In early 1921 Winston Churchill visited Paris to attend the opening of a new painter named Charles Morin. Morin had never shown his work in public before. There was a reason for that: Morin didn't exist. In fact, the exhibition was the first public showing of Winston Churchill's own paintings.
In 1925, Churchill took aother step as a painter when, anonymously, he won the prize in a contest for amateur artists. The jury consisted of three big shots from the British art establishment: the royal portrait painter Oswald Birley, art critic Kenneth Clark and Joseph Duveen, one of the most influential art dealers in history.
From then on until the end of his life in 1965 – with time out only to battle the Nazis in World War II – Churchill continued to paint, often under phony names, until he had amassed a body of work that finally numbered over 500 landscapes, still lifes, interior scenes and portraits.
In 1947, this time as “Mr. Winter,” Churchill had two paintings accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. This outed him as an artist under his own name and the following year the Academy awarded him the preposterous title of Honorary Academician Extraordinary.
Since his wartime leadership had made him one of the most famous men in the world, the revelation that he was also an artist suddenly made him the world’s most famous Sunday painter as well.
As Prime Minister during the war Churchill had naturally found little time to paint. His only picture from that period is a landscape of Marrakech, one of his favorite locations, painted in 1943 when he flew to Casablanca for a wartime conference with Roosevelt.
Then in 1945, with the war in Europe over, the British electorate turned Churchill out of office. Although he was deeply hurt by the rejection, a friend told him it might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe, he replied, but if so, it was very well disguised.
In fact, the enforced retirement probably did benefit Churchill in various ways. First, it spared him the huge task of rebuilding a country bankrupted by war. Second, it spared him the dirty job of dismembering the British empire, which as a die-hard imperialist, he would have opposed. And third, it left him time to write and paint.
The last 20 years of Churchill’s life were probably one of the most productive “retirements” on record. During that time he wrote his six volume history of The Second World War, finished his four volume History of the English Speaking Peoples and was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. And, financially secure at last, he was free to visit his favorite vacation spots, always traveling with his easel and paintbox.
In many ways, this last phase of his painter’s life mirrored its beginning.
Churchill took up painting during World War I when, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he became the designated scapegoat for the British military disaster at Gallipoli. Although the entire war cabinet is now generally thought to have been complicit in the debacle, at the time, one of them had to take the fall and for various reasons Churchill was it.
Rather than accept a minor appointment as consolation: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Churchill, always looking for action, opted instead to enlist in the army and went to France to serve in the trenches on the Western Front.
It was during the wait for embarkation that his sister-in-law Gwendeline gave him a set of watercolors and suggested he take up painting to relieve his depression. He tried the watercolors, then switched to oils.
By his own account he was a timid beginner. He credited his artistic breakthrough to a friend, Hazel Lavery, a painter and the wife of a painter. She came to visit one day and found him sitting at a portable easel in front of a bucolic scene, dithering over a canvas.
As Churchill later told it, she let him have it. “What are you hesitating about?” she cried. “Let me have a brush – the big one. Then, ”splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and white...then several large, fierce strokes and slashes.“
Churchill says he took her advice and from that time on: “The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away...I have never felt in awe of a canvas since.”
After the first world war, Churchill bounced back as a politician, rising as high as Chancellor of the Exchequer. But always outspoken and often at odds with his own government, he was widely considered to be a loose cannon and was soon out of office again.
Then the 1929 Wall Street crash wiped out his life savings, and to make very expensive ends meet, he decided to concentrate on writing books and magazine articles. For the next decade Churchill was considered by everyone to be a burnt-out case.
He remained an MP in the House of Commons, but many colleagues found him an irritant and an embarrassment. The man who ten years later would rally the world against the Nazis with his defiant speeches found that in the Thirties, when he got up to address the House, some members would walk out, while others stayed to laugh and heckle.
The reason was the nature of his speeches. Almost alone among British politicians he watched the military build-up of the fascist governments in Italy and Germany and warned that it presaged a coming firestorm that England was unprepared to meet.
Convinced that his own government was lying about its military readiness, Churchill developed sources within the bureaucracy who secretly fed him accurate facts and figures.
Year after year, he used this information to expose his government’s dishonesty and to challenge the fecklessness of its policy of appeasing Hitler. This won him few friends in high places, while his apocalyptic warnings earned him a reputation as a nut and a warmonger.
Still, despite the abuse heaped on him, he persisted. “When you’re going through hell,” he philosophized, “keep going.”
"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities," Churchill once wrote "because it is the quality which guarantees all others."
In the end, the war vindicated him and made him world famous. Which meant that anything he did after that, including painting, became grist for the fame machine of the expanding mass media.
As his “pastime” became public, he tended to mock the value of his pictures. “They are only of interest,” he said, “in having been painted by a notorious character!”
Yet from 1949 on, when "The Blue Sitting Room, Trent Park" was sold to aid charity, it became clear to many people that the former Prime Minister had become something more than a dabbler.
Of the many books Churchill wrote, there's a little one called Painting as a Pastime, published in 1950. As a man who seems to have had an opinion on everything – and who rarely left an opinion unexpressed – it's not surprising that he had opinions on art, and you can find many of them there:
"Armed with a paint-box, one cannot be bored…"
"At one side of the palette there is white, at the other black; and neither is ever used neat."
"We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint box."
"I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns."
It all has the crackerbarrel sound of the amateur artist. And not surprisingly, many of his cenvases do look pretty amateurish.
Yet looked at over the course of his painting career, Churchill's pictures exhibit a growing sophistication of perspective, composition, design and craftsmanship. And, considering that he never studied art, he appears to have had the instinctive color sense of a born artist.
The quality of his work led the artist Oswald Birley to conclude: "If Churchill had given the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been by all odds the world’s greatest painter."
Winston Churchill led an extraordinary life. Born in a palace just nine years after the American Civil War, he lived to oversee his country's role in the development of the Atomic Bomb.
As a young man, he fought in several wars himself, as both a combatant and a war correspondent – by all accounts with unusual bravery and composure under fire. In 1897, he served in combat on the Northwest Frontier of India and the next year rode in history's last great cavalry charge, at Omdurman in the Sudan. In the Second Boer War, he was captured and after a month's imprisonment in Pretoria, made a daring and celebrated escape that led to a political career back home.
As a politician he became a modern Cicero, until late in life, fate handed him a role greater than Cicero's: as a victorious war leader in the greatest war in history.
As a Cabinet officer in the Twenties, he initiated many of Britain's needed social reforms. As a diplomat in two world wars, he helped draw up (for better or worse) several of the states of eastern Europe and the Middle East. As an orator he become the western world’s voice of defiance to the war criminals of the Third Reich. And as an author he wrote 43 books (in 72 volumes) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If all this leads one to ask how he ever found time to paint 500 paintings, it's a good question.
Churchill was that rare bird: an English impressionist. It's true he was working 50 years after Impressionism was in flower. But he wasn't alone. Bonnard, for example, painted his own impressionist canvases until his death in 1947.
And Monet was still painting his signature water lilies until well into the era of the automobile, the airplane, radio and the movies: until 1927 to be exact, six years after Churchill first exhibited his own pictures as Charles Morin.
Of course, Churchill's impressionism is of a singular sort. We usually associate the movement with bohemian artists such as Pissarro, Cezanne or Van Gogh. Churchill's paintings emerge from a world of privilege. He shows us the sitting rooms, manors and country homes of the British aristocracy. All painted without apology. But painted without class consciousness as well.
A snob might write them off the way Anthony Blanche does Charles Ryder’s paintings in Brideshead Revisited: “charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm...”
But in fact Churchill was simply painting the world he knew and frankly, I give him extra points for never slumming in search of a fake “authenticity.”
These days we read that collectors are buying his paintings for as much as three million bucks or more. And no doubt some of the buyers justify Churchill's own caveat by deeming his pictures famous only because he was. Some would probably be just as happy owning a guitar once strummed by Churchill’s namesake (born during the London Blitz): John Winston Lennon.
Yet when I see these paintings, I see the work of a fellow artist and I find in them things I could learn from.
So with Churchill – or Churchill’s bust, anyway – in the news recently, I thought it might be of interest to recall the side of Churchill that rarely makes the news. And to note something that Kenneth Clark said about art in general when he began his 1969 television "essay," Civilisation:
"Great nations," he said, quoting Ruskin, "write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last."
Churchill, unlike most artists, wrote his own autobiography in all three books. And his influence on world affairs has justly settled the world's attention on the record of his words and deeds.
Yet his pictures might still outlast the blinding fame of his controversial life. They may yet acquire a life of their own. They record glimpses of a world that has passed or is passing and they show us a man who was in love with life and in love with paint.
And if we side with Ruskin in the matter, it's the paintings we should trust.
I first became aware of Churchill’s paintings when I was in second grade and found an old copy of Life magazine in the attic. It was the post-war issue that had first publicized the victorious war leader as a Sunday painter. At the time, I was looking for a bow and some arrows my dad had promised me were up in the oven we called an attic, so I skimmed the article, moved on through the rafters, and didn't think much more about it.
Years later I came across Churchill's art again when I worked briefly at Hallmark in Kansas City. Sometime in the Fifties, I learned, in the process of re-branding Hall Brothers as Hallmark, old Joyce Hall had seen the public relations virtue of licensing Churchill's art for a high end line of greeting cards. The company ended up buying a dozen or so canvases and the first day I showed up for work at 25th and McGee, they had them on display in the lobby. This time, I paid more attention and was surprised by how good they were.
These days you can see Churchill's pictures all over the Internet. I found all but one of these at the Museum Syndicate, where you can see many more. The orchid painting I found at Born Rich.