WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
His Art Reflects His Life
By Edwina Sandys – Granddaughter of Winston Churchill
Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which without exhausting the body more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen.”— Winston S. Churchill
Some of my most vivid memories of my grandfather are of him as a painter. He was the first artist I ever knew. As a child I would stand behind him and watch, spellbound by the magic he was creating. As he was the “expert” in the family, I would sometimes show him some small effort of my own.
Winston Churchill at his Easel 1946
You can see Winston Churchill in the little things of life, by the way he enjoys his dinner, by the way he plays cards, the way he pats his poodle – and by the way he puts paint on the canvas.
There was art in Churchill’s politics, but no politics in his art. Unashamedly, he painted for pure pleasure, channeling his joie de vivre onto the canvas. Winston Churchill was a Man for All Seasons.
There are qualities that characterize him in his public life, which also show up repeatedly in his paintings. He was BOLD. He was IRREPRESSIBLE. He was filled to the brim with a LOVE OF LIFE. He was INSPIRING, that quality of his which, more than any other, shaped world history. He loved his work. He loved his friends and family. He loved his home. Most men keep their work in the office; whenever possible, Grandpapa brought his home. No time or place was exempt. Wherever he went — the drawing room, the bedroom, the bathroom — was where it was at. The dinner table at Chartwell was the Mecca to which all were attracted — always the hub of the household, frequently the hub of the world.
At Christmas, there were little children running around, Rufus the poodle, and the green budgerigar Toby hopping from head to head. The guiding light throughout was Grandmama, always ready with a word or a look to make sure everyone was happy and at ease. The scented room, the flowers, the scrumptious food were a magical combination of warmth and elegance. Later, when the mood had mellowed over brandy and cigars, Grandpapa would frequently hold the table spellbound as he recited poetry until tears came to his eyes.
People frequently ask me if my grandfather was a good painter. I always answer, emphatically, “YES!” He was good because he painted the things he loved. He put his own stamp on his canvases, which are brimming over with his personality and love of life: his garden at Chartwell, the black swans in the lakes, particularly the goldfish pond. He would throw worms into the water, delighting at the sudden flashes of orange that leaped to the surface as if from nowhere. He physically created much of that landscape himself – and then he painted it. Through his painting, Churchill achieved a heightened awareness of the beauties of nature. He describes in Painting as a Pastime:
“I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, the dreamy, purple shades of mountains, the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim, pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over forty years, witout ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, ‘what a lot of people!”
Landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes – he loved to capture on canvas scapes of all kinds. When asked why he preferred landscape painting to portraiture, he replied, “A tree doesn’t complain that I haven’t done it justice.”
To me one painting sums up his Love of Life. Bottlescape, symbolizes his love for the good things in life (see Winston’s Bottlescapecleverly inset within Edwina’s painting ‘Finest Hours’ of her grandpapa below.) A fine array of decanters and bottles – and a disarray of half-filled glasses – are quite loosely painted. But you know exactly what each bottle holds, and how it tastes.
Connection of Churchill’s painting & historic speeches
Throughout his life, Churchill inspired people – through his actions and through his words. What makes for a good speech also makes for a good painting – contrast, imagination, clarity: There was nothing wishy-washy in his speeches or his art. His friend, artist Paul Maze, gave him this advice: “Paint like you write or speak. You can do it — every stroke of the brush must be a statement felt and seen.”
In some ways Churchill’s art began to affect his words, with vivid imagery gained from his new painter’s eye. His World War II “Finest Hour” speech ends with the painterly metaphor: “I see a day when men and women walk together in broad sunlit uplands”.
His joy of painting inspired others to take up the brush and “have a go.” What he did for his own pleasure also gave pleasure to others — at first those around him, later to a wider circle, through exhibitions in Britain and abroad. I attended his 1958 exhibition at The Royal Academy, which drew vast crowds. The art critic John Russell wrote: “Nearly all of us are pleased when an amateur outdoes the professionals.”
Painting is only a thread in the tapestry of his life, but it mattered deeply because it came to his rescue at key times when he might otherwise have despaired: “If it weren’t for painting I couldn’t live,” he remarked to the art historian Sir John Rothenstein. “I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”
He was bold in his choice of colors – so much so that many people, including his wife Clementine, would sometimes suggest that he “cool” them. Whatever the advice, and from whatever quarter, Winston insisted: “I must say I like the bright colours, I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns. He added: “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. But then I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below.”
I like to imagine Grandpapa on a fluffy white cloud painting away to his heart’s content. Cigar and brush were both so much a part of him that it’s not hard to picture him putting the paintbrush in his mouth and stabbing the canvas with his cigar.