Sutherland was born in London in August 1903. He took an apprenticeship in engineering at the Midland Railway works at Derby between 1920 and 1921, after which he attended Goldsmith’s College School of Art, University of London, where he specialised in etching.
Sutherland’s first one-man show of drawings and engravings was held at the Twenty-One Gallery, London in 1924. He did not begin painting until around 1930, when the decline in popularity of etchings and engravings necessitated the change in his use of media. His first one-man show of paintings was exhibited at the Rosenberg & Helft Gallery, London in 1938. A retrospective exhibition of his work was shown at the Tate Gallery, London in 1982. His work was exhibited at Crane Kalman Gallery in 1956 and 1999.
Sutherland’s early works were rather conservative evocations of rural England, which seems surprising since he is now known as a modern artist. During the 1920s, the teaching staff at Goldsmith’s could hardly be called progressive. It appears that it was not until about 1927 that Sutherland became aware of the new developments in art, and his style became visibly more simplistic. In 1944 he was commissioned to paint a mural of the Crucifixion for a church in Northampton, for which he looked to thorn bushes when making studies for the Crown of Thorns. It is from this time that the spiky forms which characterise Sutherland’s work came to be seen.