Winston S. Churchill
by Sir John Lavery
the First World War,
Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018
By Douglas S. Russell
Douglas S. Russell is author of Winston Churchill, Soldier: The Military Life of a Gentleman at War (2005).
Winston S. Churchill in his memoir My Early Life famously wrote, “Twenty to twenty-five, those are the years.”1 Indeed, those were years of great adventure and real achievement for the young lieutenant of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. During those years from 1895 to 1900, Churchill saw combat in Cuba, India, Sudan, and South Africa, was mentioned in dispatches and recommended for a decoration, earned four campaign medals and the Spanish Order of Military Merit, wrote five books, established himself as a popular war correspondent and lecturer, gained international fame as an escaped prisoner of war, and was elected to a seat in Parliament, all before his twenty-sixth birthday.
Churchill was interested in things military from a young age. His earliest surviving letter, written at age seven, is about toy soldiers, flags, and castles. It was, according to Churchill’s autobiography, his large collection of toy soldiers that led Lord Randolph Churchill to choose a military career for his son when Winston was only fourteen years old.2 As a schoolboy at Harrow, he was placed in the army class to prepare for the entrance examinations for the Royal Military College Sandhurst. He also actively participated in the Harrow School Volunteer Rifle Corps, where he wore a uniform and received military training for the first time. Churchill had an early and strong belief in his own star. As a schoolboy at Harrow he told a classmate in 1891, “I have a wonderful idea of where I shall be eventually…. London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.”3
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
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
By the time Churchill was facing another World War, in 1939, he understood more readily that while risks had to be taken, a balance needed to be struck between caution and ‘over-daring’. As Prime Minister during WWII, he walked the narrow road between the ‘precipices’ on either side; he needed nerves of steel to keep Britain and the Allies on the path to victory.
‘Winston Churchill has emerged from the first five weeks of the war as the most inspiring figure in Great Britain … He has been condemned as a Russophobe and a Teutophobe, as an irresponsible genius, but even his old critics now seem to agree that he will make a great wartime leader.’
James Reston, New York Times, 8 October 1939
Travel suited Churchill’s restive nature. While he took great pleasure in the house and grounds at Chartwell with his family and his animals, and always enjoyed returning there, he did relish breaks away from England and holidays in the sun. He travelled widely throughout his life; in his early years, as a soldier and war correspondent and then later, for political purposes or for holidays, to the US and to the Continent.
Here he would stay at smart hotels or the chateaux or villas of rich friends, socialites and associates, or on yachts. Between 1958 and 1963, Churchill was the guest of Greek millionaire shipowner Aristotle Onassis on his yacht in the Eastern Mediterranean, where he painted, swam and generally relaxed and recharged his batteries.
Eventually, the frailties of old age caught up with Churchill. In 1958, he paid two long visits to La Pausa where he began to feel less and less inclined to pick up a brush (he caught bronchial pneumonia and suffered fevers while there); his physical strength was finally failing.
In 1959, Churchill visited Morocco – and Marrakech (where he’d painted some of his most acclaimed pictures) – and painted from his balcony at La Mamounia for the final time. And when he next visited La Pausa, later in 1959, he found himself no longer able to wield his paintbrush. But he continued to be feted and honoured, and he was treated as a great statesman, the ‘Old Warrior’, wherever he went.
He enjoyed a final visit to the White House in 1959 and made one last visit to New York on board the ‘Christina’ in 1961. In America, he became the second person after Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette to receive honorary US citizenship and the first by Act of Congress. On 9 April 1963, Kennedy signed a Congressionally authorized proclamation conferring honorary US citizenship upon Churchill. Too frail to travel to America to attend the ceremony, Churchill watched from England via live satellite broadcast.
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.
Bradley Tolppanen is the author of Churchill in North America 1929 (2014).
After disembarking at New York on 8 December 1900 after a six-day voyage from Liverpool, Winston Churchill was met by Major J. B. Pond, America’s leading lecture agent. He had come to North America at Pond’s invitation to undertake a lecture tour that would eventually encompass at least thirty-seven lectures in thirty-one cities. Unlike Churchill’s first visit to America five years before, this trip was about earning money, as Churchill wrote a friend, “I pursue profit not pleasure in the States this time.”1
At twenty-six Churchill had high expectations for the lecture tour. After garnering £3,700 the previous month for lecturing in Britain, he arrived in New York with a £1,000 guarantee and the hope for as much as £5,000. Churchill was encouraged in his expectations by James Burton Pond, who in his career as a lecture agent had done much to “revolutionize” the field of booking prominent figures for speaking engagements. He had managed “all the famous speakers in the country,” including Mark Twain. While he liked Pond, Twain also observed that he was “neither truthful nor sensible.”2
After receiving a letter from Pond in March 1900 while he was still with the army in South Africa, Churchill followed up with the agent that summer after he was back in London. They exchanged letters confirming the date and length of the tour as well as the material for the lectures. Titled “The War as I Saw It,” Churchill’s lecture narrated his capture and escape from the Boers, the relief
REYKJAVIK—The President of Iceland was delighted to receive representatives of the Churchill Club of Iceland and be presented with copies of Finest Hour containing Magnús Erlendsson’s article about Churchill’s visit to our country.
Churchill in Stratford
HITCHIN, HERTFORDSHIRE— With regret I write to inform you that my father, Jack Darrah, passed away peacefully on 27 September 2016. Dad was ninety-one. During his lifetime he had many hobbies and interests. Winston Churchill had been an inspiration to him, and he was so proud to live to see his collection placed at the Stratford Armouries. Thank you to everyone in the Churchill fraternity, who has been in contact since Dad’s passing, and also for the support over the years.
2016 Churchill Conference Washington, D. C., 27–29 October
Werner Vogt wrote his PhD dissertation about Churchill’s pictures in Switzerland’s leading daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The author of numerous newspaper articles and books, his latest book, about Churchill’s relationship to Switzerland, is reviewed on page 41.
It would be pretentious to assume that Switzerland played a major role in Winston Churchill’s life. Nevertheless he had many links to Switzerland, starting with his first travel abroad and finishing in the last year he lived, when his friend and supplier of his oil paints Willy Sax died shortly before him. For the Swiss people Churchill became a hero in 1940, and when he visited the city of Zurich on 19 September 1946 tens of thousands of people were cheering along the streets. The Swiss people’s gratitude was limitless. They made his drive through the city a triumphal parade. Never before and never after Churchill have the Swiss paid tribute to a great man like this.
A Most Tiring Mountain
Churchill’s first encounter with the Swiss and their homeland happened when he visited the country as a tourist in the summers of 1893 and 1894 together with his brother Jack and their tutor, Mr Little. These were in fact Churchill’s first travels abroad as a young man. He had a keen eye for the beauty of nature and wrote a series of enthusiastic letters to his mother, wherein he described the astounding scenery of the Swiss mountains and lakes but also some cities, which were to his liking. He even went so far as to climb Monte Rosa in the Valais, a substantial but by no means difficult mountain in the Canton of Valais. In a letter to his mother Churchill wrote: Read More >
Magnús Erlendsson was born on 10 May 1931. He is a retired businessman and politician and an avid amateur historian with a deep interest in Winston Churchill and the Second World War.
Winston Churchill was my boyhood hero and has since become for me a lifelong character study in leadership and greatness. My early childhood was marked by the coming of the Second World War and culminated in seeing the great man in person when he visited Iceland on 16 August 1941. Since then I have read everything I could lay my hands on regarding him. First it was his memoir My Early Life, which was published in an Icelandic translation in 1944 that I read again and again. Later I read books on the conduct of the war, his friends, his foes, and the fiends that stirred up the whirlwind of 1939–45. I have done my best to promote his values and defend his legacy. From that seed the Churchill Club of Iceland was founded, now an affiliate of The Churchill Centre, which will continue to tend the flame.
The British Are Coming!
Churchill leaves the Parliament building in Reykjavik, 16 August 1941: author seen in circle at right
No one showed up for my ninth birthday! I had managed to coax my mother to permit me to invite all of my friends on my street, but none turned up. More perplexed than perturbed, I soon found out the reason why. That day turned out to be one of the most significant in the Second World War. It was 10 May 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister of the United Kingdom and the German offensive into Western Europe began. Most importantly for us in Iceland, however, it was the day the British showed up to occupy our island.
I had an inkling that the day would be unusual. My father had been woken up by the phone ringing at 5 AM that morning. His best friend was on the line, telling him that there were unusual activities in Reykjavik harbor. A few warships had anchored during the night, and there was the sound of warplanes flying over the city. I heard my father gasp: “My God, let’s hope it’s the British.” When his friend confirmed this to be the case, he was relieved and came into my room to relay the news to my mother and me. Read More >
The subject has never been more relevant. During the campaign in the United Kingdom this past spring to decide whether the nation should remain in the European Union or depart after more than forty years as a member, voices on both sides of the “Brexit” debate invoked the spirit and words of Sir Winston Churchill. The theme of this issue, however, was chosen to commemorate an event from the past: the seventieth anniversary of Churchill’s call for “a kind of United States of Europe” made in Zurich on 19 September 1946.
This issue looks not at what people in the English-speaking world make of Churchill’s views on Europe but rather what people in Europe today make of Winston Churchill. Writing from the Netherlands, Felix Klos makes the important point that no one today can say what position Churchill might have taken in the United Kingdom’s recent referendum debate. What Klos does do is analyze the statements Churchill made about European unity— and Britain’s relationship to it—in the context of the times in which they were made.
Without doubt, France was the continental nation with which Churchill was most deeply involved and which he most loved. Antoine Capet charts the long history of this affaire de cœur. Churchill found Italy to be equally “paintacious” and relaxing, but the long years of Fascism made for dark times, as Patrizio Romano Giangreco and Andrew Martin Garvey explain. Werner Vogt shows how Switzerland was another nation for which Churchill developed a deep affection, and the Swiss people also did for him. Read More >
In the winter of 1945–46, the first after the war, Winston Churchill was still an exhausted man. Having just celebrated his seventy-first birthday in November, and with his Lake Como rest holiday in August already a mere memory, Churchill found his doctor less than sympathetic with the level of his activity as Leader of the Opposition, not to mention his devotion to his writing.
Medical pressure and his own desire to travel for pleasure after so much wartime movement for necessity made Churchill decide to take two months off from his always ferocious schedule to rest and recuperate. Even though he knew that there would be considerable speculation over such a lengthy period away from the House of Commons, and that some would see it as a prelude to his retirement from political life after his stunning electoral defeat of July 1945, there was little choice but to take a rest, and a lengthy one after his doctor insisted.
After so many wartime winters in England, Churchill wanted to take his break somewhere in the sun where he could paint and relax. The perfect solution arose when a Canadian friend invited Churchill to use his winter home near Miami. Read More >
Sir Winston Lies Where He Wished, in a Visual Reminder of the Long Continuity of History
Bladon, near Woodstock, is a quiet Oxfordshire village with a lot of visitors. The Parochial Church Council and the Churchill family together ensure those who come to pay their respects to Sir Winston find a gravesite that is dignified. Every now and again, one sees ill-informed speculation on the Internet that suggests the grave is in a poor condition. It is fitting therefore that an update on its condition be made for those who are not able to visit in person.
Bladon is a typical English country churchyard, and in fact it is closed to new burials. The gravestones and memorials are old, in many cases considerably exceeding 100 years, and the stones are well weathered, with substantial growth of lichen. The scene is one of gentle weathering; of monuments that are in keeping with a church some 150 years old, in a place where a church has existed in one form or another since medieval times. Read More >
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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.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.