Artworks and Beatles ephemera including an incomplete novel about Lennon among work by visual artist and bass player who died aged 21

Ben Beaumont-Thomas Tue 30 Jan 2024 07.27 ESTShare

The archive of Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist with the Beatles, is up for sale, featuring more than 400 paintings and drawings – plus astonishing Beatles ephemera including an unfinished novel about John Lennon.

Sutcliffe was a galvanising force in the Beatles, who met John Lennon when the pair were art students in Liverpool – after joining Paul McCartney and George Harrison in skiffle group the Quarrymen, it was Sutcliffe and Lennon who spliced a reference to Beat poets with a nod to Buddy Holly’s band the Crickets, thus creating the Beatles’ band name.

The poetic, artistically gifted Sutcliffe paused his studies to go on the road with the band to a concert residency in a Hamburg nightclub. “History is my father and tomorrow is my son,” he wrote wistfully before leaving, and as the band became a sensation in the city, told his sister: “I’ve become very popular both with girls and homosexuals, who tell me I’m the sweetest, most beautiful boy.”

He met a regular gig-goer, Astrid Kirchherr, and despite each not speaking the other’s language, fell in love – she also became the key photographer of the Beatles’ early career. The band’s residency fell apart (McCartney and drummer Pete Best were deported home after being arrested on suspicion of arson) and they returned home. They went back for another stint in the spring of 1961, but having got engaged to Kirchherr he quit the Beatles later that year – lending his bass to McCartney – to settle in Hamburg, live with her and continue his art studies, with pop art legend Eduardo Paolozzi among his teachers.

John Lennon (L) and George Harrison sign an autograph during a walk along the Champs Elysees, Paris, 1964.

Sutcliffe’s life and career was tragically cut short when he died of a brain haemorrhage aged 21 in April 1962. Despite his young age he had amassed a sizeable body of visual art, with an emphasis on abstract expressionist painting.

That artwork, along with items such as a Sutcliffe-penned letter with the Quarrymen’s name crossed out and replaced with “Beatals”, is now up for sale, with his estate heralding “an exceptional collectors opportunity: a unique acquisition of the complete art and artefact collection of Stuart Sutcliffe”.

The listing goes on to describe it further:

This comprehensive archive comprises over 400 poetic artworks, several amid prior exhibits in prestigious galleries and museums. Complimenting the art includes 200 documents: letters, poems, essays, and an incomplete novel about John Lennon. It weaves a captivating visual narrative, featuring 37 original photographs chronicling the band’s formative days in England and Germany. Within these treasures lie poignant letters exchanged between Sutcliffe, Lennon, and their inner circle, unveiling the depth of their relationships and the fervent creativity igniting their iconic artistic journey.

Speaking to Artnet, the archive’s administrator Diane Vitale – who took over estate management from Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline after she died in 2019 – said she hoped it would be preserved whole. “I’d like to keep it together – that was Pauline’s dream from the very beginning,” she said. “But it might be that the artefacts could go to a museum or university, then the major art, about 150 pieces that have been widely exhibited, would go to a collector. That’s probably realistic.”

The work is stored in East Hampton, New York, and has been loaned to museums such as New York’s Guggenheim and Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Vitale has said she has received numerous inquiries since listing the archive on 23 January.