Spotlight: Churchill and The Importance Of Painting
A recent documentary about Churchill’s love of painting by Andrew Marr was sympathetic, personal and extremely insightful. It tackled the sensitive issues of Churchill’s private life, and health issues including later-life strokes and painting, from which both Churchill and Marr suffered, as well as the deep peace and recuperation that painting afforded this political heavyweight.
Despite his well-known political career, it is clear that Churchill took his love of painting extremely seriously; he left us more paintings than many full-time artists. For him, art was therapy – his time to paint was his time to think, time to get perspective both literally and metaphorically.
Often remarked as an introspective and solitary character in public life, ‘the artist’ Churchill was instead colourful and Fauvist in mindset. The shapes, compositions and expression he used were abstracted and natural, and he adopted an increasingly loose style as he aged. His own goldfish pond at Chartwell, still in existence today, was one of his favourite subjects from which he crafted exuberant, colourful and happy paintings.
When painting, like anything creative, you can’t think of anything else when you are doing it. It takes you to another world – an escape and a pleasure, perhaps a relief. For Churchill, painting is ‘a friend who makes few undue demands’. He was extremely self deprecating about his paintings – he cultivated friendships with important artists in an effort to improve his own technique but rarely sung the praises of his own work preferring to perfect his craft quietly. He socialised with his artist friends and learned how to do things through them. Instead, he unwittingly left this painterly legacy for us to glean more about the private man behind the public mask.
The intensity of his art gave him a release valve that kept him connected to the reality of being alive. It restored the awe and amazement that things will still keep turning no matter the decision, no matter the bad day you are having. The subject matters that he chose were constants, were fundamental. They were greater than him.
Notoriously a solitary figure, Churchill felt company among the artists as they respected him. He also found a sense of peace and concentration with the artists, he felt as one and took him away from the disturbances and distractions of political life. In early 20th century England, the art movement was quiet and introspective, as opposed to the expressive and majestic paintings of France at the time. It seems that the almost depressive skills of these painters actually captivated and started Churchill off on his painterly journey of discovery.
One notable painting of Churchill’s ‘Tea at Chartwell’ (1927) showcases the brilliant people in his life including Walter Sickert, Nancy Mitford and more.
Walter Sickert was a key influencer to Churchill. It wouldn’t be until the 50’s when met Churchill and influenced artists on a wider scale. He was part of the Camden Town Painters, known for their social realism. William Nicholson was also a big influence for Churchill. They painted together and Nicholson stayed at Chartwell with Churchill.
Churchill And The Cote D’Azur
Further afield, when time allowed, the sunlight and blue water of the South of France called the English in winter at that time, no less Churchill himself. The glitz and luxury of the mediterranean was a real draw – his society was there – the swathes of celebrity-like acquaintances that Churchill had amassed throughout his life. Yet really for him it offered intense colours and a visual sense of peace and reflection. And the Cote D’Azur back then was a jewelled enclave, and nothing like the urban development that has happened since his lifetime.
Winston loved the colour which encouraged a new direction and inspiration. He was inspired by the french painters of ‘joie de vivre’ as he called it and he wasn’t put off by difficult subjects – running water, dappled sunlight, mottled colours of nature at the Loup river. Churchill also loved Marakech in Morocco – he went there sun-seeking and disconsolate many times to visit, and recorded the bright colours.
Churchill The Romantic
We get a sense of a romantic whimsical side to this huge political figure early on in his life via his one and only novel ‘Savrola’. Written in his early 20’s, this romanticised love story suggested his love of the romantic visuals of romance. The work is littered with colourful and melodramatic description, of light, colour and floridity. ‘Blue Room at Lympene’ represents a sunset over the sea, orange and purple, and shows in painterly form this same romantic vision.
The Wilderness Years
At 55 years old, Churchill had been outcast as a politician and was now under huge pressure. Prone now to constant drinking and midnight dictation to a secretary, there were a lot of signs of manic depression. He threw himself into his home of Chartwell, tending his rockeries and turning his hand to gardening. He also painted like nothing before – half of his oeuvre comes from this time.
While there at this time, Churchill was constantly drawn back to his garden pond, the fish within and depicting the natural sight. His works from this period are dark, solitary and sober. Chartwell, Churchill’s home, became his refuge and nowhere was more private than his painting studio. This was at the end of the garden and awash with windows affording him light. Fortunately it has been left to us as he left it when he passed.
The Legacy Began
In Churchill’s mid 70’s, Sir Alfred Mountings persuaded him to enter two pieces into The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Under a pseudonym, he showed two works of Chartwell which were well received, and he exhibited three picturess the following year under his own name.
When Churchill was ousted from government, painting became more and more important to him. Even despite his strokes his stubbornness and bloodymindedness saw that he continued painting almost until the end in January 1965. After which point, more than 500 canvases were auctioned, and his goldfish painting went for £2m at Sotheby’s.
Ultimately, throughout his life the primal business of recording the world around through his oil paints was a means of Churchill getting rid of ego and was perhaps his secret to sanity. He only wrote once about his art publicly and rarely spoke of it, ‘If it weren’t for painting I couldn’t live – I couldn’t bear the strain of things.’