Timothy Riley is the Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Curator of the National Churchill Museum
On 12 February 1945, Peter Solly-Flood, former Special Operations Executive operative and then Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, wrote to Major Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, chief aide to President Harry Truman. Solly-Flood’s message was short and his topic small.
When the letter arrived at the White House, Gen. Vaughan received a clear message: “on the occasion of his visit there on the 5th of March” Winston Churchill did not expect any sort of gift or present from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Solly-Flood noted that the former Prime Minister “is very much looking forward to visit there for its own sake alone.”
Churchill clearly appreciated the invitation to Fulton, which had been extended four months earlier. The great statesman was particularly pleased to know he would be introduced by President Truman. When the day arrived, Churchill, in the opening of his historic “Sinews of Peace” (“Iron Curtain”) speech, underscored his feeling on the matter:
It is also an honor, perhaps almost unique, for a private visitor to be introduced to an academic audience by the President of the United States. Amid his heavy burdens, duties, and responsibilities—unsought but not recoiled from—the President has traveled a thousand miles to dignify and magnify our meeting here to-day and to give me an opportunity of addressing this kindred nation….
While Churchill politely and formally eschewed a gift, Solly-Flood did provide advice should Westminster College wish to express its appreciation: “If, however, the University [sic] particularly wishes to give him a present, Mr. Churchill would be very happy to receive a painting by Thomas Hart Benton—but he hopes that the painting selected will not be too large as he has only got a small house at present and the wall space is limited!”
The college’s board of trustees, with the help of Harry Vaughan, himself a Westminster alumnus, secured—for the princely sum of $150—an 8” x 12” oil on canvas by Hart-Benton entitled The New Fence. The work was presented to Churchill, himself an avid painter, during his Fulton visit.
The painting, a recent gift from James H. Hance, Jr., and the Bank of America, has returned to Fulton, where it is on permanent display at America’s National Churchill Museum.
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