Making His Mark: Winston Churchill the Artist

Making His Mark: Winston Churchill the Artist

Former British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill left a lasting legacy as a brilliant statesman, political strategist and orator. But, what of Churchill the artist, whose paintings have since sold for millions?

It was during the First World War that Churchill took up the brush, painting alongside Anglo-French artist Paul Maze, who would be a lifelong friend and mentor in his artistic pursuits. His medium of choice was oils and his style, impressionist. His paintings depicted landscapes, still life and even some interiors. Much of his work also reflected a fresh and light quality despite Churchill’s ongoing struggle with depression.

Initially however, Churchill experienced the nervous hesitation of every beginner to art, the trepidation of placing colour upon a snowy white canvas. That fear however was eventually banished, a spell he would say was broken by gifted painter Lady Hazel Lavery, who caught him dithering over a painting. “Painting! But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush, a big one.” Her bold strokes of the brush gave him courage and freed his inhibitions, leaving him later to remark that “beginning with audacity is a very great part of the art of painting”.

The war years however kept Churchill busy, particularly during World War II when he reportedly only managed to complete one painting. Still, in his lifetime Churchill produced over 500 works of art, some of which he sent for exhibition under pseudonyms (Charles Morin and David Winter). Whether the pseudonyms were used to shield his ego from a bruising or whether it was so his paintings may be judged based on merit alone is not quite evident. But that Churchill was enthusiastic and earnest about his past time, there is no doubt. His secret identity however was revealed when two of his paintings were accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts, and the somewhat extravagant title Honorary Academician Extraordinary was bestowed upon him. Churchill continued to paint well after his retirement, laying down the paint brush only towards the end of his life when ill health and mild dementia no longer permitted him to pursue his artistic passion.

Although Churchill passed away in 1965, his art has only appreciated over time. For instance, it was Churchill’s paintings that rescued his widow Clementine Spencer-Churchill from financial distress some 12 years after his death. Pushed to part with the paintings by medical bills and rising costs of living, Clementine was forced to send five of her husband’s paintings to auction in 1977. The art works fetched an impressive sum of $146, 710, of which the painting Mimizan alone commanded $81,600. Clementine at that time received only a modest pension of $1,352 a year, the same amount drawn by any British pensioner’s widow. More recently Churchill’s Chartwell: Landscape with Sheep sold for a cool £1m (A$1.6m) in 2007.

Perhaps Churchill’s work in politics did not allow him the chance to devote as much time as he may have liked to the pursuit of his art. For in dreaming up his vision for himself following his death, Churchill, ever dedicated, had this to say: “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject…”.