“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, ending the Second World War. A man of undeniable strength and resilience, Winston Churchill stands as one of the greatest leaders of the modern world. During World War II, his iconic speeches and steadfast direction galvanized the Allied forces in Britain and abroad. While his accomplishments as a statesman, orator, politician and writer are well documented, many are unaware that 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 it often served as his refuge from the stresses of the outside world. Today, his artworks 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 Sandhurst and was then commissioned as an officer in the British Army. His earliest foray into politics came about in 1899 when he was selected as one of the two Conservative parliamentary candidates for Oldham, Lancashire. He lost this race, returning to military service during the Boer War.
Of course, he did eventually win a political victory, becoming a Member of Parliament at the age of 25, standing again for Oldham and winning 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 and 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, a 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 said 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. The campaign cost more than 56,000 allied forces their lives, and it cast a long shadow over Churchill’s life and career.
Following the affair, Churchill resigned from the government, finding refuge at a country house in Surrey, Hoe Farm, 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.
Due to the help of his good friend John Lavery, a renowned Irish artist, together with his talented wife Hazel, Churchill gained the courage to pursue the art of painting in earnest. Churchill could often be found working side by side with Lavery in his studio in London, learning basic painting techniques. 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 publicly.
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 great burdens of political life. Thanks to his political posts, he was often away from home, traveling on diplomatic missions. After 1915, he brought a canvas, paint, and paintbrushes with him wherever he traveled. Thus, his canvases provide an intimate, personal glimpse into his life — the vistas he admired, the friends he visited, and the shops 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 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 repeatedly, 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 most extraordinary men of our age.