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Anna Walker
5 April 00:47.
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Was Churchill really that good in art?
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You can see the virtual tour on the Hillsdale site of a recent paintings exhibition by Winston Churchill to see for yourself. 

“Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”

—Winston S. Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime,” Strand Magazine, December 1921

Oil painting was Churchill’s paramount pastime. He began in 1915, at a low point in his career, and gave up only in 1958, his hands too unsteady to hold a brush. His art was his great catharsis. It cleared his mind of everything but the scene before him, leaving him refreshed to return to serious business.

His extraordinary output—some 600 canvases—shows consistent quality, though Churchill always spoke modestly of “my daubs.” Nevertheless, said his artist friend, Sir John Lavery, “had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship, I believe he would have been a great master.”

Churchill deprecated praise, believing it stemmed from his notoriety. One day in 1944, General Eisenhower’s chauffeur, an amateur painter, asked if he might show one of his oils to the Prime Minister, who looked it over. “Very good,” he said, “but you, unlike myself, will be judged on talent alone”

Churchill gave his oils to those he wished to honor with something from “my own paw” —presidents, prime ministers, potentates, politicians. He chose for President Truman almost the same view of Marrakech, Morocco, that he had given President Roosevelt—his only painting during World War II. “It shows the beautiful panorama of the snow-capped Atlas mountains,” he wrote Truman: “the view I persuaded your predecessor to see before he left North Africa after the [1943] Casablanca Conference.”

After the war, viewing a Churchill painting exhibition in Kansas City, Truman offered a typically colorful appraisal: “Damn good. At least you can tell what they are and that is more than you can say for a lot of these modern painters.” Churchill certainly preferred the realist school—and landscapes to portraiture. “A tree,” he said, “doesn’t complain that I haven’t done it justice.”

The paintings in this exhibit also illustrate his political thought and adventures. “Firth of Forth” recalls his famous description of the Royal Navy: “the King’s Ships were at Sea.” The numerous French scenes testify to his love of France, and “French genius.” Marrakech, his favorite painting venue, bespeaks his romantic nature. “The Paris of the Sahara,” he called it, complete with “fortune-tellers, snake-charmers, masses of food and drink, and on the whole the largest and most elaborately organized brothels in the African continent.”

Given what painting meant for him, I asked his daughter why Churchill completed only one canvas during World War II. Wouldn’t he have needed it more than ever then?

“The war crowded it out,” she said. Hillsdale College’s The Churchill Documents explain. In 1943 alone, he coped with the German air war, the Bengal famine, Italy as foe and then friend, American demands, Russian belligerence, strategy arguments among military chiefs, Big Three meetings, Parliamentary business, Japan and the Pacific, public pronouncements, vacancies, appointments. Alas, Lady Soames remembered: “Papa just didn’t have the time.”

Original source: The Hillsdale College Churchill Paintings Exhibition, January-March 2017, winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu

See more on Churchill in Richard's upcoming book "Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality".