Painting

Winston Churchill’s Unexpected Hobby

Javier Abel Miguel 13 June 2024 min Read

At the age of 40, Winston Churchill faced a very difficult time in his life. After the failed attack at Gallipoli he had ordered during World War I, his career faltered. Stripped of his power and consumed by anxiety, he discovered an unexpected hobby: painting.

Beginnings

In May 1915, after the unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign, for which Winston Churchill was held responsible, he was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty and serve as an officer in the army. Despondent over the turn of events and concerned about the future of his career, he decided to rent a country house in Hascombe, Sussex, to spend the summer with his family. There he met Goonie, his brother’s wife, who was an amateur artist. One day, Churchill saw her painting a watercolor, and when she invited him to try, he was immediately captivated. Painting became his lifelong passion.

winston churchill painting: Winston Churchill, View of Chartwell, National Trust, Chartwell, Westerham, UK.

Winston Churchill, View of Chartwell, National Trust, Chartwell, Westerham, UK.

A Self-Taught Student

In his development as an artist, Churchill was largely self-taught. Nevertheless, he received advice from several artists in his social circle. To improve his technique, he followed the example of artists he admired, including Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters like Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. He even traveled to the places where they had painted, seeking the light and landscapes that had inspired the masters.

During his career as a painter, Churchill was very prolific, creating over 550 works. His main subjects were landscapes and seascapes, and he was known for setting up his easel outdoors. He also experimented with still lifes and portraits. He primarily painted in oils and used bright colors like greens, blues, reds, oranges, and yellows, which, according to Churchill himself, radiated joy.

winston churchill painting: Winston Churchill, On the Var, 1935, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

Winston Churchill, On the Var, 1935, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

A Shy Artist

Despite receiving good reviews for his work, Churchill was always reluctant to show it publicly. For this reason, his work was exhibited only on rare occasions and always under a pseudonym. The first occasion was in Paris in 1921 at the Druet Gallery under the name Charles Morin. Another example is from 1947, when the president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Alfred James Munnings, persuaded Churchill to present two paintings at the annual summer exhibition. However, he only agreed to do so under the pseudonym David Winter.

More notable was the exhibition held in 1959, when President Eisenhower requested that Winston Churchill’s paintings be exhibited in the USA. The exhibition Churchill, the Painter toured North American museums in 1958 and was also shown at the Royal Academy in early 1959. More recently, an exhibition of 105 Churchill paintings, held by Sotheby’s in London in early 1998, attracted 12,000 visitors in just two weeks.

winston churchill painting: Winston Churchill, Coast Scene Near Marseilles, 1935, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

Winston Churchill, Coast Scene Near Marseilles, 1935, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

Painting as Therapy

“Painting came to my rescue at a very difficult time,” Churchill would later write, as he found in this hobby a respite from the stress of his career. He often turned to painting to improve his mood, especially during episodes of depression that constantly plagued him. When the “black dog”—as Churchill himself described his bouts of depression—appeared, he found great solace in painting. Moreover, there is a correlation between the most difficult moments in Winston Churchill’s life and the volume of his paintings. For example, during the three-week vacation in Italy he took after his defeat in the 1945 elections, he produced his largest quantity of works.

winston churchill painting: Winston Churchill, Rocky Scene in Sicily, National Trust, Chartwell, Westerham, UK.

Winston Churchill, Rocky Scene in Sicily, National Trust, Chartwell, Westerham, UK.

Painting and Politics

Although he only painted in his leisure moments, he also took his painting materials on official trips. Churchill created a work during World War II, during a trip to Marrakech with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. It was one of the few paintings he made during the war, and he later gave it to Roosevelt. Churchill’s passion for painting also inspired another U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was so captivated by Winston Churchill’s paintings that he decided to try the hobby himself and even set up a studio in the White House.

Churchill’s unexpected hobby improved his observation and memory skills, but did painting make him a more effective leader? Churchill himself drew parallels between the role of a general and that of a painter. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, he visited the front to observe the British defense firsthand. This ability to analyze the complete picture of the battlefield and identify areas for improvement was partly developed through his painting.

winston churchill painting: Winston Churchill, Marrakech, 1947, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

Winston Churchill, Marrakech, 1947, Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, USA.

Was Churchill a Great Painter?

In 1948, the Royal Academy of Arts named Churchill an Honorary Academician Extraordinary. However, his art did not always receive praise. In 1958, during the exhibition Churchill, the Painter, the assistant director of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh declined the opportunity to display his work. As did the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, who stated, “We have certain professional standards.” Despite these rejections, Churchill cared little about what others thought of his art. Although some of his paintings received recognition, he always insisted that he painted for pleasure and did not want his work to be considered “ambitious” or evaluated as such.

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