Writing in his famous essay Painting as a Pastime, Winston Churchill said of his favorite hobby: “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”
There have been several good books that gather together examples of Churchill’s paintings. This is the first book, however, that gathers together all of Churchill’s speeches and writings about painting. It is worth reading.
Sir David Cannadine writes and speaks frequently about Churchill. As a professional historian, his resume is unsurpassed. So it is notable that he does not underestimate the importance of painting in Churchill’s life. He has never been alone. Included in this book are essays by six people from the professional art world during Churchill’s time showing their appreciation for the statesman’s passion.
Watching Winston Churchill was no easy task. The use of personal bodyguards for Churchill began in 1921 and continued for the rest of his life. The story of the remarkable men who guarded him exemplifies courage and devotion that never wavered. Here follows a look at the two longest-serving bodyguards, Walter Thompson and Edmund Murray, and two others of notable interest, Bill Day and Neville Bullock.
WALTER H. THOMPSON
On 9 November 1920, the Director of Intelligence at Scotland Yard told Churchill, then a Liberal MP and the Secretary of State for War and Air, that a Sinn Fein cell in Glasgow had decided there should be kidnapping reprisals in Britain for reprisals in Ireland. Among those to be kidnapped were Churchill and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Churchill was warned not to go to Scotland “for the next few days or weeks” and provided temporarily with a personal armed bodyguard, Walter Henry Thompson. Thompson’s temporary appointment lasted the next nine and a half years. After a gap of ten years, however, Thompson was recalled from his retirement in 1939 to protect Churchill again, serving with him for another six years until the war ended.
Thompson, a Detective Sergeant of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard, first called upon Churchill at the Cabinet minister’s house in Sussex Square in early February 1921 to discuss what would be their “routine.” By the end of an extremely satisfying talk, Churchill said: “Thank you very much Thompson. I have no doubt that we shall get on well together.”1Read More >
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.”
The estate of film legend Vivien Leigh (below left) will go under the hammer this summer at Sotheby’s in London. The auction brings to light a little known but exceptionally fine painting by Winston Churchill (below right), which he presented as a gift to his favorite actress.
Depicting roses from the garden at Chartwell displayed in a glass vase, the still life may have been done in the 1930s and given to Leigh in the late 40s or early 50s. The actress treasured it so much that she hung it on the wall opposite her bed. In her own words: “Whenever I feel particularly low or depressed I look at those three rosebuds. The thought and the friendship in the painting is such a great encouragement to me…and I have the determination to go on.”
Leigh’s friendship with Churchill ran deeper than many people knew, as attested to by a 1957 letter in which Churchill secretly promised to donate money to the St James’ Theatre, which the actress was trying to save at the time. And it seems Churchill himself inspired Leigh to take up painting, after he gave her an inscribed copy of his book Painting as a Pastime. Both the letter and book are included in the sale.
Within weeks after his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty in the aftermath of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in 1915, a despondent Winston Churchill—together with his younger brother Jack and sisterin-law Gwendeline Churchill—rented a cottage at Hoe Farm in Surrey. “I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it,” he recalled in his 1921 essay “Painting as a Pastime.” With Gwendeline’s encouragement, Churchill found relief: in painting. For the rest of his life—at home, on holiday, and even, occasionally, on the battlefield—Churchill’s oils were rarely far from hand. Painting was a joy and a consolation, a source of sustenance and an intellectual challenge.
Among Churchill’s nearly 600 canvases, two of them, created nearly thirty years apart, reveal Churchill’s affection for—indirectly and directly—the Royal Navy. A close examination of these two canvases may reveal something more: nostalgia.
Portrait of Lady Churchill at the Launching of HMS Indomitable, is Churchill’s affectionate portrait of his wife Clementine. Likely created in 1955 (Indomitable was sold for scrap that same year), the painting hangs at Chartwell today. The work is a striking and nostalgic painting of Clementine looking resplendent in a sumptuous hat. Clementine’s joyous face is surrounded by rough-hewn background, giving the canvas an unfinished look. To create the composition, Churchill used a projector to enlarge one of his favorite photographs. The image was projected— in reverse of the original—onto the canvas, allowing Churchill to make a faithful, albeit larger, copy of the photo. The photograph was taken on 26 March 1940, the day Clementine formally christened HMS Read More >
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
Join or Renew NowPlease join with us to help preserve the memory of Winston Churchill and continue to explore how his life, experiences and leadership are ever-more relevant in today’s chaotic world. BENEFITS >BECOME A MEMBER >
Finest Hour Image
The most recent issues of Finest Hour are available online to members. Join to automatically receive a subscription to BOTH Finest Hour and the Churchill Bulletin.LEARN MORE >VISIT FINEST HOUR ARCHIVE >
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.