Finest Hour 191, First Quarter 2021
Review by Barry Phipps
Barry Phipps is Director of Studies in the History of Art at Churchill College, Cambridge.
Paul Rafferty, Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera, Unicorn, 2020, 208 pages, £35. ISBN 978–1913491093
In this lavish book, introduced by HRH the Prince of Wales, artist Paul Rafferty takes us on an exhilarating journey around the South of France. As a resident of the Riviera, Rafferty feels an enthusiasm for this region as compelling as Churchill’s own joyride in a paint box. It is clear from the outset that the author has revelled in tracking down the subjects of Churchill’s paintings, using every resource at his disposal to identify the point where the easel was positioned and the canvas was produced. The reader is carried along from Pont du Gard to Roquebrune, into Provence and Cannes, and every other important stop along the way of Churchill’s painterly travels. This trail is brought to life by detailed location information, historical documentary photographs, and rich biographical sketches, as well as insights into the influences, techniques and methods of the artist at work—and sometimes at play.
The mainstay of the book is a series of beautifully reproduced images of Churchill’s paintings positioned alongside lavish contemporary photographs. It is a voyage through the series of canvases Churchill produced in a part of France that he often visited and clearly adored. In so doing Rafferty places the reader both in front of the painting and amidst the landscape—albeit seventy or so years later—affording the opportunity to see the world as the painter saw it; watching the radiant sun as it dances and sparkles across the sea, or sitting in the dappled shade of a terrace looking out onto the dusky hills in the distance. As a result, one invariably reflects on both the artist’s choice of a particular point of view and the nature that he laboured hard to capture. Those in many ways are the legacies of this remarkable book.
Like Churchill, Rafferty paints the light of this region. Indeed, the South of France has been an inspiration for many of the most influential artists of the twentieth century: Cezanne, Monet, and the Fauves. The author goes on to discuss those artists who significantly affected Churchill’s painting style: William Nicholson, Julius Olsson, John Singer Sargent, and Walter Sickert, amongst others. He skilfully draws out technical aspects of painting employed by Churchill to render these views in energetic brushstrokes, offering detailed insights into the tools of his practice: easel, palette, paints, brushes, and even his eyeglasses.
Rafferty is a passionate observer of Churchill’s work, and as an accomplished painter in his own right, he makes an engaging tour guide. Yet, this is far from just a guidebook to the sites of Churchill’s paintings. The book is also a detective story. The “scoop” came when the author, during his research in the photographic archives held at Chartwell, chanced upon a photograph of a hitherto unattributed painting. In the chapter “Finding the Proof,” he rehearses the story of the painting featured on the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series, which has subsequently been authenticated and titled “St Paul de Vence, Fountain” (c. 1935) C547.
The book is about a particular artist working in a particular region of France, and perhaps most importantly, it is written by one artist in conversation with another through a shared love of painting, light, and place. Rafferty is enraptured by both Churchill and the French Riviera. It is the readers’ good fortune that he brings them along for the joyride.