“My dear friends, this is your hour.” These were Winston Churchill’s words as he spoke on the evening of the Allied victory in Europe, and so ended the Second World War. A man of undeniable strength and resilience, Winston Churchill stands as one of the greatest leaders of the modern world. His iconic speeches and steadfast direction during World War II galvanized the Allied forces in Britain and abroad. While he was most revered by history for his accomplishments as a statesman, orator, politician and writer, Churchill was also a highly talented artist.
Churchill pursued the art of painting for more than 40 years. Art became a dominating passion during the last half of his life, and often his refuge from the stresses of the outside world. Today, his works are highly sought after not only because they bear the name “Churchill,” but because they are remarkable works of art in their own right. Read on to learn more about Churchill as an artist.
A Political Giant
One hardly needs a refresher on the political achievements of the great Winston Churchill; thousands of pages have already been written on his accomplishments (and his occasional failures) in the political realm. In brief, Churchill was born in 1874 to a wealthy aristocratic family. After his years in school, he joined the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, and eventually became a member of the British Army. His earliest foray into politics came about in 1899, when he was selected as one of the two Conservative parliamentary candidates in Oldham, Lancashire. He lost this race, returning to military service during the Boer War.
Of course, he eventually did win a political victory, becoming a Member of Parliament at the age of 25 in 1900. From there, he would rise through the political ranks, becoming Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, then the President of the Board of Trade, then the Home Secretary... so forth all the way to the post of Prime Minister.
The Birth of a Painter
Churchill truly encompasses the meaning of the term “Renaissance Man.” Aside from his political career, he was also a journalist, an historian, and a prolific writer. And, of course, at the age of 41, he became an accomplished amateur painter.
There is little evidence that he had any artistic training prior to his 40s. In fact, his wife Clementine mentioned at one point that before he began painting, Churchill had hardly visited an art museum, much less created art. Churchill first began painting following a personal and political disaster, the Dardanelles campaign, in 1915. The attempt to sail a fleet through the Dardanelles Straits to intimidate the Turkish army into surrendering was intended to relieve Russian troops during World War I. Ultimately a failure that cost an estimated 46,000 British lives, the campaign cast a long shadow over Churchill’s life and career.
Following the affair, Churchill resigned from the government, finding refuge at a country house - Hoe Farm - in Surrey that he visited with his wife, Clementine, and their three children. His sister-in-law, Goonie, was also a frequent visitor. Herself a gifted watercolorist, one day she was painting in the garden when Churchill wandered up beside her, borrowed her brush, and put paint on canvas for the first time. He soon returned to political life, but from that moment on, he would never be far from a brush and canvas.
It was due to the help of his good friend John Lavery, a renowned Irish artist, together with his talented wife Hazel, that Churchill gained the courage to further pursue the art of painting. Churchill could often be found working side by side with Lavery in his studio in London, learning basic painting techniques and an expressive use of paint. Lavery introduced his pupil to new subjects: landscapes, interiors, and even portraits. In fact, in 1915 Churchill painted a portrait of Lavery himself and gifted it to his friend; Lavery later lent the work to the 1919 exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. It was the first time one of Churchill’s paintings was exhibited in public.
Art as Refuge
While most great artists that history remembers painted for money or fame, Churchill painted for himself. His art became his refuge from the ups and downs of political life after he returned to his career with the government. Thanks to his political posts, he was often away from home, traveling on diplomatic missions with his wife, Clementine. After 1915, he brought a canvas, paint and his paint brushes with him wherever he traveled. Thus, his canvases lend a highly personal glimpse into his life - the vistas he admired, the friends he visited, the shops that he frequented. All became the subjects of his impressive canvases.
By 1920, Churchill had gained enough confidence in his artistic abilities, through the encouragement of established artists such as Lavery and Paul Maze, to exhibit his works. In 1921, he sent several pieces to the Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym “Charles Morin.” Six of which sold. In 1925, he entered an amateur London painting competition with Winter Sunshine, Chartwell, winning first prize. His body of work remained intriguingly steadfast in both subject matter and style, displaying the obvious influence of the Post-Impressionists that flourished during this period. His color palette grew increasingly vivid, and he returned to the same subjects over and over, each time presenting a composition of distinctive emotional energy.
As Churchill’s political reputation grew in the throws of World War II, so did his reputation as an artist. Shortly after the war’s end, Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy, commissioned Churchill to submit two paintings to the Summer Exhibition. He did so under the name “Mr. Winter” to avoid bias. Both were unanimously accepted for display.
Churchill’s legacy lives on in history as one of the founders of the free world. But perhaps his most overlooked achievement is the incredible artistic oeuvre, which gives us a candid glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest men of our age.