Finest Hour 179, Winter 2018
“Add my most loyal salutations to you-know-who and tell him I’m going to do him justice in bronze.”1
—Sculptor David McFall to Wendy Reves
Timothy Riley is Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum.
On 28 January 1958, sculptor David McFall RA arrived in the south of France with a singular mission: to capture an image of one of the most famous and most recognizable men in the world—Sir Winston Churchill.
The formal announcement that McFall, thirty-eight and a native Scot, would be commissioned to create an eight-foot bronze statue of Sir Winston as a tribute to the statesman’s thirty-three years representing Woodford (formerly Epping) would follow in the weeks ahead, but McFall wasted little time in getting to work.
When McFall arrived at Villa La Pausa, Rocquebrune, Cap Martin, the home of Churchill’s publisher Emery Reves and his American wife Wendy, the sculptor found his subject on the brink of illness.
“When I went to Rocquebrune to sculpt him, just before his illness, I was struck by something in him I had not expected to see. Tragedy. His age is a matter of great sorrow to him, and I have caught him at a very tragic moment of his life. I felt I had to do this intimate, unhappy head of him. I shall not use this head for the statue. The statue will be of legend. But this is just the head of a man. In his glory—and disappointment.”2 The bronze casting of this sorrowful Churchill is a recent acquisition of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College.
While McFall’s initial sculpture of Churchill may have been influenced by Churchill’s lamentable mood and imminent illness, it is a strikingly honest and intimate portrait. It was cast in bronze and exhibited in London at the Royal Academy of the Arts during the 1958 Summer Exhibition. At the time, McFall commented on his approach to sculpting Churchill: “I know he doesn’t like pompous, self-important artists, so I made myself as invisible as possible. I put him on an ordinary chair instead of a rostrum, which meant that I had to work on my knees. And I used the minimum equipment. By persuading him that I was hardly there at all, I caught the private, instead of public, expression.”3
Putting the private depiction aside, McFall fervently turned his attention to creating, as promised, the “legend” of Churchill. With Wendy Reves as intercessor, the sculptor contacted Clementine Churchill, who immediately took interest in McFall’s work. Lady Churchill did not hesitate to provide suggestions, offer advice, and send photographs of her husband taken during the war—his “finest hours.”
“Dear Mr McFall, I tried unsuccessfully to reach you on the telephone this morning, as I wanted to talk to you about the statue,” wrote Lady Churchill. “I think it a remarkable achievement; but I am disturbed at what to me, seems an exaggeration—indeed a caricature of Winston. Here are two photographs taken during the war period. In both we have the projecting lower lip, but not swollen as it appears to be in the statue.”4
Advice from Lady Churchill, her daughter Diana, and Wendy Reves informed and influenced McFall, who ultimately created a statue of legend. The final work was unveiled on 31 October 1959 by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery with Sir Winston in attendance. Sir Winston, upon inspection of the statue from every angle—in one of the shortest speeches of his life—remarked, “Very nice.”
David McFall’s Rocquebrune Head will be included in the upcoming exhibition “Imaging Churchill” at the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College. The exhibition, which opens March 1, will also include sculptures of Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein and Oscar Nemon.
1. Letter from David McFall to Wendy Reves, 27 February 1958, Emery Reves Papers, National Churchill Museum at Westminster College.
2. Daily Herald, 31 March 1958.
4. Letter from Clementine Churchill to David McFall, 13 December 1958, Reves Papers.