The Magazine

Brush with History

Painting was more than a pastime for Winston Churchill.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By HENRIK BERING
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One million pounds for a landscape with some sheep, painted by an amateur artist, may strike some as rather on the high side; but that was the winning bid at a recent auction at Sotheby's in London.

Then again, the amateur in question was Winston Churchill, and the view that of his beloved country estate Chartwell in Kent. He had given the painting to Henry Luce, who had serialized his wartime memoirs in Life, and the price was no fluke: Churchill's paintings have doubled in value over the past decade, which would no doubt have pleased him. Painting was important to Churchill: "If it weren't for painting, I could not live," he once noted. "I could not bear the strain of things."

In his long essay "Painting as a Pastime," Churchill recounts how he took it up in 1915 at the age of 40 after being sacked from the Admiralty after Gallipoli. Demoted to a sinecure in the cabinet with no influence on the conduct of the war, he was sulking at a country retreat in Surrey he had rented for his family. Here he found his sister-in-law painting in the garden, and after experimenting a little with the children's paint box, decided to get himself some proper equipment.

Having acquired easel and colors, he describes his first timid steps in front of the canvas: "The palette gleamed with beads of color. Fair and white rose the canvas, the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air. My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto." But noting that the sky was pale blue, he proceeded gingerly to load a "very small brush" with blue paint and, then, "with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean on the affronted snow-white shield. It was a challenge, a deliberate challenge; but so subdued, so halting, indeed so cataleptic, that it deserved no response."

At this point, the wife of his neighbor, the painter Sir John Lavery, arrives in his driveway in her car. She sees his hesitation, resolutely grabs a large brush and inflicts "several large fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvass." And lo,

No evil fate avenged the jaunty violence. The canvass grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvass since.

From then on, painting was Churchill's favorite hobby and escape valve, a means of warding off depression, especially during the long periods he was out of office. Rather than watercolors, for which England has a fine amateur tradition, oils were his chosen medium, as they are more forgiving. You can recoup your losses in oils, whereas in watercolors, one slip and you've had it. Oils are also more robust in nature and, therefore, more suitably Churchillian.

The key quality needed for a painter who starts out late in life is audacity, Churchill writes: There is no time for the usual childhood preliminaries, in the form of lessons and patient excercises; you have to jump right in. That means shortcuts are acceptable. Acknowledging his weakness as a draftsman, Churchill sometimes resorted to the aid of a Magic Lantern, with which he could project a slide onto his canvas.

As to his influences, he admired Sargent, Whistler, and the French impressionists, whose work is "instinct with gaiety, and floats in sparkling air." He describes how, inspired by their example, he trained his eye, registering all the changing hues in a landscape, or in the tiny differences in the colors of the bricks in a wall.

Churchill's own style--or styles, for he had several, depending on which of his painter friends were around--is characterized by his delight in color ("I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns") and the vigor of his brushstrokes. This very exuberance is also his weakness. According to his close friend, the French painter Paul Maze, who tried to discipline him, he was in love with the very pigment itself:

All I ever attempted was to simplify his method and reduce his means and insatiable appetite for colour. He would have eaten a tube of white he loved the smell of it so. With his brushes and paint, he forgot everything, like a child does who has been given a box of paints.

Characteristically, he saw painting in terms of fighting a battle, where the commander in chief, having surveyed the ground, enacts his battle plan. But sometimes the painting will "retaliate," leaving the commander "besplattered," and staring defeat in the eye.