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.
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.
Not satisfied with only Austria, Hitler began demanding parts of Czechoslovakia, too. In September 1938, with war against Germany seeming increasingly likely, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich (according to a British Pathe newsreel, his first trip in an aeroplane), to meet the German leader. His aim of this ‘mission of peace’ was to secure a guarantee that there’d be no further German aggression.
On 12 March 1938, Austria was annexed into the German Third Reich. Despite pressure from both Austrian and German Nazis, Austria’s Chancellor had tried to hold a referendum for a vote on whether the Austrian people wanted to remain autonomous but a well-planned attack on Austria’s state institutions by the Austrian Nazi Party, on 11 March, meant the vote was cancelled. Power was transferred to Germany and Hitler’s troops entered Austria and on 13 March, Hitler proclaimed: the union of Austria and Germany.
Following his blunder over India, Churchill’s judgement was again called into question in late 1936 and early 1937. The new king, Edward VIII, wanted to marry the American divorcée Mrs Wallis Simpson, a situation that prompted a constitutional crisis (kings weren’t allowed to marry divorced ‘commoners’; if the king went ahead, he’d have to ‘abdicate’, or step down as king).
In the general election of May 1929, the Conservatives under Baldwin lost their majority and went into opposition against a Labour government. Although Churchill was keen to develop an alliance between Liberals and Conservatives, his proposal was vetoed by some in the Shadow Cabinet.
Finding himself out on a limb politically and increasingly frustrated by developments in Westminster, in August 1929 Churchill left Britain for a three-month tour of Canada and the United States, his first visit to the continent since 1901. He was to remain without a ministerial position for the next ten years.
Those who had felt Churchill’s career had reached its limit when the Conservatives were defeated in 1929 now felt vindicated. Even some of his own party thought Churchill was out of date and out of touch. Rather than weakening Baldwin’s position (as leader), as some thought he’d intended, Churchill – by endeavouring to ‘marshal British opinion’ for a lost cause – in fact, weakened his own position.
When Baldwin and MacDonald joined forces to form a National Government in 1931, bringing together leading figures from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, Churchill’s views on India meant he was excluded from office. With his standing and credibility seriously damaged, this ‘personal crusade without restraint or care for the consequences’ (Ball, Churchill) meant his later warnings about the dangers of Nazism went largely unheeded.
Much of the 1930s was devoted to travel and writing. Some of the former was for pleasure; Churchill had always relished travelling and enjoyed his time away from Britain. He spent many months on the continent – at expensive hotels, at the chateaux of friends and acquaintances, always with his easel and paints at hand.
Churchill used these long periods abroad, in the sunshine and among those who respected him, to recharge his batteries and restore his energy. His favourite holiday destination was the French Riviera, where he enjoyed the hospitality of wealthy American hostesses like Maxine Elliott and Consuelo Balsan, all of whom had genuine affection for Churchill and played host to him in their villas, providing him with much-needed relaxation.