Churchill turned to painting after he had been forced out of the Admiralty following the disaster of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. ‘It came to my rescue at a mortifying time,’ he wrote. Painting offered a respite and a change from the demands of politics and war time. And change, to Churchill, was ‘all that the human structure requires’.
Churchill never pretended to be more than an amateur artist. He mainly sought enjoyment and relaxation from the act of painting itself. ‘I know of nothing which more entirely absorbs the mind. Once the picture begins to flow there is no room for the worries of the hour or the threats of the future. All one’s mental light becomes concentrated on the task.’ In 1921 he sent several of his paintings to the Galerie Druet in Paris under the name of Charles Morin. It was his first public exhibition: six of his paintings were sold at £30 each. Ninety-three years later, in 2014, fifteen of his works were sold at auction for the somewhat larger sum of £11.2 million.
In 1921 Churchill wrote an essay, Painting as a Pastime, in which he expounded the virtues of artistic creation, namely painting, as an important method of relaxation. His essay was published in book form in 1948, one year after entering two of his paintings into the Royal Academy (RA) Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym ‘Mr David Winter’. The paintings were accepted and as Churchill stood observing one of his landscapes with Academicians, he is said to have remarked: ‘Well, I don’t think it’s bad considering I only spent seven hours on it.’ He was subsequently awarded the title of Honorary Academician Extraordinary by the RA. His medium of choice was oil paint and his preferred subjects were primarily landscapes (‘Trees do not complain,’ he often remarked), still lifes and interiors in bright colours, despite the fact that he struggled with bouts of depression.
One of the best places to discover Churchill’s art is his family home of Chartwell in Kent. In the 1930s Churchill had a bespoke studio constructed in the grounds of the property to his wife’s, Clementine’s, delight as it prevented him from dribbling paint on the carpets in the house. Most importantly, the studio afforded Churchill a space in which he could paint uninterrupted. It remains very much as he left it, his painter’s palette on display, and includes the largest collection of Churchill paintings, around 130 in total.
During the Second World War Churchill was allegedly only able to complete one painting. Following a war-time summit with President Roosevelt in Casablanca in January 1943, Churchill travelled south to Marrakesh. The day after Roosevelt departed, Churchill decided to set war matters aside for one night and remained in Morocco with the sole intention of capturing the North African sunset in oils. He later gave the painting to Roosevelt as a gift.
The pressures and duties of his political position meant Churchill was unable to devote as much time to his beloved pastime as he would have liked, leading him to claim: ‘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.’