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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Winston Churchill: an amateur painter

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Frank Scherschel, Churchill painter,TIME Life Pictures, Getty Images

On the 1st of March the auction house Christie’s, in its Modern British Art Evening Sale, had auctioned for a record price of £ 8,285,000 the painting Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque.

The painting was auctioned at a price four times more than its estimated cost probably because it was in the collection of the American actress Angelina Jolie but for sure for the renown of the painter Sir Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill discovered the pleasures of painting at the age of 40, following a deep professional and personal crisis happened in 1915, after the failure of the Dardanelles expedition for which he was blamed.

From the role of First Lord of the Admiralty, he was relegated to the minor position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Churchill was depressed about that turn of events and was worried about the direction his career might take in the future and soon resigned from his new position and retreated in the countryside.

In June, he hired Hoe Farm, a country house in Hascombe near Godalming in Sussex, for a holiday with various members of his family, one of whom was his sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline ("Goonie") Churchill.

Goonie was an amateur artist who liked to paint with watercolours. One day she invited Churchill, who was watching her painting, to take her brush and try it for himself. He was immediately captivated and painting became a lifelong hobby. He freely admitted that painting as writing revived his spirits and became an antidote to his frequent bouts of depression. Churchill once said that without painting it couldn’t live, painting slowed down his busy life and relieved the stresses of his normal routine.

Churchill started to paint with watercolours but soon found that watercolours were not his ideal medium, and instead switched to the more robust medium of oil paint, receiving tuition and guidance from some of the leading artists of the day such as Sir John Lavery, Sir William Nicholson, Walter Richard Sickert and Paul Maze.

Churchill took painting materials to the Western Front when he went on active military service in 1915–16, painting the Flemish landscape or the Pyramids in Egypt when he became Secretary of State for the Colonies in February 1921.

In the same year, the first public exhibition of his paintings was held at the Galerie Druet in Paris, with Churchill exhibiting under his pseudonym of "Charles Morin". Several of his landscapes were sold for the price of £30 each.

After this success, he wrote two articles published in The Strand Magazine in December 1921 and January 1922, titled Hobbies and Painting as a pastime. He wrote: “Just to paint is a great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing” and “as one slowly begins to escape from the difficulties of choosing the right colours and laying them on in the right places and in the right way, wider considerations come into view. One begins to see, for instance, that painting is like fighting a battle; and trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle”.

Churchill urged that “audacity is the only ticket ” in painting. As a former soldier turned painter, he naturally envisaged his encounters with empty, pristine and intimidating canvasses as battles of will, which had to be won by an overwhelming display of forceful colours and colourful force. As he described it in these articles, painting was not just about therapy and recreation: the canvas must be coerced and conquered, subdued and suborned.

His painting is impressionist purely controlled by the colours and landscapes: “One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object it in, one never noticed before”.

Churchill painted always in his life with an interruption when he was Prime Minister during the Second World War, in which he said to have painted just one work Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, the one sold at a record price by Christie’s.

Winston Churchill, Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, 1943, private collection

The painting has a very relevant historical importance. It was painted at a turning point of the Second War World in January 1943. Churchill was in Casablanca to discuss the Anglo-American alliance with the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and study together the Allies’ future strategy. After 10 days of hard negotiations, it is decided that Germany, Italy and Japan should surrender unconditionally.

In its struggle against Nazi Germany, Britain depends on the strength of the American alliance. After the deal was closed, Roosevelt was keen to return to the United States, but Churchill persuaded him to stay an extra day in Morocco: “You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech,” he said “I must be with you when you see the sunset on the Atlas Mountains”.

Churchill and Roosevelt at the Villa Taylor in Marrakech on 24 January 1943, photo by Time Life Pictures

The two statesmen stayed at the Villa Taylor on the outskirts of the city, and from its five-storey tower watched the sun go down over the snow-capped mountains with the light that was changing every minute.

Roosevelt was mesmerised by the scene and for this moment of peace and rest from the trauma of the war.

After Roosevelt and the American delegation had departed, Churchill remained at the villa an extra day, taking the opportunity to paint the view of the Koutoubia Mosque framed by the Atlas Mountains.

Churchill considered the landscape he executed that day “a cut above anything I have ever done so far”.

Nick Orchard, Christie’s specialist, agreed on it saying that Churchill handled the light brilliantly and it is possible to see the strong shadows of the late afternoon and the real sense of movement in the figures as they walk back to the gates at the end of a long day.

The painting was given as a birthday present to Roosevelt for his birthday on the 30th of January 1943.

As Orchard explained this is the main achievement of Churchill’s diplomacy in its most personal and intense way. This is not an ordinary gift between leaders, this is soft power that links a real friendship and an alliance with the Unite State of America that still nowadays.

Churchill in his life painted more than 530 paintings, few of them were gifted by Churchill himself to family and friends, the remainder was in the possession of Lady Churchill, after his death in 1965.

Although self-centred and egotistical in politics and writing, Churchill approached painting with uncharacteristic humility. He defined himself as a “weekend and holiday amateur painter” with not ambition to create masterpieces but to content himself with a joy-ride in a paint-box.

Painting for Churchill was something really private that he could do in silence and entirely alone.

Many of his works depicted his country mansions as the exterior scenes in Chartwell or the luxurious interior in Blenheim Palace.

Winston Churchill, View of Chartwell, 1938, National Trust Chartwell
Winston Churchill, Tapestries at Blenheim Palace, c.1928, National Trust Chartwell

In these places he could also depicted some members of his family as the son Randolph reading and siting under a pergola or capture on canvas some family important moments as in Mary’s first speech, where the little girl gave a speech to lay the foundation stone of her playhouse in the kitchen garden in Chartwell.

Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill reading under the Pergola, 1920's, National Trust Chartwell
Winston Churchill, Mary's first Speech, 1928, National Trust Chartwell
Mary's Cottage (Marycot) at Chartwell, 1928

There are not so many portraits painted by Churchill that he used more to experiment new technique with the use of the photography or the grid technique. He painted just one self-portrait following the technique of Sir John Lavery, placing the very lightly figure in the centre of the canvas against a dark background.

Winston Churchill, self-portrait, 1919-1920, National Trust, Chartwell

This self-portrait is a metaphor of the uncertainty of a man who is rebuilding his political career.

There is darkness but there is a light of hope through his painting.

Churchill reenjoyed in the brilliant colours and the exuberance that he could find specially in the landscape paintings.

His works are like a private diary that signed the places he visited and for this reason they are defined as a holiday paintings.

From the pyramids in Egypt to holiday spots in Rome and Venice or in the French Riviera that he loved so much for its bright sunshine and intense colours of the seascapes, the villages and the interior of the beautiful villas.

Winston Churchill, The Forum in Rome with the Arch of Constantine, 1926, National Trust Chartwell
Winston Churchill, view of Venice 1925

Winston Churchill, a villa at the Riviera

Winston Churchill, Rocks near Cannes, ca 1935
Winston Churchill, Rowing Boats Moored beside a Quay, c. 1933, National Trust, Chartwell

In the 1930’s he discovered the painterly delights of Marrakech, that he visited till the 1950’s.

Churchill loved the warmth, the sunlight, the gardens, the palm trees and the views of the Atlas Mountains, that he painted several times.

Winston Churchill, Valley of the Ourika near Marrakech, 1947,private collection
Winston Churchill, Market at Marrakech

Winston Churchill, The Mosque at Marrakech,1948, National Trust Chartwell

In 1947, Churchill using the pseudonym "David Winter", submitted paintings for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Two painted were selected and 1948 the Royal Academy of Arts elected Churchill as an "Honorary Academician Extraordinary", an unusual thing for an amateur painter.

The renowned painter Sir Oswald Birley said: "If Churchill had given the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been by all odds the world's greatest painter".

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