Winston Churchill was one of the world’s most important and famous figures of the 20th century. From working as a reporter in the Second Anglo-Boer War, he rose to prominence in the military, where he was First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War.
However, he is most famously known as the dogged, resilient Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War. Many people argue that Britain may have lost the war if he had not been the Prime Minister at that time. His charismatic stubbornness and refusal to give up characterized the whole nation of Britain.
His talents, however, did not end with politics. Hidden behind his prominent position as a powerful and influential leader, Winston Churchill was a painter whose works garnered great admiration (unlike his arch-nemesis, Adolf Hitler, who was recognized as a very average painter).
The story of Winston Churchill as an artist is not as widespread as the story of his life of war and conflict, but it reveals a very different aspect of this famous historical figure.
Winston Churchill Picks Up the Brush
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In May 1915, things were not going well for Winston Churchill. As High Lord of the Admiralty, he was ultimately responsible for the naval element of the disaster that had been the Gallipoli Campaign. As a result of this grievous error, he was demoted to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was consumed with shame and anxiety over the matter and sought a fair amount of time away from the limelight.
In June, he went on a family holiday to Hoe Farm in Sussex. Joining various family members was his brother’s wife, Lady Gwendoline Churchill, known to her friends and relatives as “Goonie.” Being an amateur artist herself, she suggested that he try painting. Winston watched her paint, and from the moment she handed him the brush, he was captivated.
Churchill recalled later in life that his first lone attempt at a full painting was in the countryside. No sooner had he added a blue blob to the canvas when he was interrupted by his London neighbor, who was an Irish painter, Sir John Lavery, and his wife Hazel, who were out for a walk when they spotted their friend at the easel.
“Painting!” Hazel exclaimed. “But what are you hesitating about?” she added before grabbing the brush and, with bold strokes, turned the blue blob into sky.
With a new understanding, Churchill recounted that he never felt afraid of the canvas again. He was 40 years old at the time, and he would continue painting for another five decades.
The First World War
It wasn’t long after returning from his holiday that Winston Churchill began his active military service and found himself on the Western Front. He took his paints with him and spent his free time painting the landscape around Ploegsteert Wood, where he was stationed with his command of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. In 1917, he returned to Britain and politics as the Minister of Munitions and continued to paint throughout this period.
He pursued his hobby with vigor and found guidance through many famous artists of the time, including Sir John Lavery, Walter Sickert, William Nicholson, and Paul Maze. In 1919, Churchill’s Portrait of Sir John Lavery in his Studio was displayed at the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London.
The Next Two Decades
Winston Churchill’s art continued to grow along with his political career. In February 1921, Churchill was appointed the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In March, the first exhibition of his work was displayed at Galerie Druet in Paris, where his paintings were signed with the pseudonym of Charles Morin. Later that year, he attended the Cairo Conference and took the opportunity to paint the Pyramids. By this point, several of his paintings had been sold for £30 each.
As a prominent politician, it was difficult to avoid his pseudonym quickly becoming known, and he started to gain fame as an artist in his own right, although he remained very humble about his painting throughout his life, referring to his paintings as “daubs.” He gave an interview for the Strand Magazine in December 1921 and for Hobbies and Painting as a pastime in January 1922, the latter for which he was paid £1000, which was considerably more than he had made from his actual art.
In 1922, Churchill bought a home in Chartwell, Kent, where he built a room as a dedicated studio. The elections that followed saw him lose his seat. He was also hospitalized for appendicitis. Without a job and recovering from his ailment, he found plenty of time to paint.
In 1924, he was re-elected to parliament and appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. His new job took up the vast majority of his time, so his hobby took a backseat for a while. From 1927, his art saw a resurgence in his life, and he devoted more time to painting, especially during a holiday to Southern Europe.
The years that followed involved much travel to Europe and the Middle East, where Churchill spent his free time painting the local landscapes of Southern France, Egypt, Italy, and Morocco, among others. He had a particular love for the desert scenes in Morocco, and his painting Scene at Marrakech (1935) has become one of his most well-known works.
The War Years
One of his most famous paintings was Tower of Koutoubia Mosque, painted in 1943 while in Morocco for the Casablanca Conference, in which the Allies strategized plans for the war against Nazi Germany. He gifted this painting to Franklin D. Roosevelt, after which the painting was much later acquired by actress Angelina Jolie. It was put on auction in 2021, selling for £8.3 million, making it the most expensive Churchill painting ever sold.
It was also the only painting Winston Churchill created between 1939 and 1945, as he was, understandably, concerned with other matters.
After the War
No sooner had Germany been defeated than Churchill found himself out of the position of Prime Minister. He lost the June 1945 election to Labour’s Clement Attlee. After years of destruction, Europe needed to rebuild, and Churchill applied the same idea to his art, once again picking up the brushes and applying paint to canvas.
In 1947 and 1948, Churchill submitted works to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym of “David Winter,” and the Royal Academy of Arts granted him the title of Honorary Academician Extraordinary. In 1948, he published a book, Painting As A Pastime.
In the following years, Churchill would continue painting through his second stint as Prime Minister and beyond, all the way until his death in 1965. In 1958, an exhibition entitled “Churchill, the Painter” toured North America and was a great success. It was, however, not without criticism. Many felt that his art was successful in that it rode on the coattails of Churchill’s fame as a politician and that his art was not of a high enough standard to be considered worthy of the attention it received. Some American authorities in the art world were dismissive of Churchill’s art. Nevertheless, Winston Churchill never claimed that his art was of high quality.
During his lifetime, Winston Churchill produced around 550 completed paintings.
Churchill’s mindset towards his painting was that it was just a hobby, and despite his insistence that he was merely an amateur, many love his works and treat them as if they were the result of a professional endeavor. He did sell a few paintings, but for the most part, he enjoyed gifting his creations to friends and family.
Churchill was a great believer in personal freedom, and this belief shone through his paintings. He loved to travel, and most of his paintings were done en plein air. He rejected the common theme of using dull, soft tones in painting and persisted with his love of bright colors.
“I must say I like bright colours. I agree with Ruskin in his denunciation of that school of painting who ‘eat slate-pencil and chalk, and assure everybody that they are nicer and purer than strawberries and plums.’”
His work was bold, colorful, and distinctive. And it fetches a very dear price in auction houses around the world today!
Winston Churchill’s art may not be comparable to the impressionist masters, but his art reveals important insight into one of history’s most influential people, and it stands as a testament to the positive qualities of creating art as a relaxing and enjoyable activity.
Churchill lived a difficult life filled with all the stresses of leadership in times of crisis, and his passion for art brought him much joy.