Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998
Last January more than 12,000 people visited a loan exhibition of 105 paintings by Sir Winston Churchill at Sotheby’s in London. Open for less than a fortnight, this was the largest exhibition of his work since the 1959 show at the Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition attracted enormous publicity all over the world.
Most of the reporters were from the younger generation and not one of them knew that Churchill painted, nor of the extent of his work and the reality of his talent. My own involvement with the exhibition stemmed from my book, Churchill: His Paintings, published at the time of Sir Winston’s death. In 1965 it was front page news that he had left all of his paintings to Lady Churchill, and had given very few away in his lifetime. As then-assistant editor of an arts magazine, The Connoisseur, I realised that Sir Winston’s pictures were likely to be dispersed and might even be forged, so an official, illustrated catalogue was required. The family agreed to this idea and I was soon at work.
I was young at the time and looked a great deal younger; I have often thought since that had any of the Churchill family met me then, they would never have trusted me with the job. Certainly such an important catalog is generally the province of distinguished if not elderly experts, so I’m never surprised these days to be greeted by strangers with the remark: “I didn’t know you were still alive!” On the other hand, and as a longtime supporter of the secondhand book trade, I have been cheered by an alternative greeting: “Of course I know who you are. I’ve made more money from you and your book than any other Churchill title.”
When therefore Hugo Swire of Sotheby’s approached me to help with an exhibition of Churchill paintings, I was flattered and excited. Hugo had the idea that the show should include pictures by Sir Winston’s artist friends; this particularly interested me, for in the years following his death I had come to realise that his friendships with a number of important artists were real and genuine. Significantly, I thought, most of these had developed long before the years of Churchill’s great fame.
My initial and enduring impression from examining several hundred pictures by Sir Winston stacked in the dining room at Chartwell, had been wonder at their extent, coupled with the realisation that they showed a sensitivity of temperament not then commonly appreciated. Friendships with artists, therefore, whilst unexpected, were not surprising.
The Sotheby’s show was notable for many generous loans from Mary Soames and others of Sir Winston’s family, individual and private owners and the National Trust at Chartwell. Churchill’s paintings were arranged principally in two large galleries in roughly chronological order. As the exhibit’s curator, I decided to hang them in as attractive a manner as possible by placing similar scenes together: views of Cannes or Blenheim for instance. This made for an interesting and varied show that emphasized the subjects and variety of techniques rather than the art—for there is no point in denying that Sir Winston was a variable artist. After all, he was an amateur, and I feel very strongly that his pictures should be judged for what they are.
Attempts at art historical evaluation of Churchill’s paintings are at best embarrassing in my view and, significantly, the most sensitive art criticisms of his work continue to be made by professional artists.
That said, I’ve consistently thought the best of Churchill’s pictures to be very fine in their own right. I first realised this, coincidentally also at Sotheby’s, in 1966 when one of his paintings, “Ightam Mote,” was part of a sale of Impressionist art and looked securely in place amongst the other pictures. The 1998 exhibition also gave me the opportunity to reconsider some of the dates of one or two pictures, having seen them in the context of so many others at once.
The second part of the exhibition was devoted to works by Churchill’s friends: Sir John Lavery, Walter Sickert, Sir William Nicholson and Paul Maze. It was particularly enlightening to hang two original paintings by John Singer Sargent directly beside the copies that Sir Winston made of them: the Sargents were masterpieces and Churchill’s copies were excellent and honourable works that confirmed his own skills.
There was a further section of the exhibition devoted to portraits of Sir Winston by, for example, Sir William Orpen, Frank Salisbury, Oscar Nemon and Sir Oswald Birley; and there were several Laverys including one from the Gallery of Modem Art in Dublin. In addition, the National Portrait Gallery in London loaned three sketches by Graham Sutherland for the 80th birthday portrait, later destroyed by Lady Churchill.
The opportunity of introducing Sir Winston’s paintings to a new generation was one unexpected consequence of the Sotheby’s exhibition. Another was the chance to talk to a number of privately organised groups of visitors, including one from the International Churchill Society in the UK, and to share with them my own constantly developing ideas.
The most unexpected result of the exhibition has been an opportunity to publish a revised and updated version of my original 1967 catalogue. This is a daunting prospect which, should it be confirmed, will require a new book entirely rethought in terms of its content for a new generation of readers.
The Sotheby’s catalogue already represents the basis of what I shall be suggesting; it contains a very detailed chronology setting Sir Winston’s interest in painting against his other concerns and activities, plus a relatively complete compendium of his writings on art. This latter included two littlenoticed pieces of art criticism dating from the 1930s but most crucially, the whole text of Painting as a Pastime which, after all, explains in Churchill’s own incomparable words the reason for it all.
The principal impetus for the Sotheby’s exhibition had been the opportunity for commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the first appearance in book form of Painting as a Pastime, and of Sir Winston’s appointment by the Royal Academy to the unique distinction of “Honorary Academician Extraordinary.” Whatever may be its other and longer-term consequences, in respect of these celebrations the exhibition was a triumphant success.
Mr. Coombs, the preeminent expert on Churchill’s paintings, hopes to produce a sequel to his famous catalogue, Churchill: His Paintings (London, Cleveland: 1967).