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).
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
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.
Reproduced from the Baroness Spencer Churchill Papers with the permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London, on behalf of the Master, Fellows and Scholars of Churchill College, Cambridge. Original held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge. Image ref: CSCT 05 009 077
In 1915, during the First World War, Churchill helped orchestrate the disastrous Dardanelles naval campaign and the related military landings on Gallipoli, both of which saw enormous losses of life. As a result, Churchill found himself publicly and politically discredited. He was demoted to the token post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It seemed his political career was at an end. Devastated and despairing, Churchill retreated to a rented house, Hoe Farm, near Godalming, Surrey, with Clementine and the children.
One day in June, his sister-in-law, Gwendoline (or ‘Goonie’), was painting in the garden and, seeing Churchill’s interest, suggested he try it himself. She loaned him her young son’s paint-box. So began one of his life’s passions. Churchill took to painting, at the age of forty, with his customary gusto, seeing it as his salvation from despair – ‘the Muse of Painting came to my rescue’. He continued to paint for the next forty years.
‘Like a sea-beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure. I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it … And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue — out of charity and out of chivalry … — and said, “Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people.”’
Churchill, Painting as a Pastime
In October 1922, the Conservatives voted to bring down the coalition. Churchill was not in a fit state to fight his seat. He’d just been operated on for appendicitis and was too ill to take part in the earlier stages of the election. Clearly unwell and unable to fight with his usual vim and vigour, he lost.
Out of Parliament for the first time in twenty two years (apart from a few weeks in 1908), he retired to the South of France, took up writing again – he embarked on a mammoth history of the First World War, The World Crisis – but he couldn’t stay away from politics for long.
On his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.
For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.
Although he was defeated in his first attempt to enter Parliament in 1899, Churchill’s fame following his dramatic escape from the Boers tipped the balance in the election of 1900. He achieved a small majority and won his longed-for ‘seat’ as a Conservative MP for Oldham, Lancashire, beginning a political career that would last over sixty years.
He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18 February 1901 at the age of twenty-six, speaking immediately after Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them – except to my own people at Oldham.
Churchill to Lord Hugh Cecil (unsent), 24 October 1903
Churchill was appointed Home Secretary following the January 1910 election, when the Liberal party was again returned to power. It was during this time that he most clearly demonstrated that strange mix of his nature – of the radical reformer and the reactionary. While he helped introduce reforms to the prison system, reducing sentencing for younger people and improving conditions, he also opposed strikers and refused to support votes for women.
In 1905, Prime Minister Balfour resigned and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a government pending a January election, appointing Churchill as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, assisting Lord Elgin. And in the Liberal Party’s landslide election victory in early 1906, Churchill was elected as the Liberal MP for North-West Manchester. Churchill, the ambitious, shining ‘glow-worm’, was on his way.
Old College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Wikimedia Commons/Albert Sydney
Churchill left Harrow School in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. He found life at Sandhurst much more suited to his temperament and talents than school life. Military topics such as tactics and fortifications were far more appealing to him than mathematics and he was a skilled horseman. The practical nature of the course appealed to him and he passed with credit in December 1894, twentieth out of a class of one hundred and thirty.
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. Churchill’s regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, amalgamated with the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1958 to form the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars. After further cuts in 1993, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Hussars (formerly the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and 7th Queen’s Hussars) to form the Queen’s Royal Hussars.
It is a fine game to play – the game of politics – and it is well worth a good hand – before really plunging.
Churchill, in a letter to his mother, 16 August 1895
Churchill rapidly established himself as a prominent New Liberal, combining a commitment to free trade with support for a programme of social reform and was one of the main architects of Britain’s incipient welfare state. To those Tories he’d ‘betrayed’ by ‘crossing the floor’, he was now betraying their class, too. By April 1908, however, his ‘star’ seemed to be shining clearer and clearer (see prophecy), as he achieved cabinet rank, as President of the Board of Trade in Herbert Asquith’s new government, at the age of only thirty-three. In this role he introduced a number of initiatives (not all of which were adopted during his tenure but were later).
When Churchill was eighty-eight he was asked by the Duke of Edinburgh how he’d like to be remembered. He reportedly replied that he’d like a scholarship named after him, like the Rhodes Scholarship but for the wider masses.
To get young Americans studying at the new Churchill College, Cambridge, a Foundation was created as a vehicle for the Churchill Scholarship in July 1959 (in fact, the Foundation predates the Royal Charter for Churchill College and has been a steady companion of the College from its creation). Now called the Winston Churchill Foundation of the US, it’s a reminder of Anglo–US cooperation and friendship. It ‘honours Churchill’s name not by looking back at his past but by looking to the future of science and technology as drivers of global security and economic development’ (Winston Churchill Foundation of the US).
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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.