‘If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t bear the strain’: Churchill's love affair with art

Winston Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue River
Winston Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue River Credit:  Frank Scherschel

‘Happy are the painters – for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.” So said a 74-year-old Winston Churchill in his 1948 book Painting as a Pastime.

For all his decades at the forefront of political life, it was painting, more than any other non-political interest, which dominated Churchill’s thoughts, from middle-age onwards.

Astonishingly for someone who painted 500 canvases, he first took up a paintbrush when he was 40 in 1915. But, over the next 48 years his obsession grew so great that he became the world’s best-known amateur painter. In 1948, he was elected an Honorary Academician Extraordinary at the Royal Academy and he exhibited at the RA until 1964. In 1959, an RA show of his pictures had more visitors than any previous one apart from a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. He painted his last picture in 1962 – The Goldfish Pond at Chartwell – when he was 88. Given by Churchill to his bodyguard Edmund Murray, it sold in 2017 for £357,000. Another picture of the Chartwell goldfish pond, which had belonged to his daughter Mary Soames, went for a record £1.8 million in 2014.

Now, for the first time, Churchill’s articles on art and RA lectures have been gathered together. The historian David Cannadine has edited and introduced them in a new book, Churchill: The Statesman as Artist.

“For Churchill, the visual was at least as important as the verbal,” says Cannadine. “While Churchill spent most of his waking hours talking incessantly, preparing and making his speeches, delivering monologues at the lunch and dinner table, and dictating his journalism and his books, painting was the only activity he seems to have carried out in peace and complete silence. It absorbed him for many continuous hours, taking his mind off everything else, and off everybody else, too – which was why he found it so therapeutic.”

Reproduced with kind permission of Churchill Heritage Ltd

Apart from a few drawings produced at school and in the Army, Churchill had no interest in art until he visited the National Gallery with his wife, Clementine, in 1915.

“Pausing before the first picture, a very ordinary affair, he appeared absorbed in it,” Clementine later remembered. “For half an hour, he studied its technique minutely. Next day, he again visited the gallery, but I took him in this time by the left entrance instead of the right, so that I might at least be sure that he would not return to the same picture.”

At the time, Churchill was in deep despair after planning the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli campaign which led to  demotion from his job as First Lord of the Admiralty. He turned to painting as therapy. “When every fibre of my being was inflamed to action, I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, placed cruelly in a front seat,” he said of that moment in 1915. “And then it was that the muse of painting came to my rescue.”

In the Twenties, Churchill began to write about art for The Strand Magazine, singing the praises of bright colours: “I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.” He adored Turner, the Impressionists and Matisse, particularly their skill in portraying the effect of light on landscape and water.

Visitors to take a closer look at one of the 61 landscapes and still-life paintings exhibited by Sir Winston Churchill in 1959

It was in his Royal Academy dinners that Churchill really enlarged on his feelings about art. In 1927, he addressed the RA banquet on art and politics.

“How very lucky artists are... a class of the most fortunate mortals on the globe,” he declared.

“All human beings may be divided exhaustively into two classes – those whose work is their toil and those whose work is their joy. Fancy painting all those delightful scenes and graceful forms, tracing the subtle curves of beauty and marking justly where the flash of light falls among the shadow, and doing all that, not as an amusement, but as a solid profession.”

In 1938, he again addressed the RA, and placed himself halfway between tradition and modernism. “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” he said. “Without innovation, it is a corpse. It is by art man gets nearest to the angels and farthest from the animals. It lights the path and links the thought of one generation with another, and in the realm of price holds its own in intrinsic value with an ingot of gold.”

The Second World War brought an inevitable decline in Churchill’s production of art. Painting with his friend, the artist Paul Maze, in Normandy in summer 1939, he said: “This is the last picture we shall paint in peace for a very long time.”

It is striking that, during the war, Britain and Germany were both led by artists.

“Whereas Churchill was a successful amateur, Hitler was a failed professional,” says Cannadine. “He had sought to gain admission to the Vienna Academy in 1907, convinced that he had high aesthetic talent. But his work was derivative and unoriginal, and lacked the essential spark of creativity, let alone the genius that he mistakenly believed he possessed.

“Churchill was not a great artist, but he was a very accomplished painter, whereas Hitler had no talent whatsoever.”

Reproduced with kind permission of Churchill Heritage Ltd

Churchill did in fact paint one picture during the war – a view of Marrakesh, painted in January 1943 after meeting Roosevelt in Casablanca. He later gave the picture to Roosevelt.

After losing the 1945 election, Churchill returned to painting in earnest. He told his wife: “I am confident that, with a few more months of regular practice, I shall be able to paint far better than I have ever painted before. This new interest is very necessary in my life.”

He confessed to John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery: “If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live. I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”

Churchill also wrote a bestseller, the aforementioned Painting as a Pastime, and continued to talk at the Royal Academy banquets. In his 1954 talk, two years after the first hydrogen bomb had been detonated, he declared that “the arts have a noble and vital part to play” in helping mankind deal with these “gigantic powers which confront us with problems never known before”.

By the time of that last 1954 RA lecture, Churchill was beginning to wind down his painting. But as he lay on his deathbed in 1965, aged 90, immobile and supposedly insensible, his daughter Sarah noticed his right hand moving in a characteristic way. He was grasping for a paintbrush.