The Life of a PainterHe was probably the most famous, and certainly one of the best amateur painters of the twentieth century, and probably several other centuries as well. Late in his life he said, "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." His name was Winston S. Churchill; and over a period of some 45 years and in more than 500 paintings, he certainly made quite an effort to "get to the bottom of the subject" during his lifetime here on earth. In 1982, Sir Hugh Casson, the president of the England's Royal Academy of Art said of Churchill, he was "...an amateur of considerable natural ability who, had he had the time to study and practice, could have held his own with most professionals, especially as a colourist." The writer John Lavery in his book on Churchill entitled The Life of a Painter went even further, "Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship, I believe he would have been a great master with the brush..."
Winston Churchill was 41 when he first picked up a brush to paint. The year was 1915. His political career was in shambles. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he'd been blamed with the failure of the Dardanelles expedition and relegated to a minor government position. During the summer, he and his wife Clementine rented a small farm in Surrey. One of their frequent visitors was his brother Jack and his wife Goonie. Goonie loved sketching in watercolours and one day in June; Winston came upon her painting at her easel in the garden. He paused and watched, then, encouraged by his sister-in-law, he borrowed her brush and tried painting a few strokes. So began the rest of his life as a painter.
Churchill's first few paintings were in watercolour, but he found them limiting. His favourite art term was "audacity" and in switching to oils, as his neighbour and sometimes art instructor, John Lavery put it, he left his canvases cowering before him. Despite his audacity with a brush, Winston was always quite modest about his skills as a painter, and always ready to seek out the advice and instruction of those artists he respected. Perhaps most influential was Walter Sickert. Sickert had studied under Degas and was undoubtedly the strongest link between French and British Impressionism. Moreover, he was generous with his time and advice. The two men often worked together side by side and also exchanged lengthy letters on painting. Sickert taught Churchill the use of photographs as memory aids and the use of a magic lantern to project a photograph on to a canvas. Having had no training at all in draughtsmanship, for Churchill, Sickert's instruction was a godsend in this respect.
More than half of Churchill's paintings were produced during the 1930s. His painting paraphernalia was always a part of his baggage during his official travels and he never missed an opportunity to set up at a particularly enchanting location to enjoy his hobby. His bodyguard during many of these years was a former member of the French Foreign Legion, Sergeant Edmund Murray, who was also a painter in oils. Murray recalled that Churchill often asked him for advice, and that sometimes he even heeded it. During the early years, Churchill often exhibited anonymously. In 1920, he sent to Paris five paintings under the name Charles Morin, four of which sold for 30 pounds each. Using another pseudonym, he won his first prize in 1925, for a painting entitled, Winter Sunshine, Chartwell. Confident that his work had merit beyond his famous name, Churchill gradually allowed his hobby to become part of his public persona. Between the two world wars, he began to enjoy some acclaim as an amateur painter.
However, his role as Prime Minister during the Second World War left Churchill virtually no time at all to paint. Between 1940 and 1945, he completed exactly one painting (The Tower of Katoubia Mosque near Casablanca, which he presented to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a gift). But after Churchill's humiliating defeat in the Parliamentary elections of 1945, as he had 30 years before, he suddenly found himself with time on his hands. And just as before, he once more picked up paint and brushes to fill them. High profile shows in England and the US followed, with one of his paintings bringing at auction a price of $39,200. Twelve years after his death in 1965, one of his paintings sold for 148,000 pounds. The buyer, when asked if he'd purchased the painting because of the measure of the man or the measure of the man as an artist, Dr. Arthur Frankfurter, the editor of Art News magazine replied, "Well, I should think it was both...the only answer I can give is that I know of no painter who would have made as good a prime minister."
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 August 2001