Bradley P. Tolppanen is author of Churchill in North America, 1929: A Three Month Tour of Canada and the United States (2014). The original version of this article appeared in FH 142. It has been revised and updated.
On 14 December 1940, as Britain struggled alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill briefly set aside his heavy responsibilities to watch with his family and advisers Charlie Chaplin’s new film The Great Dictator. They were at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, which was placed at the Prime Minister’s disposal by its owner Ronald Tree MP, on nights when the full moon made Chequers, the PM’s official country house in Buckinghamshire, too inviting a target.
An avid film lover, Churchill naturally enjoyed this pre-release viewing lampooning Hitler, which starred and was directed by an old friend. The Prime Minister laughed throughout, especially the scene where two dictators throw food at each other. After it ended, Churchill returned to composing another secret cable to President Roosevelt.
Churchill had met Chaplin more than a decade earlier, during a tour of North America shortly after the Conservatives had been defeated in the 1929 general election. Despite sharp political differences, Churchill and Chaplin had come to admire and appreciate each other’s qualities, and Chaplin had twice been Churchill’s guest at Chartwell.
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.
There is no doubting that Churchill and Clementine’s long marriage was a successful one; their relationship remained close and intimate, despite – or perhaps because of – lengthy periods apart. Even when Churchill wasn’t away working, but was on one of his many holidays, he tended to leave the children at home with Clementine or the nannies.
Churchill relished his holidays and time abroad, painting and relaxing, and accepted invitations to spend time with friends and acquaintances whenever he could, often on the Continent. Clementine, however, often ‘found the company tedious’ (Mary Soames, A Churchill Family Album) and, after 1918, they often holidayed apart. In the winter/spring 1935, the Churchills were invited to join Lord Moyne (Walter Guinness) aboard the yacht ‘Rosaura’ for a long four-month cruise of the Far East. Churchill, preoccupied with the final stages of his biography of Marlborough, didn’t feel able to go, but Clementine, having surprisingly acquired a taste for exotic travel, decided to go. Churchill wrote affectionate and domestic letters – a series of ‘Chartwell Bulletins’ – to his wife in which he gave her the latest news of home, family and his collection of farm animals and pets. Here he tells her that ‘the guinea pigs have died … How paltry you must consider these domestic tales of peaceful England compared to your dragons and tuartuaras’. There were occasional family holidays, too.
‘You all looked so sweet & beautiful standing there, & I thought how fortunate I am to have such a family – Do not be vexed with your vagabond Cat. She has gone off towards the jungle with her tail in the air, but she will return presently to her basket & curl down comfortably …Tender love.’
Clementine, to Churchill, 18 December 1934, Baroness Spencer-Churchill Papers
While ‘the man of action’ perhaps more accurately describes Churchill in time of battle, demanding action from others and of himself, he was always a restless man, fearful of inaction. In his quieter years, he was always determined to keep himself busy (perhaps to keep the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay). Although his favourite pastime was painting, he continued to travel, ride and swim, as well as write books during his ‘wilderness years’ – he only gave up playing polo when he was fifty-two – and was riding into his sixties and seventies. Even when elderly, after the WWII, he continued to travel (to the US, to give lectures and speeches, to Europe for holidays). Despite having suffered heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia, he was far more active – and physically resilient – than most his age.
‘I am writing in one of the Keepers’ Lodges to wh I have returned after stalking & where I am waiting for the Prince of Wales. Quite the best day’s sport I have had in this country – 4 good stags & home early!’
Churchill in a letter to Clementine, from Balmoral Castle, 20 September 1913, from Soames, Speaking for Themselves
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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Churchill was delighted when a little girl surprised him with flowers one day in Italy. Gratefully moving his cane aside, he gave her a kiss on the cheek. Missing his own family, and beset with troubles, he truly loved this moment. I guess we’ll never know the little chap behind the bouquet. … See MoreSee Less
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.
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