John Fleet is a British film-maker. He is currently making a documentary about Winston Churchill and his friendship with Alexander Korda.
In early 1935, Winston Churchill wrote an urgent letter to the Hungarian-born British film producer Alexander Korda. He had just completed a screenplay entitled The Reign of George V and was anxious that “not another day be lost in the preparation of the sets.”1 So confident was Churchill that he cautioned in the text of his screenplay, “the audience must have a chance to recover from the cataract of impressions and emotions to which they will be subjected.”2
It was to be “an imperial film embodying the sentiments, anxieties and achievements of the British people all over the world.”3 Churchill was under contract to Korda as assistant-producer and historical adviser for a handsome sum, so much so that he had sidetracked his long-overdue biography of Marlborough.
Churchill believed that “with the pregnant word, illustrated by the compelling picture, it will be possible to bring home to a vast audience the basic truths about many questions of public importance.”4
The main problem, however, was that the screenplay showed no concern for budget. Here is how Churchill painted a few of his scenes:
Winston Churchill loved the movies. And just at the moment, the movies love Winston Churchill. Of course, he would have used the words cinema or film, but his maternal connection to the United States, always the center of the film industry, meant that he was no stranger to American idioms.
The larger than life Churchill is a natural subject for film, but it has been mostly on the small screen that he has been represented. Actors have played Churchill at nearly all stages of his life, though most dramatizations naturally center upon the Second World War. Sometimes Churchill has been the star, and sometimes he has been a supporting character. Michael F. Bishop gives us his selection of what he sees as the best five in which Churchill is the featured player.
In Finest Hour 174, David Lough explained that it was the selling of film rights to his books that ultimately placed Churchill’s finances on a sound basis. The producer who purchased the rights was Sir Alexander Korda. In this issue John Fleet tells us more about Korda and his relationship with Churchill.
Director Joe Wright, International Churchill Society Executive Director Michael F. Bishop, Actor Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman, who plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and Joe Wright, the film’s director, visited the National Churchill Library and Center on November 4. They were in Washington for a private screening for Members of Congress and others the night before. The visit was arranged by Focus Features, the distributor of the film.
During their hour-long visit, Mr. Oldman and Mr. Wright received a private tour from NCLC Director Michael F. Bishop. They were particularly interested in the calendar engagement cards on which the prime minister’s wartime schedule was recorded and admired the other original artifacts and documents on display, including the wedding gifts that Clementine gave her husband.
In brief remarks, Mr. Bishop commended Mr. Oldman for his performance and Mr. Wright for conjuring a gripping thriller out of the intense Cabinet debates of May 1940, and thanked them for inspiring a new generation to learn more about Churchill’s extraordinary historical importance. Darkest Hour was released in theaters November 22, 2017.
Timothy Riley is Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum.
“Both my wife and I stand in need of some rest and sunshine and we hope it would be possible for us to live very quietly indeed with you for some few weeks,” Winston Churchill wrote on 22 November 1945 to his old Canadian friend Col. Frank Clarke, who had a home in Miami. Churchill continued, “The President has asked me to visit Westminster University [sic], Missouri, which is his home state, and deliver an address. He proposes himself to be present and introduce me. This will obviously be a public appearance of considerable importance.”1
Churchill may have believed that a day away from Chartwell was a day wasted, but he wasted little time in asking an old friend for temporary accommodation at his home on North Bay Road in Miami Beach. Like many before him—and countless since— Churchill sought a much-needed and well-deserved period of rest and relaxation in south Florida.
After years of war and three dismal months following his defeat in the general election of July 1945, Churchill received an invitation from Westminster College President Franc McCluer. Churchill’s spirits were buoyed by the now-famous postscript from President Truman: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. If you come, I’ll introduce you.”
Churchill was delighted to receive recognition as an artist when he was made Honorary Academician Extraordinary in 1948, by the Royal Academy of Arts. But not all in the art world were so positive about his talents. In 1958 the assistant director of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Institute declined the opportunity to exhibit Churchill’s painting by referring to one of his other ‘hobbies’: ‘I understand that Churchill is a terrific bricklayer too, but nobody is exhibiting bricks this season.’ The director of the Art Institute of Chicago was more brusque: ‘We have certain professional standards.’ Others were rather more generous.
Churchill continued to paint until he was in his eighties, still taking pleasure in his hobby. On his travels – to France, Italy (and Lake Como), Jamaica, and, after his resignation from government in 1955, to Sicily – Churchill was never without his paints and easel. He left Britain to find some sunshine and warm weather at Lord Beaverbrook’s villa La Capponcina at Cap D’Ail – this was to become an increasingly favoured haven in his last years for painting – and to La Pausa, a villa near Roquebrune above Cap Martin, the home of Emery and Wendy Reves.
‘Do not turn the superior eye of critical passivity upon these efforts …. We must not be ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box.’
Churchill, Painting as a Pastime
Paintings by Churchill are still being discovered. In 2012, a previously unknown oil entitled ‘Still Life with Orchids’ materialised, having been in the Sandys family ever since Churchill presented it to Margot Sandys, the young wife of his daughter’s father-in-law. It was put up for sale with an estimated selling price of £750,000.
Churchill’s paintings were reproduced during his lifetime in various publications and many of these originals have yet to be traced (these include those that accompanied his articles in the Strand Magazine in 1921, 1922 and 1946, in the Illustrated London News of 1954 and, most surprisingly perhaps, those that illustrated the catalogue of his Royal Academy Exhibition in 1959).
£100,000? £250,000? £700,000? £1 million? Churchill’s paintings can now command a considerable sale price, particularly if they have impeccable provenance (as in the case of the painting given to Truman). The Truman gift, ‘Marrakech’, (according to the auction house, Sotheby’s, ‘arguably superior’ to ‘View of Tinherir’ ‘in both composition and provenance’) was sold in December 2007 with a guide price of £300, 000–£500,000, achieving £468,700.
At the time of the sale, the Sotheby’s specialist in twentieth century British art said: ‘The rise of Churchill through the art market over the past few years has been remarkable and we are thrilled to be bringing another of his most important and accomplished works to the saleroom at a time when interest in his amazing ‘pastime’ is stronger than ever … ‘Marrakech’ … is a superb example of Churchill at his very best’ (Art Daily). (The less ‘superior’ painting entitled ‘View of Tinherir’ given by Churchill in 1953 as a gift to US General George Marshall, was sold at auction in 2006 by his granddaughter, for £612,800. It had been expected to fetch about £250,000.) A July 2007 auction saw a record £1,000,000 for a Churchill painting, ‘Chartwell Landscape with Sheep’, originally presented to Clare Booth Luce.
Churchill gave many of his paintings away as gifts (so although there are around five hundred-plus paintings by him known to exist, there are almost certainly more than this as records of these gifts weren’t always kept – and paintings still keep coming to light. President Roosevelt was only one such recipient. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower all received paintings from him, as did Viscount Montgomery, David Lloyd-George and US General George C. Marshall – as well as several young women in his family and social circle.
‘This picture … is about as presentable as anything I can produce. It shows the beautiful panorama of the snow-capped Atlas mountains in Marrakech. This is the view I persuaded your predecessor [Roosevelt] to see before he left North Africa after the Casablanca Conference [in 1943].’
Churchill’s note, accompanying the painting, to Truman, 1948
In the winter of 1935, on the recommendation of Sir John Lavery and other artist friends, Churchill travelled to Morocco for the first time for a painting holiday. He was inspired by the light and colours. He referred to the pink Atlas mountains as ‘paintaceous’ and painted some of his most refined watercolours – and one particularly skilled oil painting – here. He was entranced by the exotic, desert landscape and the colours – the pinks, whites and ochres contrasting with the brilliant blue of the desert sky. He gathered a large number of photographs on this and subsequent visits which still remain in the Studio archives at Chartwell.
Churchill didn’t only paint at Chartwell. His easel, brushes and paints accompanied him everywhere – while staying at homes of friends and family (at Hever Castle in Kent where he painted the colonnaded gardens, Breccles in Norfolk, the home of Clementine’s cousin where he painted the woods); on his holidays to the French Riviera (the Churchills rented a house in Cannes for six months in 1922); in Cairo (where he tackled painting the Pyramids), in Morocco, in America and Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Wherever he went, he took his painting paraphernalia. Churchill also painted at one of his favourite places, Blenheim Palace, where he was born and to which he regularly returned throughout his life. Churchill’s early skill with the brush can be seen in paintings completed at Mimizan in Les Landes, south of Bordeaux in France – an area protected from the Atlantic by massive sand dunes and pinewoods – where he stayed as the guest of his friend the Duke of Westminster who had a house there. Lavery, who later stayed at Mimizan with Churchill, painted the same scenes.
‘We have often stood up to the same motif, and in spite of my trained eye and knowledge of possible difficulties and freedom from convention, has time and again shown me how I should do things.’
Sir John Lavery, My Life as a Painter, 1940
While supremely confident and self-assured in most fields of life, Churchill was generally modest about his achievements as a painter; he didn’t aspire to create masterpieces – he never claimed he had ever painted one – and didn’t intend to earn money from his pastime (unlike his other craft of writing). But he did have a certain ambition for his art. In 1921, only six years after he’d first tried his hand with a brush, he is said to have sold up to six paintings he’d exhibited in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin at Galerie Druet for the princely sum of £30.00 each. In 1947 he successfully submitted two paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name David Winter (including ‘Winter Sunshine, Chartwell’, which had won a prize in 1927).
‘To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.’
Churchill, ‘Hobbies’, Pall Mall Gazette, Dec 1925 (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
Churchill spent much of his leisure time painting at Chartwell, the house and grounds he bought in 1922 set in the rolling countryside of Kent. When he wasn’t bricklaying, building tree houses for the children or feeding his menagerie of animals, he spent much of his time painting, particularly in his ‘wilderness years’. His studio at Chartwell is today much as it was when he was alive and many of his paintings can be seen on its walls. He generally preferred light and colour and, when the weather wouldn’t comply and he couldn’t paint out of doors, he often resorted to still-life studies of fruit, bottles and glassware (hence ‘Bottlescape’, his painting of a range of drinks and glasses, both full and empty.) His nephew Peregrine has said that Churchill, on receiving a large bottle of brandy for Christmas, sent his children round the house looking for other bottles to put alongside it, for a still life. Peregrine told Richard M. Langworth, the editor of Churchill: In His Own Words, that Churchill said: ‘Fetch me associate and fraternal bottles to form a bodyguard to this majestic container’ (Churchill: In His Own Words).
Churchill sought and accepted constructive criticism – in the art of painting, at least – and enjoyed experimenting with new media and techniques. Sir John Lavery and his wife Hazel were not the only influences on Churchill’s painting style. During the 1920s, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill took advice on painting from Walter Sickert, who passed on his enthusiasm for Degas, Corot and Constable. As well as scrutinising the works of these painters, Churchill also carefully studied and absorbed the work of others; J. M. W. Turner, Camille Pissarro (whom Clementine had met in Paris), Paul Maze (the Anglo-French painter whom the Churchills called ‘Cher Maître’), John Singer Sargent (who had painted his mother’s portrait), the sea painter Julius Olsson and William Nicholson. Many of them visited Chartwell, where he did much of his ‘daubing’, and Paul Maze accompanied him on many of his painting trips.
‘Have not Manet and Monet, Cézanne and Matisse, rendered to painting something of the same service which Keats and Shelley gave to poetry after the solemn and ceremonious literary perfections of the eighteenth century? They have brought back to the pictorial art a new draught of joie de vivre; and the beauty of their work is instinct with gaiety, and floats in sparkling air. I do not expect these masters would particularly appreciate my defence, but I must avow an increasing attraction to their work.’
Churchill, Painting as a Pastime
Churchill’s articles on the pleasures of painting appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1921 and 1922, netting him the handsome sum of £1000 (considerably more than his paintings would earn him in his lifetime, of course). Clementine was cautious: ‘I expect the professionals would be vexed & say you do not yet know enough about Art’. Mary, his daughter, later wrote that Clementine was ‘in principle opposed to Winston’s writing what she regarded as “pot-boilers” to boost their domestic economy’. But Churchill, the professional writer (and now a passionate painter), prevailed; his articles were a great success, explaining vividly why such pleasure was to be found in painting. His painting also provided consolation and peace in times of despair and grief.
‘Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.’
Churchill, Hobbies, written in 1925 and perhaps reflecting the solace painting had provided him since the death of his daughter Marigold.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.