06 April 2018 | MARK BEECH | BlouinArt
“Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) had a lengthy entry in “Who’s Who” that still is a joy to behold. It says he was British Prime Minister from 1940-’45 and 1951-’55, though it does not specifically note that he was the greatest of wartime leaders.
He had a long career, changing political parties twice and also serving as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he was among the youngest Cabinet ministers ever. Churchill was awarded a huge list of honors; while he turned down a Dukedom, he was a Nobel laureate, a KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS and RA.
The last set of initials is sometimes overlooked. Churchill was an Honorary Royal Academician. The great man is mainly credited as the savior of Western civilization. But he was also an avid painter of some merit, and his work is collectible.
As Churchill’s legacy comes into the spotlight again, thanks to Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie “The Darkest Hour,” a selling exhibition of his works is on tour, comprising oil paintings from the 1920s to 1940s, originating from the collection of the family of the late Julian Sandys, the eldest of Churchill’s grandchildren. “The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill” is being presented by Heather James Fine Art.
Duncan Sandys, a great grandson of Churchill and son of Julian Sandys, proudly introduces some of the key works in an interview for BLOUIN ARTINFO. Duncan is 44, born some years after Churchill’s death in 1965, but he has intimate family knowledge: “He was a very loving grandfather who always seemed to have time for his grandchildren. For them, it was just a very normal family life. The realization that he was more than just a publicly known figure came much later. If you had asked them up to the age of 10 what their grandfather did, they would have answered that he was a painter.”
Churchill’s early career was meteoric: military training at Sandhurst followed by being an army officer, a writer and journalist. By 1915, he was First Lord of the Admiralty: “Everything he had touched had turned to gold,” says Sandys. That remained true up until his disastrous scheme to invade Turkey through the Dardanelles. Churchill was demoted and moved to a house in Surrey for the summer. He was 40 and at one of the lowest points of his life. “By all accounts, he was a bear to live with and he was brooding about the conduct of the war and how if he was there he could be doing it better. He would often take walks around the garden and one Sunday afternoon he stopped behind his sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline, who was painting a watercolor. She wondered if doing this would get him out of the state that he was in, suggested he tried with the children’s paints and brushes. He did and enjoyed it.”
In his 1921 essay “Painting as a Pastime,” Churchill recalled: “And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue.” Art provided a refuge from the stresses of politics and journalism, and from what Churchill called the recurring “black dog” of depression.
His preferred medium was oil paint and he went from there, largely self-taught and copying paintings by Charles Daubigny, John Singer Sargent, and Paul Cézanne. Various artists mentored him, including Sir Oswald Birley, Paul Maze, Sir William Nicholson, Walter Sickert and especially Sir John and Lady Hazel Lavery, who were neighbors to his brother in London.
Wherever he went — on business or pleasure — Churchill took his paints, brushes, canvases, and an easel. His preferred subjects were landscapes and seascapes, though there he also tried some still-life compositions.
Over the next 50 years he painted some 550 canvases — or “daubs” as he called them — that tell the story of his travels across Europe, North America, and North Africa. He painted most in the South of France.
His 1930s works “Coast Scene Near Marseilles” and “The Sunken Garden of La Dragonnière, Cap Martin,” (given by Clementine as a wedding present to her grandson Julian Sandys) recall the palette and broad brushstrokes of the Impressionists he loved.
His first exhibited painting was a portrait of Sir John Lavery, submitted under his own name to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
In 1921 he sent five paintings under the assumed name of Charles Morin to an exhibition at the Galerie Druet in Paris. In 1947 he again employed a pseudonym, David Winter, when submitting works to London’s Royal Academy of Arts for its summer exhibition. His true name was revealed only after they were accepted.
“He was modest about his artistic ability,” Sandys says. “He was aware that he had a public reputation. He didn’t want people to exhibit his pictures because of who he was, so much as that they met the artistic level that a gallery would require.”
Churchill liked to paint en plein air and would survey the landscape from different vantage points before deciding where he would set up: “He had a word that he made up — he looked for ‘paintaceous’ scenes.”
One of the most emotive and earliest pictures in the collection is “An Avenue at Frinton-On-Sea, Essex, with Miss Diana Churchill,” executed in about 1922. The work depicts Churchill’s then-13-year-old eldest child on holiday.
“It was a very turbulent period,” says Sandys. “The loss of a child (his daughter Marigold had died suddenly in 1921,) the loss of his parliamentary seat, his political career not really recovering, and then his wife Clementine was expecting their fifth child Mary later in 1922. Look at the picture’s covered avenue of trees with the light and the sunlight beaming out at the end… was it possible that in his own life Churchill could see light at the end of the dark tunnel?”
Another one in the exhibition is called “On the Var,” a 1935 view of southern France. This hung in Churchill’s London home after the war, and his widow Clementine liked it so much that she took it to the flat that she moved to in Kensington. That work, as well as “Lake Near Breccles in Autumn” (c. 1930) and “The Mill at St.-Georges-Motel” (c. 1930) were all included in the RA Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academy elected him as an RA Extraordinary in 1948 and held a solo exhibition of his works that toured internationally in 1958-59 — the institution’s first and only exhibition of an amateur artist.
“We don’t know which paintings he regarded as his best,” says Sandys. “But there is one called ‘Marrakesh’ (1947). He gave each of his 10 grandchildren a painting and that was the one he gave to my father. We can be fairly certain that some of the paintings that he gave away to prominent people or family were ones that he was happy with.”
He also gave other works to Queen Elizabeth II, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, General George Marshall and Field Marshall Montgomery.
After Eisenhower urged him to show his work in the US, Churchill wrote him a note saying that if it was not for his encouragement he would “not have dared to show his paintings before such a mighty nation.”
“He did it as a hobby and was surprised by what critics said,” Sandys notes. “He wrote that painting was a testing ground for leadership strengths such as audacity, humility, foresight, memory and observation. In those dark days of 1940 when France had fallen and Germany was planning to invade Britain, Churchill, a man of action — he had served on the front in battles — wanted to go and inspect the defenses himself. One of the reasons that he was so keen to go was that as a painter he might see more and remember more did he come back to London and paint an imaginary canvas and see where the gaps were and that made him more effective.”
Prior to 2014, the 11 works now on show graced the walls of the Sandys family homes in Britain. They then formed part of a touring exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death organized by the Millennium Gate Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.
Nine of the 11 paintings on view are for sale, for the first time, with a price range from $1 million to $3 million each. (The two paintings not on sale are “Coast Scene Near Marseilles,” c. 1935 and “The Moat at Breccles,” c. 1921.)
Churchill’s top works have been selling for more $1 million or more at public auction. The record is held by “The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell,” which sold for £1.8 million ($2.8 million at the time) including fees at Sotheby’s, London, in December 2014.
Churchill fervently pursued what he called his “joyride in a paint-box” until near his death. While some critics have been sniffy about his works, the name is enough to make them sell. He had proved that they were worthy enough for the RA just on their own merits. Churchill modestly wrote: “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.”
The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill are on view at Heather James Fine Art, first at Palm Desert, California (March 21 – May 30, 2018); then in San Francisco, California (June 1 – 30, 2018) and Jackson Hole, Wyoming (July 1 – September 16, 2018).