutcliffe's roommate 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 another art student, Margaret Chapman, who competed with Sutcliffe to be the best painter in classes. The flat was opposite the new Anglican cathedral in the rundown 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.
After talking to Sutcliffe one night at The Casbah Coffee Club, owned by Pete Best's mother, Mona Best, Lennon and Paul McCartney persuaded Sutcliffe to buy a Höfner President 500/5 model bass guitar on hire-purchase from Frank Hessey's Music Shop. 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 Beatles). 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" that featured a photograph taken in the flat below Sutcliffe's of a teenaged Lennon lying on the floor. Allan Williams had set up the photograph, subsequently taking over from Sutcliffe to book concerts for "The Silver Beatles", as they were then known—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 HamburgEdit
Main article: The Beatles in HamburgSutcliffe'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 musician whose talents would be better used in the visual arts. 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 claimed 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. Parnes has said that the story is not true at all, as his only concern was that the group had no permanent drummer. Klaus Voormann regarded Sutcliffe as a good bass player.
Sutcliffe's stature grew after he began wearing dark Ray-Ban style clip-on flip-up sunglasses (like baseball players at the time used) and tight skinny trousers. In fact, it was Sutcliffe's artistic ability that enabled him to be part of the band; he bought his bass with prize money from an art show he won. 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 criticise 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 back to Liverpool Friday, January 20, 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 in July 1961 and return to studying painting, although he was turned down when he requested to study for the ATD (Art Teachers Diploma) course at the Liverpool Art College. 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 Höfner 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).
The Stuart Sutcliffe Estate sells memorabilia and artefacts of Sutcliffe's, which include a rare sheet of white paper on which is written the chords and lyrics to a song Lennon and Sutcliffe composed together: "As I stood on the doorstep of romance, You told me, Then you threw your loving arms around me, and you gave me, yes gave me, you gave Peace of Mind..."
Main article: Astrid KirchherrKirchherr was brought up by her widowed mother, Nielsa Kirchherr in Eimsbütteler Strasse in a wealthy part of the 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 colours, 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 later wrote to his parents that he was engaged to Kirchherr, which they were shocked to learn, as they thought he would give up his career as an artist, although he told Kirchherr that he would like to be an art teacher in London or Germany in the future.
After moving into the Kirchherr family's house, Sutcliffe used to borrow her clothes, as he was the same height as Kirchherr. He wore her leather pants and jackets, collarless jackets, over-sized shirts and long scarves. He also borrowed a corduroy suit with no lapels that he wore on stage, which prompted Lennon to sarcastically ask if his mother had lent him the suit.
Sutcliffe displayed artistic talent at an early age. Helen Anderson (a fellow student) remembered his early works as being very aggressive, with dark, moody colours, 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. The picture Moore bought was called Summer Painting, and Sutcliffe attended a formal dinner to celebrate the exhibition with another art student, Susan Williams.
Sutcliffe was turned down when he applied to study for an ATD (Art Teachers Diploma) course at the Liverpool Art College, but after meeting Kirchherr, he decided to leave The Beatles and attend 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. He wrote: "My report is that Sutcliffe is very gifted and very intelligent. In the meantime he has become one of my 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 off 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. (In fact Sutcliffe called himself Stu de Staël as an artist name when he was playing with the Beatles in a Scottish tour in spring 1960. Paul McCartney was then called Paul Ramon and George Harrison called himself Carl Harrison after Carl Perkins. Only John Lennon used his real name.) 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 colour 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, and McCartney had a Paolozzi sculpture in his Cavendish Avenue home.
Whilst in Germany, he began experiencing severe headaches and acute sensitivity to light, and Kirchherr stated that some of the headaches left him temporarily blind. In 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Kirchherr's mother had German doctors perform various checks on him, but they were unable to determine exactly what was causing the headaches. They suggested he go back to England and have himself checked into a hospital with better technologies, but Sutcliffe was told there that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, so he returned to Hamburg without anything being done. While living at the Kirchherrs' house his condition got worse. After collapsing again on 10 April 1962, Sutcliffe was taken to hospital by Kirchherr (she rode with him in the ambulance), but he died before the ambulance reached the hospital.The cause of death was an aneurysm, after bleeding in the right ventricle of his brain.
On April 13, 1962, Kirchherr met The Beatles at Hamburg Airport and told them that Sutcliffe had died a few days before. Millie Sutcliffe flew from Hamburg to Liverpool with her son's body. Charles did not hear of his son's death for three weeks, as he was sailing to South America; the family arranged for a padreto tell him when he docked in Buenos Aires. After Sutcliffe's death, Kirchherr wrote a letter to Millie, apologising 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's] just crying his eyes out.... John is marvellous to me, he says that he knows Stuart so much and he loves him so much that he can understand me."
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, Sutcliffe having been either kicked in the head or thrown, head first, against a brick wall during a fight outside Lathom Hall after a performance in January 1961. 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 unintentionally broke his little finger. Sutcliffe refused medical attention at the time and failed to keep an X-ray appointment at Sefton General Hospital.
The Beatles' compilation album Anthology 1, consisting mostly of previously unreleased recordings from the group's early years, was released in 1995. Sutcliffe is pictured on the front cover, in the top right corner. He was also pictured on the Sgt. Pepper album cover 28 years before but in the top left corner. Sutcliffe 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, TV and booksEdit
Sutcliffe was 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). Sutcliffe's role in the Beatles' early career, as well as the factors that led him to leave the group, is dramatised in the film Backbeat (1994), in which he was portrayed by American actor Stephen Dorff. Three television documentaries have been broadcast that deal with Sutcliffe's life:
- Midnight Angel (1990) Granada TV (networked) U.K.
- Exhibition (1991) Cologne, German TV
- Stuart, His life and Art (2005) BBC
- Stuart Sutcliffe, The Lost Beatle
Books about Sutcliffe:
- Backbeat, Stuart Sutcliffe, The Lost Beatle (1994) Alan Clayson and Pauline Sutcliffe (Pan Books / Sidgwick & Jackson)
- Stuart, The Life and Art of Stuart Sutcliffe (1995) Pauline Sutcliffe and Kay Williams (Genesis Fine Limited Edition)
- The Beatles Shadow, STUART SUTCLIFFE, & his lonely hearts club (2001) Pauline Sutcliffe and Douglas Thompson (Sidgwick & Jackson, an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd)