Happy are the painters, for they shall never be lonely —Winston Churchill
On May 25, 1915, Winston Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty, the civilian head of the world’s largest navy and the principal defense of Britain and its global Empire. While he was just past forty, contemporaries saw Churchill’s forced departure as the premature end of meteoric political career which had begun with his election to Parliament at the age of twenty-four and ascension to the Cabinet in 1908 as its youngest member in almost half a century. He had become First Lord in 1911 at only thirty-six and filled the role with his customary zeal and energy. Even critics admitted that when the First World War began in August 1914, “the Fleet was ready.”
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Churchill’s downfall came on the heels of the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles, a joint Anglo-French effort to force a passage to Constantinople and knock Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war. Churchill bore heavy but not exclusive responsibility for the failure and was demoted to the near-meaningless post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, where he lasted exactly six months before leaving government altogether. Churchill’s ouster was of particular satisfaction to the Conservative Party which he had dramatically abandoned in 1904; his departure was one of the conditions for the Tories’ willingness to form a coalition government with Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith.
The blow struck Churchill with blunt force, especially since from an early age he thought himself destined to be Prime Minister, prophesying to a friend at age sixteen “In the high position I shall occupy, it shall fall to me to save . . . the Empire.” Prone to discouragement if not the “black dog” of clinical depression, he recalled of his downfall, “Like a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst. . . . I had great anxiety and no means to relieve it.”
His wife Clementine lamented, “I thought he would die of grief.”
Churchill and his young family retreated to the isolation of a rented country house in Surrey. There he noticed his younger brother Jack’s wife “Goonie” painting. Seeing his curiosity, she lent him her son’s paint box and in Churchill’s words, “Then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue—out of charity and out of chivalry.”
Reveling in the distraction from his seemingly broken public life, Churchill plunged into art. For the next forty years, through two world wars and into the atomic age, painting was his great passion. He completed over 500 oils, a selection of which have traveled the country in the last three years, including stops in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Palm Beach.
Churchill’s talent developed quickly. Some of his first images were created in early 1916 when he was posted to the front in Belgium as a Lt. Col. in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. At the same time, barely ten miles across the lines, a lower-ranked German soldier, a corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, worked at his own sketchpad. Unlike Churchill, he had dreamed of becoming a professional artist. Having twice been rejected for admission to the Vienna Academy of Art, however, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to military service, and then, after Germany’s defeat two and a half years later, to politics. As Fuhrer of the Thousand Year Reich, he imagined himself a patron of the arts and told his henchman that after Germany’s victory in the Second World War, he would retire to his hometown of Linz and resume an artistic life.
Winston Churchill’s political obituary was premature. He returned to the Cabinet in 1917 and for the next twenty-two years was in and out of government, spending the 1930’s as the most prominent opponent of appeasement of Nazi Germany. Painting was the one constant in his volatile life and as he traveled through Britain, Europe, and North America, his easel, brushes, and paints were regular companions.
Churchill’s skillfully rendered subjects ranged from the Tapestry Room at his ancestral home Blenheim Palace to the Pyramids at the 1921 Cairo Conference. He regularly painted in the south of France, enjoying the hospitality of his friends Lord Beaverbrook and the Duke of Westminster, and in the 1930’s discovered the bright sun of Marrakech. On trips to North America, he depicted the Canadian West and, later, Florida. But above all, he found his favorite subjects at his beloved country home Chartwell, in Kent. He told his family, “A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.”
But, as much as he loved painting, Churchill abruptly stopped—in September 1939 when Britain went to war. He chose not pick up a brush for the next six years as the free world struggled to defeat the twin empires of Germany and Japan. There was but one exception: in January 1943 after joining Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, he insisted the President accompany him on a side trip to Marrakech, saying, “I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.” They ascended the tower at the Villa Taylor at dusk, Churchill climbing the winding stairs, the paralyzed FDR carried in the arms of two military aides. When the President left safely the next morning, Churchill turned to his valet and said, “Sawyers, get me my paint box.”
The result is arguably the most iconic of all Churchill paintings, a beautiful view of the Katoubia Mosque set against the Atlas Mountains. Given to Roosevelt, it hung at his home in Hyde Park, NY and was sold by the President’s son Elliott seven years later, reportedly for $25,000. The picture eventually disappeared from view, remerging only in 2011 when a New Orleans art dealer sold it, likely at close to the $2,950,000 asking price, to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. (Not as improbable as it sounds—Ms. Jolie has long been interested in making a film about Roosevelt and Churchill, with Anthony Hopkins playing the Englishman. She also has a tattoo on her left forearm with the date May 13, 1940: the day of Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech.)
With the end of the war and Churchill’s stunning—to many Americans, inexplicable—defeat in the July 1945 British election, he enthusiastically returned to painting, continuing what he called his “daubs” until 1962, three years before his death at age 90. His last work, an almost abstract study of the goldfish pond at Chartwell, was sold in November 2017 at Sotheby’s London, realizing £357,000 against an estimate of
How good was he? Not very, said some experts—the Director of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Institute, noting that Churchill was an amateur bricklayer, once sniffed “Nobody is exhibiting bricks this season.”
But Sir John Lavery, one of the major British artists of Churchill’s time and also his tutor, claimed perhaps too admiringly, “Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship I believe he would have been a great master of the brush.” In 1947, under the pseudonym “Mr. David Winter,” Churchill successfully submitted two paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. And in 1921, only six years after he began painting, six Churchills were consigned to the Gallery Druet in Paris where they sold promptly for £30 each. Unfortunately, they were modestly signed with the name “Charles Morin” and have not been seen since.
Reflecting his own delight in painting, Churchill’s advice in a 1920’s magazine article was “To be really happy . . . one ought to have at least two or three hobbies and they must all be real.” For his wartime ally and friend Franklin Roosevelt, the hobbies were stamps and ship models, and for his other American friend Dwight Eisenhower it too was painting, although Ike was neither as skilled nor as prolific as Churchill.
More recently, George W. Bush, leaving the White House and casting around for ways to keep busy, discovered Churchill’s charming book Painting as a Pastime. Suitably inspired, he acquired a teacher and began a vigorous second life as an artist, working almost every day. Concentrating on portraiture, his recent book on wounded veterans, Portraits of Courage, became a national bestseller. “43’s” work has been favorably received, even by liberal media critical of his political legacy. He is reportedly now undertaking a portrait of Churchill himself.
Winston Churchill, always looking to the future, declared in Painting as a Pastime, “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.”
Assuming he proceeded there directly after his death in 1965 without, as he might have quipped, “any intermediate stops or change in direction,” 999,947 years of artistic learning remain. As with every aspect of the great man’s life, the results would be interesting to behold.