Finest Hour 170, Fall 2015
Review by Paul H. Courtenay
Fake or Fortune? Season Four, Episode Four
Executive Producer: Simon Shaw First broadcast by the BBC on 26 July 2015
Each week on the BBC Television show Fake or Fortune? art experts examine paintings of dubious authenticity. Using forensic skills as well as Sherlockian methods, the experts eventually decide whether or not the owners of the paintings are about to become millionaires. This past summer the subject of inquiry was a painting possibly done by Churchill but which was unsigned.
The owner of the painting, Charles Henty, received the canvas from his father, who had bought a London house around 1962 that once belonged to Churchill’s daughter Sarah. Three paintings were found in the coal cellar: one was signed by Churchill and two were not. Henty’s father showed them to Sarah’s mother, Clementine, who took possession of the picture signed by her husband and a second, which she said was by Paul Maze. The finder was allowed to keep
the unsigned painting, which thus became the subject of the recent BBC programme.
The mystery painting certainly appears to the untutored eye as if it very well could have been painted by Churchill. It shows a street-corner containing a fountain and other features, the architecture appearing to be of Mediterranean design. Henty, who is Under Sheriff at the Old Bailey, said that he had heard that the work might have been painted in Fez (Morocco); but that he had become a little deaf, so it might have been in Èze (near Nice in the South of France).
The picture was shown to Minnie Churchill, who is the family expert on the paintings of WSC. She knew that Sir Winston had visited Èze and found the colouring very striking, but she had never seen people painted by him in the way they were depicted and was therefore not sure about the picture’s origin. Thus she felt unable to give it her blessing. David Coombs, author of the definitive catalogue of Churchill paintings, gave a cautious reaction, saying that the colouring was not typical and that the figures were not sufficiently amateur, adding that it would be necessary to know when and where it had been painted and the history of the picture between its completion and its discovery in the coal-cellar.
Henty and programme co-host Fiona Bruce then visited Èze, but could find no sign of the street-corner nor any inhabitants who could identify such a location in the village. They then had the luck to meet a local artist who said that it was a street-corner in the nearby village of St Paul-de-Vence, where he himself lived. Visiting the hilltop village, the team found the undoubted site. They then visited with a widow whose husband had run an art gallery opposite the very street-corner in the picture. The woman explained that her late husband had met Churchill when the scene was being painted shortly after the war and had even provided some tubes when Churchill ran out of paint in exchange for one of the artist’s ubiquitous cigars. It was suggested that this might explain the colouring being a little different from Churchill’s normal choices.
Back in London the team found a BBC newsreel from 1949, which stated that St. Paul-de-Vence was popular with artists and that Winston Churchill himself had once painted the village fountain. Further evidence established that Churchill had been in the south of France in early October 1945 and had given a signed photograph of himself dated at that time to the aunt of the widow whom they had met. Additionally, close study found that a light layer of wax had been spread over the canvas at some point, and that when this coating was removed the colours appeared much more vivid.
The team presented all that they had discovered to David Coombs, but Coombs said that, while the painting was very interesting, he was still unwilling to give it his backing; nevertheless, he undertook to include it in the next edition of his catalogue, in a chapter headed “Mysteries,” which led the team to conclude that the case was still open and that, some day, an indisputable piece of evidence might emerge.