Celebrating Churchill's art Paintings: Winston Churchill began painting to drive away the blues, but created some impressive works.

January 07, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Before he became one of the century's renowned figures, Winston Churchill was 40 and depressed.

The year was 1915. Golf bored him. Long walks left him lonely. And then, he reached for a paint brush.

"So very gingerly," he later wrote, "I mixed a little blue paint on the palette with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the affronted snow-white shield."

And so began Churchill's long romance with painting, the results of which can be seen in an extraordinary exhibition at Sotheby's auction house in London. More than 100 of his works have been gathered in an exhibition that runs until Jan. 17.

This isn't a sale -- it's a celebration that comes 50 years after Churchill published in book form a remarkable essay, "Painting as a Pastime." It also marks the 50th anniversary of Churchill's appointment to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts as Honorary Academician Extraordinary.

Churchill as painter comes as a great surprise to many who recall his other exploits as a young warrior and World War II leader, politician and statesman, journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author.

But painting was very much a part of Churchill's life, the hobby that sustained him in times of trouble, turmoil and retirement. By comparison, his World War II nemesis, Adolf Hitler, was a failed art student who turned in anger to politics.

"We cannot aspire to masterpiece," Churchill wrote in "Painting as a Pastime." "We may content ourselves with a joyride in a paint box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket." Churchill painted about 500 works, concentrating on the people and places he knew best. He created landscapes and fruit-filled bowls, flower-filled vases and portraits of family.

He even managed to paint one canvas while serving as Britain's prime minister during World War II.

The canvases on display at Sotheby's bring warmth and brightness in a gray London winter. One is marked by sunlit Egyptian skies. In another, Churchill's wife, Clementine, wears a magnificent smile. In another, boats float in a tranquil harbor.

"The way he went about life, the verve and gusto, the drive and enthusiasm, you can see it in the painting," says Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby's Europe. "You can see his development as an artist, how it seized him. It's quite staggering."

Most critics of the current exhibition have been kind, noting Churchill's raw ability.

William Packer of the Financial Times wrote that Churchill "took himself and his painting seriously enough for us now, on the strength of what he actually did, to wish he had only pushed it a little farther, and himself a little harder. The talent was there."

But influential London art critic Brian Sewell labeled the show "a load of bloody rubbish."

David Coombs, the show's curator, says it's wrong to dismiss Churchill's artistic talents.

"He was a very important man, so it's right to look at his art," he says. "And it is quite patronizing to say, 'Considering the man he was, it's amazing he painted quite so well.'

"You have to understand that painting filled his life," Coombs adds. "It gave him a physical thing to do."

Churchill once told 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."

Painting came into Churchill's life in 1915 after he suffered one of the many political setbacks that marked his career. He was forced out as Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I as the Allied campaign on the Turkish Dardanelles failed miserably at a cost of thousands of lives.

Cut from influence in the war, he retreated to a rented farm in the countryside. Nothing could lift him out of his dark mood, until his sister-in-law, Gwendeline Churchill, wife of his younger brother John, encouraged him to begin painting.

He wrote that "the Muse of Painting came to rescue and said 'Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people.' "

His daughter Lady Mary Soames has written that painting became an integral part of Churchill's ability to "confront storms, ride out depressions, and to rise above the rough passages of his political life."

For Churchill, painting was relaxation and therapy, his nearly HTC constant companion in a roller-coaster career that would reach its heights during Britain's darkest days as the country stood alone against Germany.

Despite his talents with a brush, Churchill viewed himself as no more than very much an amateur, who learned his hobby from friends like painters Walter Sickert and William Nicholson.

Occasionally, one of his works would be sold for charity. He even successfully submitted paintings to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition.

As he grew older, his artistic talent was celebrated in magazines and on television, and a traveling exhibition of 35 of his paintings eventually made its way to the United States.

Former President Harry S. Truman pronounced the paintings "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."

Most of the paintings ended up with his heirs, or preserved in his massive studio at Chartwell, his former country home, which is overseen by England's National Trust.

Last year, one of Churchill's paintings commanded $250,350 at a London auction.

Yet Churchill didn't paint for cash -- he painted for pleasure.

"Happy are the Painters for they shall not be lonely," he wrote. "Light and color, peace and hope will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end of the day."

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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