Politics and Landscapes
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
"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."
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.
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.”
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.
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.