A Joy-Ride in a Paint-box

28th September 2018

At a time when the government is in disarray, and statesmen and women are in crisis, Jack Watkins looks at the life and artistic legacy of a politician whose stock continues to rise, over fifty years after his passing…

Even in his final years Winston Churchill was being lauded as the greatest Englishmen of his time, and more recently he has been described as the ‘greatest Briton ever to have lived’. When scholars are polled on the greatest British prime ministers, he either heads the list or vies with Clement Attlee for the top spot – but ask the public and Churchill comes out as number one every time.

The reason for the latter is perhaps that, of all the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street of the last one hundred years or so, he seems the most multi-dimensional. In a brilliant introduction to his new book Churchill: Statesman as Artist, Professor Sir David Cannadine, Professor of History at Princeton University, lists Churchill’s range of extra-curricular accomplishments as – but not limited to – ‘a soldier and journalist, historian and biographer, bricklayer and bon viveur, polo player and racehorse owner’. He says that, with the possible exception of William Gladstone, ‘no other British prime minster of modern times has inhabited so many varied and different hinterlands, or done so with such energy, vigour, brio and élan’.

Cannadine’s book brings together Churchill’s own thoughts on the subject of art and the views of contemporary critics on his own creations. A curious thing, as Cannadine points out, is that while his paintings and his words on art were ‘consistently buoyant, joyous and highly coloured’, he painted primarily to keep the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay. And, given that he’d grown up at Blenheim Palace, you might expect him to have had a natural appreciation of the Old Masters. However, the great art collection assembled by his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, had been sold while Churchill was still a boy, which was one of the reasons why he’d later admit that he showed no appreciation of art up to the age of 40.

It’s obvious, however, from the vividly descriptive writing that he was capable of producing from an early age that he had a visual mind and what Cannadine calls ‘the heightened perception’ of the artistic type. More practically, officer training at Sandhurst included learning to draw and to appreciate terrain and topography from a military angle. The hobby only took hold, however, after the disaster of the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The heavy Allied casualties cost Churchill his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and plunged him into such a depression that his wife Clementine feared he would die of grief.

A relation suggested he try painting to divert his mind, and he seems to have taken to it immediately, adopting oil as his chosen medium and visiting the National Gallery – for the first time in his life – to study and learn from the greats. While his early works were quite dark, before long he was creating the warm landscapes with which he came to be associated, and which, in Cannadine’s words, ‘banished depression rather than expressed it’. As he steadily restored both his equilibrium and his career, when he went to Egypt as Colonial Secretary in 1921 to preside over a conference, he took his easels and paintbrushes with him, and produced fine, sun-drenched images of the Pyramids. ‘Light is life’, he would later say.

Churchill’s status gave him access to the best. Walter Sickert became a friend for a while, passing on handy advice, though after he painted a portrait of Churchill which the latter disliked because he felt it made him look like a bookie, the association fizzled out. Another great artistic friendship of more lasting duration was with Sir William Nicholson, a multi-talented British painter of still-life, landscape and portraits, who also worked as a wood-engraver, illustrator, author of children’s books and designer for the theatre.

Settling with Clementine at Chartwell in Kent from 1922, Churchill was able to convert one of the outbuildings into a studio. In the following four decades, he completed over 500 hundred canvasses, an astonishing number, given his other commitments.

He never over-estimated his skills as a painter. ‘We must not be ambitious,’ he said. ‘We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy-ride in a paint-box.’ Clementine who was possibly his sternest critic, believed his canvasses were often too highly coloured and over-finished. They also differed on locational preferences. Churchill loved the Mediterranean coast, while she preferred cooler landscapes, and snow-covered mountains. Churchill loved the warmth and sunlight of Marrakesh, which he discovered in the mid-1930s, and thought the pictures he painted there the best he’d ever done. Clemmie, it seems, had to bite her lip on that one.

In later years, as he became a global celebrity, his pictures became part of the appeal. Life magazine ran a feature on The Paintings of Winston Churchill and he even exhibited at the Royal Academy. A collection of his writings, brought together under one cover as Painting as a Pastime, sold over 50,000 copies. What came across in these essays was Churchill’s self-deprecation, something absent from his political public image.

‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.’ Sadly, as Churchill’s health failed him in his last years, the melancholia that he’d struggled to keep at bay all his life descended, and the old sunshine and vigour in his art departed. Yet we can’t leave this great raiser of the national spirit on a downbeat note, however. ‘When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject,’ he once wrote, outlining plans to enlist ‘a still gayer palette than I get here below’ and ‘a whole range of wonderful new colours…’

I hope Clementine, when she joined him in heaven a dozen years later, remembered to take her sunglasses.

Churchill: The Statesman as Artist, edited and introduced by David Cannadine, is published by Bloomsbury

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