By Ron Cynewulf Robbins
Churchill was forty before he discovered the pleasures of painting. The compositional challenge of depicting a landscape gave the heroic rebel in him temporary repose. He possessed the heightened perception of the genuine artist to whom no scene is commonplace. Over a period of forty-eight years his creativity yielded more than 500 pictures. His art quickly became half passion, half philosophy. He enjoyed holding forth in speech and print on the aesthetic rewards for amateur devotees. To him it was the greatest of hobbies. He had found his other world—a respite from crowding events and pulsating politics.
His initiation was simplistic. As he put it: “…experiments with a child’s paint-box led me the next morning to produce a complete outfit in oils.” Unfamiliarity with technique could not lessen his determination; discipline—and lessons—would have to wait. Yet a sense of awe seemed to impose restraint. The novitiate was caught by the wife of Sir John Lavery (distinguished leader of the Glasgow school of painting) tentatively handling a small brush.” Painting!” she exclaimed. “But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush—the big one.” She showed him that a brush was a weapon to subdue a blank, intimidating canvas by firing paint at it to dazzling effect. Never again did he feel the slightest inhibition.
Characteristically, Churchill’s first word of advice to budding artists was “audacity.” He was a strong proponent of oils. Without intending any insult, he put “la peinture ‘a l’eau” in second place.
The erratic pendulum of politics afforded him the opportunity to verify that the attraction of painting was no mere infatuation. He was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 at the age of thirty-six and insisted that the Royal Navy shake off the shackles of the 19th century. Larger ships must abandon coal and run on oil; here was his answer to the growing threat from Germany. The First World War saw his political career in jeopardy with the 1915 failure of the Dardanelles expedition for which he was blamed. Relegated to the minor position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he soon resigned to join the army as a colonel. Awaiting embarkation for France, he had time to succumb to the lure of brush and palette. By 1917, he was back in office with the portfolio of Minister of Munitions. His masterly advocacy of the tank to counter the menace of the German machine-gun broke the trench warfare deadlock, and the tank proved historically invaluable during the vital combat at Cambrai.
Encouragement to persevere with his hobby stemmed from an amateur prize (his first) which he won for “Winter Sunshine, Chartwell,” a bright reflection of his Kentish home. He sent five paintings to be exhibited in Paris in the 1920s. Four were sold for £30 each. Making money, it has been well established, was not the incentive, then or ever. Sheer delight accounted for Churchill’s devotion. For the Paris test of his ability he hid his identity under an assumed name: Charles Morin.
Why the disguise? Imperceptive critics attribute it to nervous ego on the part of a statesman to the fore in oratory, soldiery, and literature. The decisive factor is that Churchill’s painting animated him to the point of exaltation and threw open for us another door to the treasure house of his genius. Eager flaw-finders would like us to believe use of a pseudonym was unworthy. In fact, it proves that his ego was not overblown to the extent of excluding a winning modesty, which often surfaced in the course of his astonishing life. Writing for the New York Times Magazine to mark the centenary of Churchill’s birth, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor described how, in old age, Churchill pronounced a verdict on his career: “He remarked that the final verdict of history would take account not only of the victories achieved under his direction, but also of the political results which flowed from them and he added: ‘Judged by this standard, I am not sure that I shall be held to have done very well.’ Churchill did himself an injustice. The results were not his doing; the victories were. The results were foreshadowed when the British people resolved on war with Hitler.”
Modesty shone through that self-estimate. Modesty—and warm sympathy—were undeniably evident in what Churchill told a fellow painter, Sergeant Edmund Murray, his bodyguard from 1950 to 1965. Murray had been in the Foreign Legion and the London Metropolitan Police. Interviewing him to gauge his suitability, Churchill said: “You have had a most interesting life. And I hear you even paint in oils.” After Murray had his work rejected by the Royal Academy, Churchill told him: “You know, your paintings are so much better than mine, but yours are judged on their merit.”
Sergeant Murray was at Churchill’s elbow on many painting outings. He carried the gear and took the photographs Churchill needed for reference indoors. He would voice hints about just where he thought an extra touch would bring improvement. Churchill, absorbed and happy, usually kept on wielding his brush. Sometimes, however, he asked for an opinion. Murray boasted that now and then his advice was taken.
The wealth of organization displayed by an artist’s canvas is rightly considered essential to the proper assessment of virtuosity. Equally pertinent is the assertion that definitive artistic value lies wholly in the workmanship. Churchill’s progressive workmanship demonstrates that a pseudonym employed at a crucial stage shrewdly enabled him to find out where he stood before moving on to fine-tool his talent.
Churchill again favoured a pseudonym (Mr. Winter) in 1947 when offering works to the Royal Academy, so his fame in other spheres was not exploited. Two pictures were accepted and eventually the title of Honorary Academician Extraordinary was conferred on him. He earned it. That is borne out by the conclusion of the renowned painter Sir Oswald Birley: “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.” Connoisseurs of Sir Winston’s art stoutly defend their individual preference, but there are convincing arguments for bestowing highest praise on “The Blue Sitting Room, Trent Park” which was sold in 1949 to aid charity.
A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Churchill was conscious of the abiding unity of poetry, painting and sculpture—”sister arts.” His rise from gifted amateur to academician was no easy flight but, with twinkling mischief which charmed even his enemies, he could be dismissive of his painting skills.
Occasionally he invited a parliamentary journalist to lunch. This provided him with a sounding board and served as a nostalgic reminder of his journalistic days. In April 1946 William Barkley was his choice. A penetrating thinker whose columns were the envy of his Fleet Street colleagues, Barkley once wrote: “…for eyes, Churchill has lakes of cerulean blue.” He meticulously related their table talk.
Asked if he intended to hold an exhibition of his paintings, Churchill derided the idea: “They are not worth it. They are only of interest in having been painted [this with a guffaw] by a notorious character! If Crippen had painted pictures no doubt the public would flock to see them.” He was disdainful of proposals that he retire: “A great many people who want to retire me now were never very eager to advance me.” By 1951, of course, he was Prime Minister once more, compensated for the crushing electoral defeat of the Conservatives in 1945.
Despite outward flippancy, Churchill had a true craftsman’s dedication when he took up a paint brush. He consulted teachers admired for their professionalism. He was fond of citing Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing and readily accepted Sir William Orpen’s suggestion that he should visit Avignon, where the light can verge on a miracle. He recalled an encounter on the C6te d’Azur with artists who worshipped at the throne of Cezanne and gratefully acknowledged the inspiration he derived from their exchange. Marrakech, Morocco—irresistible and productive—always brought out the best in him.
Churchill sought and found tranquillity in his art. His much quoted words, summing up expectations of celestial bliss, retain their lustre: “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject…”
Twin enchantments: Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime and final essay in Amid These Storms (published as Thoughts and Adventures in England, published in volume form, London and New York. 1948); and Churchill: His Life As a Painter, a study by his daughter Mary Soames, published in 1990. David Coombs’s Churchill: His Paintings (1967) is an indispensable catalogue. Sergeant Murray’s autobiography, I Was Churchill’s Bodyguard (1987) is robust and frank.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.