Winston Churchill :His Other Life
My father, Winston Churchill, began his love affair with painting in his 40s, amid disastrous circumstances. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, he was deeply involved in a campaign in the Dardanelles that could have shortened the course of a bloody world war. But when the mission failed, with great loss of life, Churchill paid the price, both publicly and privately. He was removed from the admiralty and effectively sidelined.
Overwhelmed by the catastrophe — “I thought he would die of grief,” said his wife, Clementine —he retired with his family to Hoe Farm, a country retreat in Surrey. There, as Churchill later recalled, “The muse of painting came to my rescue!”
Wandering in the garden one day, he chanced upon his sister-in-law sketching with watercolors. He watched her for a few minutes, then borrowed her brush and tried his hand. The muse had cast her spell!
Churchill soon decided to experiment with oils. Delighted with this distraction from his dark broodings, Clementine rushed off to buy whatever paints she could find.
For Churchill, however, the next step seemed difficult as he contemplated with unaccustomed nervousness the blameless whiteness of a new canvas. He started with the sky and later described how “very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint on the palette, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the affronted snow-white shield. At that moment the sound of a motor car was heard in the drive. From this chariot stepped the gifted wife of Sir John Lavery .”
“ ‘Painting!’ she declared. ‘But what are you hesitating about? Let me have the brush — the big one.’ Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette, and then several fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas.”
At that time, John Lavery— a Churchill neighbor and celebrated painter— was tutoring Churchill in his art. Later, Lavery said of his unusual pupil: “Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship, I believe he would have been a great master with the brush.”
In painting, Churchill had discovered a companion with whom he was to walk for the greater part of the years that remained to him. After the war, painting would offer deep solace when, in 1921, the death of the mother was followed two months later by the loss of his and Clementine’s beloved three-year-old daughter, Marigold. Battered by grief, Winston took refuge at the home of friends in Scotland, finding comfort in his painting. He wrote to Clementine: “I went out and painted a beautiful river in the afternoon light with crimson and golden hills in the background. Alas I keep feeling the hurt of the Duckadilly (Marigold’s pet name).”
Historians have called the decade after 1929, when the Conservative government fell and Winston was out of office, his wilderness years. Politically he may have been wandering in barren places, a lonely fighter trying to awaken Britain to the menace of Hitler, but artistically that wilderness bore abundant fruit. During these years he often painted in the South of France. Of the 500-odd canvases extant, roughly 250 date from 1930 to 1939.
Painting remained a joy to Churchill to the end of his life. “Happy are the painters,” he had written in his book Painting as a Pastime, “ for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end of the day.” And so it was for my father.