Fine Art Conservation

Restoring Churchill’s Only Oil Painting Created During WWII

By Gordon Lewis, Founder of the Fine Arts Conservancy

Gordon Lewis

Most of us recall Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister who steered England through the perils of World War II. President Kennedy said to a specially convened joint session of Congress (while awarding Churchill an honorary American citizenship) that “He marshalled the English language and sent it into battle.” In 1946, Churchill gave an address to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in which he coined the phrase “Iron Curtain.”

Some know he was a highly accomplished landscape painter. The renowned English painter, Sir Oswald Birley remarked, “If Churchill had given the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been, by all odds, the world’s greatest painter.” Churchill did not discover oil painting until his 40s, but over a period of 48 years, his creativity yielded more than 500 paintings.

Churchill painted Tower of Katoubia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco, shown here from his balcony at La Mamounia Hotel on March 23, 1943 (we found the date inscribed on the rear of the picture). It was called by the Art Daily (a highly regarded British publication), “A superb example of Churchill at his best.” Today, the La Mamounia is a five-star hotel.

Showing the difference between the restored area, and the area that still retains the aged varnish.

There are some paintings which a conservator must approach with reverence, and this is one. When we received the picture, it was suffering the vicissitudes of advancing age. The varnish layer was turning yellow and dark with age. Natural varnishes darken over time; it was not until the development of artificial varnish that their clarity remains. Now began the extensive and tedious process of developing a combination of solvents which would only remove the varnish while not affecting the oil paint layer.

Tower of Katoubia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco, completed restoration

Many collectors and dealers say, “It just needs a cleaning.” As true as that may be, cleaning (removal of aged varnish) is, hands down, the single most dangerous of all procedures in restoring paintings. This is the one step which can physically dissolve the paint layer with no hope of recovering it. The only possible resolution, in such a case, is repainting the lost passages, but few conservators are skillful enough to repaint lost area precisely copying the artist’s exact brushstrokes, and, more importantly, these restorations ARE NOT acceptable in the art world. They are considered unethical.

For these reasons, it is not wise (and can be dangerous) to place a painting into the hands of anyone other than a conservator of proven ability for any procedures – most of all cleaning.

The image of the painting half-cleaned, shows the difference in the colors as Churchill intended and the diminished hues caused by the yellowed varnish layer.  The palette is now as rich as the Marrakech view from Churchill’s balcony.

Fine Art Conservation