Winston Churchill the Painter

armss.gif (3279 bytes)Winston Churchill
of the International Churchill Societies 1988-89

Winston Churchill the Painter
by The Lady Soames, D.B.E.
Annual Meetings of the Sir Winston S. Churchill Society Edmonton,
Calgary and Vancouver, Canada May 1989

[Introduction of The Lady Soames]

IT IS FIVE YEARS since I had the pleasure and honour of being received here and addressing the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Vancouver and it is a decade since my husband was your speaker and we together enjoyed all kinds of interesting people we met and the series of events which the Society always arranges for the maximum enjoyment and interest of their guests. It was then that I had the great honour to be invited to be your Patron as a successor to Lord Mountbatten and since that time I have greatly appreciated the kind way in which I am kept in touch with the doings of your Society so that I almost feel one of the family.

In five years there have been changes; for one thing we're older. The passing of time has seen familiar faces swept away, but the vitality of the society has not flagged, indeed it increases and I rejoice to see tonight so many faces familiar to me from previous visits. It is a great pleasure also to meet a new generation of the Society's members and their guests.

Delighted and honoured though I am to have been invited here again to address you, I have found myself in some difficulty. When I last spoke to you I could truly say I gave you the cream of my memories of my father. I spoke of the vast panorama of his life. I recalled for you his many faceted talents of his characteristics as a father. I spoke of the remarkable role my remarkable mother played in his life. I'm keenly aware that it is too soon for an encore of that speech and it would be impious of me to endeavour to emulate either the knowledge or the approach of the succession of distinguished speakers who've addressed you in the intervening years. Each one speaking from his individual experience and understanding of the extraordinary man he knew or had made a study. I know I cannot emulate your latest guests but I also know that what you want from me is something quite different. It is not for me to appraise Winston Churchill in a detached manner, indeed I could not. Although when I speak of him with admiration and love I like to think that my love, though deep and abiding, is not blind.

But as Winston Churchill's surviving child I feel that I serve his memory best and your intention of inviting me here to address you if I stay within the boundaries set by my close relationship to him. I speak of the man who in his lifetime because a hero figure to millions throughout the world and whose memory still, nearly fifty years removed from his finest hour, is cherished and revered, and that not only by his contemporaries, but by a generation of much younger people who know of him only through hearsay or from studying him in history books.

The stories about Winston Churchill are endless, many of them apocryphal and many do not ring at all true to me. And I feel I have inherited a sacred trust to try to give a true focus to the publicly perceived image of Winston Churchill either through my personal recollections or from sources which I trust.

Last time my thoughts and recollections roved over a wide field, en- compassing the long pageant of his life. Tonight I hope you will be interested if I concentrate and focus my lens on one aspect only of his personality and life about which, in fact I'm engaged in writing a study. This is about Churchill as a painter.

So often with hindsight one is able to detect early signs in someone of a later-to-be-developed talent or characteristic. As a child Winston had a marvelous collection of lead soldiers and he would spend hours on the schoolroom floor disposing his toy forces. We see there the soldier and the strategist in the making. As a schoolboy he was on the whole bad at his books. Yet some of his masters perceived in him a relish for the English language and an imaginative interest in history. His capacity to learn by heart in his schooldays stored up for him a larder of prose and verse which was to enrich him and others all his life. We can discern now there the making of a lover and a mighty wielder of the English tongue. But as far as I know, or that researchers of my father's life have been able to discover, there was no clue in his early years that in the acorn that grew to be this extraordinary man there lurked any germ of artistic talent.

He was 41 when he stumbled by mere chance upon this new world of painting. It was a veritable coup de foudre, a blue sky on a summer's day and a moment in his life and fortunes when he was all but engulfed by anguish, frustration and near despair.

Then in the early summer of 1915 Winston Churchill was at the nadir of his career. Towards the end of May that year Churchill had been forced to-resign his post as First Lord of the Admiralty as a result of political pressures arising from the debauch of the Dardanelles campaign. Now is not the time to describe in detail the failure of this strategic concept in the planning and implementation of which Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and member of the War Council, was deeply involved. Today it is generally accepted that had the plan succeeded the course of the First World War might have been dramatically shortened. But then the dire tidings of mismanagement and grievous loss of men and materiel from Asia Minor compounded with bad news from the Western Front combined to break the political truce at home.

The Conservative opposition revolted and the Liberal government reformed as a Coalition government. Part of the price demanded by the Conservatives for their support was the removal of Winston Churchill from the Admiralty. He was detested by them as a renegade from their ranks; they wreaked a bitter vengeance now. Churchill remained a few more months in government as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an appointment without departmental responsibility. He himself has described in vivid and moving terms his feelings at that time.

When I left the Admiralty,at the end of May, 1915, 1 still remained a member of the Cabinet and the War Council. In this position I knew everything and could do nothing. The change from the intense executive activities of each day's work at the Admiralty to the narrowly measured duties of a councillor left me gasping. Like a sea-beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure. I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it; I had vehement convictions and small power to give effect to them.... I had long hours of utterly unwonted leisure in which to contemplate the frightful unfolding of the War. At a moment when every fibre of my being was inflamed to action, I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, placed cruelly in a front seat. And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue - out of charity and out of chivalry, because after all she had nothing to do with me - and said, 'Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people.'

During these fateful summer months of 1915, Winston and Clementine Churchill had rented a small house, Hoe Farm, near Godaiming in Surrey. Into this haven they would retreat at weekends with their family to nurse their wounds and their anxieties. Most frequent amongst their visitors were Winston's brother Jack and his wife Goonie with their two children. Goonie loved sketching in water- colours and one June day Winston, wandering around the garden deep in unhappy thoughts, came upon her at her easel. He paused and watched her, then encouraged by his sister-in-law, Winston borrowed her brush and tried a few strokes. It was as if he had waved a magic wand and the Muse cast her spell forever.

Goonie hastily purloined her six-year-old son's paintbox and encouraged Winston to paint a picture for himself. Fascinated he decided he must try oils. Clementine, thrilled for him in his new ploy, rushed off to Godaiming to buy whatever oils and paints and canvases she could find there.

Expert help and advice were soon at hand, for the Churchill's nearest neighbors in London were John Lavery, the celebrated painter and his beautiful wife Hazel, also a talented artist. And it was from this gifted pair that Winston received his first lessons in painting. He has described how Hazel Lavery found him one day incapable of further action contemplating the snowy expanse of a new canvas upon which he had timorously made a mark about as big as a bean. Seizing a large brush Hazel splashed into the turpentine and as Winston described it:

... wollop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette - clean no longer - and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back.... The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon victim with berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.

The development of this new passion, for it was nothing else, progressed however against the dark background of events of that winter. The campaign in Gallipoli went from bad to worse. Our Coalition government was proving as ineffective a war machine as the one it had replaced. In November 1915 the Cabinet decided to cut the size of the Dardanelles committee in the hope of making it more efficient. The smaller team did not include Churchill, although he remained a member of the Cabinet. Winston wrote to Mr. Asquith, the Prime Minister, resigning from the government; a course of action he had been contemplating for several months. "I could not," he wrote in his letter of resignation, "accept a position of general responsibility for war policy without any effective share in its guidance & control. . . . Nor do I feel able in times like these to remain in well-paid inactivity."

He had long held a commission in a territorial regiment. Less than a week after his resignation from the government he left for France and was posted to a batallion of the Grenadier Guards in the battle line near Laventie.

Churchill served with the Grenadiers until the new year when he was appointed Colonel of the Sixth Batallion Royal Scots Fusiliers serving in the line in Flanders near a village whose unwieldy Flemish name of course had been instantly reduced by the Tomrnies to Plug Street. During these winter to spring months of 1916 his batallion was either in the frontline trenches or, when in support and resting, about three-quarters of a mile to the rear. During stack periods, Winston painted several pictures of the shattered village of Plug Street or the desolate scene at Laurence Farm Advance Batallion headquarters.

Most of his officers were very young, nearly all of the batallion's regular officers having been killed in action. It may have had a steadying and encouraging effect upon his soldiers to observe their commanding officer deeply concentrated on painting the stricken scene unmoved by desultory shell bursts in the vicinity. Indeed one of his officers, Edmond Hakewell Smith, then aged 24, wrote, "Each time we were in the line he spent some time on his paintings. Gradually too, the courtyard became more pitted with shell holes. As his painting came nearer completion he became morose and exceedingly difficult to talk to. After five or six days in this mood he suddenly appeared cheerful and delightful like a small boy at school. So I asked him what had happened and he said, 'I've been worried because I couldn't get the shell hole right in the painting. However I did it yesterday. It looked like a mountain, but I discovered that if I put a little bit of white in it it looked like a hole after all.'

By the late spring of 1916 changing political events at home recalled him back to England and in 1917 after the Dardanelles Commission had reported, clearing Churchill of the unjust accusations and blame which had been laid at his door, the Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George, defied Conservative criticism and made Churchill Minister of Munitions.

From now on painting was to be a built-in part of Winston's existence. When staying away, his painting paraphernalia formed a regular and considerable part of his luggage, and a room for a studio was a requirement for any prospective house for the Churchills. Nor was painting confined to weekends and holidays. On ministerial journeys the paints came too, in case a "paintaceous" (his special adjective) scene presented itself and some spare hours could be wrung from a crowded schedule. As newly appointed Colonial Secretary in March 1921 Winston and Clementine were in Cairo for the Middle Eastern Conference. And of course a painting picnic to the Pyramids was duly arranged. Churchill at this time was not a popular figure with the Egyptians. Placards abounded in public places proclaiming "Aba Churchill." But unconcerned, Winston insisted on setting up his easel in the desert highway and concentrated on painting, oblivious to all other considerations.

Some years later when as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Baldwin's government, Churchill was summoned to Balmoral in September 1927 for-the habitual ministerial visit. As usual he took with him his artist's impedimenta and painted a Highland scene from the window of his room. In a letter a little while later to Lord Stamfordham, King George V's private secretary, Winston wrote:

I enjoyed myself very much at Balmoral. It is not often that the paths of duty and enjoyment fall so naturally together. . . . I am very glad he [the King] did not disapprove of my using the Ministerial room as a studio, and I took particular care to leave no spots on the Victorian tartans.

Before leaving Balmoral Winston presented the picture he had painted to be auctioned at a local charity sale. On learning that the picture had achieved quite a high price, a delighted artist wrote again to Lord Stamfordham who had conducted the auction saying, "If I could be sure of equally skillful auctioneering I really might endeavour to reduce our national liabilities by turning out a few pictures."

Painting was always to prove a welcome resource when political times were lean. In the General Election of June 1929 the Conservative party failed to win an overall majority and Mr. Baldwin and his Government resigned. A few months later Winston, now liberated from the toils of office, embarked on a three month holiday, bringing his son Randolph, aged 18, along with Jack, his brother, and Jack's son, Johnny. The journey started in Canada and two paintings of Lake Louise, whose emerald depths entranced Winston's eye, in a charming valley scene near Banff, remain as mementos of a varied and interesting holiday. During this time he also seriously toyed with the idea of buying a farm and settling in Canada, so charmed was he by the scene.

In 1921 Winston had written two articles published in The Strand magazine in which he described his thoughts on painting. They were later published as a small booklet called Painting as a Pastime. Sadly now out of print, it is pure enchantment to read. And I have quoted liberally from it tonight. The text throbs with enthusiasm and encouragement to others to seize brush and canvas and have a go. Addressing himself particularly to the reader who, like himself, discovered painting in middle age, he wrote:

We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket. Over the years I have been much struck by the number of people who have told me that after reading my father's words of encouragement and enthusiasm they simply had to try for themselves, and several of them, like him, have found an absorbing and lifelong ploy in painting.

Up to the time that he himself started to paint, Winston had hardly set foot in a picture gallery. Now, Clementine guided him 'round the National Gallery. But he found it slow and dull work because he would become rooted to the spot before a picture, studying the technique minutely for half an hour at a time. Then he visited galleries in Paris where he fell under the spell of the Impressionists. He found their pictures so full of joie de vivre. "The beauty of their work," he wrote, "is instinct with gaiety, and floats in sparkling air."

Another way in which this late-recruited artist endeavoured to teach himself was by copying pictures in the collections of friends. In particular Sir Philip Sassoon (a great friend who had a beautiful collection, with whom Winston and Clementine often stayed) helped to influence him and his development as a painter. Sassoon was a friend and patron of the great and famous painter John Singer Sargent and owned a number of his paintings. Winston admired these works and Philip Sassoon would unhang them from his walls and prop them up and Winston would set himself to copy them. He learned to paint scenes in dappled shade. Sargent's indirect influence can be seen in Winston's best pictures from the later '20's onwards.

Although confident and self assured in the fields of politics and oratory and writing, Winston Churchill was always truly modest about his achievements as a painter. Seeking and accepting constructive criticism, ever open to new ideas and ready to try new mediums and techniques, he was always suspicious of praise and evaluation - thinking, probably rightly, that other considerations than artistic ones might weigh even subconsciously with his critics. He was therefore considerably elated when in 1925 he won first prize in an amateur art exhibition held in London. The conditions of entry were that the pictures were not to be signed, nor any other indication given of their authorship. The judges of the competition were three notable art connoisseurs.Winston sent in what must have been one of his very first pictures of Chartwell. The picture, entitled for the exhibition "Winter Sunshine," is of the red brick house painted from the south, the pale sunshine is gleaming on the melting snow.

An important milestone in the career of Churchill the painter was the sudden and fortuitous appearance in his life of Walter Sickert. Famous in his lifetime (he died 82 in 1942) Sickert as a young man had studied under Degas, and represents a link with the Impressionist and post-Impressionist world. Today, his pictures are much sought after. Walter Sickert had been a great friend of my grandmother, Lady Blanche Hozier when he came to know her while she and her three children were living in Dieppe on the Normandy coast at the turn of the Century. There Sickert also lived for tome years. Clementine, then a schoolgirl in her mid-teens, got to know Mr. Sickert, forty and good-looking, quite well. She told me she was secretly much smitten by him; she'd stand and watch him painting for hours. However, after the brief Dieppe interlude, their paths were not to cross for twenty-seven years. Then literally by accident they met again. For in June 1927, Clementine was knocked down by a bus while crossing the Brampton Road in London. She was fortunately not badly hurt but suffered severe bruising and shock. The report of her accident in the newspapers was read by, among others, Walter Sickert. On an impulse, he marched off to Number 11 Downing Street, then as now the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and inquired anxiously after his friend of so many years ago. Clementine was greatly touched by his solicitude and delighted to see her old friend again and Winston and Walter Sickert took to each other immediately. Their friendship was to prove of great importance to Winston as a painter.

Sickert was generous with his tire and advice, some of it given in detailed letters of instruction. He and Winston often worked together, both at Number 11 and at Chartwell, Sickert teaching Winston his techniques in the preparation of canvases. In what was to be probably the most marked and lasting effect of their collaboration, Sickert taught him the way to use photographs as aide-memoires and the method of using a magic lantern to throw a photograph on a canvas. Such devices were much used by Sickert, and would prove particularly helpful to Winston who, having had no formal artistic training, was weak in draftsmanship.

Later on in the '30's the famous French artist Paul Maze was a painting companion. The cher Maitre, as we all came to call this charming man, remained a regular visitor to Chartwell for many years.

One of the great features of Winston's painting life was indeed the friendships he formed with a series of painters whose company and conversation he greatly relished. Their presence was an added enrichment to the already wonderful company at my parents' table.

I feel some of you must be wondering if you'll be here all night, calculating, as perhaps you may, that my father's painting life stretched from those anguishing days in 1915 until the late 1950s, a period of over forty years. And I've only just reached the threshold of the Thirties in my account of his happy wanderings with the Muse of Painting. Indeed how truly prophetic had been his words written early in his romance with painting. "Painting is a companion with whom one may hope to walk a great part of life's journey. Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day."

But do not fear! I am nearing the end of my discourse. I have quite deliberately concentrated on the earlier times of my father's career as a painter and I hope you'll agree with me that the tale of when and how and why he started to paint and how it laid hold of him and how he made progress and was influenced in his work is interesting. I think it has not been overrecorded. But now I will run the film much faster and you will see a kaleidescope of colour, life and enjoyment.

In the decade 1929 to 1939, called in the terms of Winston Churchill's political career the Wilderness Years, he was much occupied in the House of Commons and in the campaign he increasingly waged to arouse his countrymen to the great dangers which loomed ahead. Despite the long hours of work he devoted to his writings, by which he kept us all; despite the employments and activities he pursued at his beloved Chartwell, digging ha-has, creating streams and pools and building walls; despite all these duties and occupations he still found, and made time for painting. Painting in the sunshine he loved the best. But driven indoors, the view from the window, the shadow pictures of the magic lantern, still life groups, flower studies and portraits, all kept him absorbed and happy. Painting dissolved the frustrations and at times the bitterness of being cast in the role of a voice crying in the wilderness. His canvases record the happy holiday seasons in the south of France and at Marrakesh in North Africa, where brilliant colours and endlessly paintable scenes kept him busy at his easel for hours on end. Early on he had declared his love for bright colours all those years ago in Painting as a Pastime when he wrote: "I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns."

With the coming of the war Chartwell was shut up, the studio abandoned, brushes, paints and canvases put away. Only on one occasion in the war did Winston bring out his paint-box. It was after the conference at Casablanca, January 1943, when he said to President Roosevelt, "You cannot go all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh. Let us spend two days there, I must be with you when you see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas mountains."

So it was arranged and at the bewitching hour of sunset the President was carried up to the tower of the Villa Taylor then the house of the American Vice-consul, and the two friends sat side by side and watched the sun set in all its splendour on the distant snowclad peaks: a moment of tranquility amid the tumult and stress of the war. The President left the next morning to return to the United States, but Winston stayed on and stole two days, and painted from the tower the only picture he painted during the war [Tower of Katoubia Mosque] and he later gave it to the President.

As soon as the war was over he took up his brushes again and indeed I think painting was the only effective help and balm in the days of humiliation and bewilderment after the 1945 General Election. For about ten more years he painted with vigour and then gradually he slowed up. He still enjoyed sitting in a balmy climate, contemplating some lovely scene: but the Muse had been a faithful friend. She had kept him company almost to the end of the day, just slipping away when she saw he was tired. But what a long and enriching friendship they had had!

There are about 500 pictures by Winston Churchill extant. The greater number belong to his family, although many of them can be seen at his old home, Chartwell. The Tate Gallery exhibits a lovely river scene [The Loup River, Alpes-Maritime 1930]. Winston was made an Honorary Academician Extraordinary of the Royal Academy where he had a one-man show; and The Queen accepted from him one of his pictures for her private collection [Palladian Bridge].

Winston Churchill once wrote, "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."

I hope his wish has come true. In my own mind's eye I like to imagine him at his easel in the best and greatest of painting company. Do you know Rudyard Kipling's marvelous poem about painters? May I take my leave of you this evening, with his words:

When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it - lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workman shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!


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