As the Netflix series The Crown brings the British Empire back into our fascination and favor we are once again reminded of what it means to be cultured. Not only do the aristocratic characters follow deeply rooted social norms, we get to know the characters as they follow their lady-like and gentlemanly pursuits.
There are beautiful sweeping hunting scenes, horse rides on wide deserted beaches, safaris in Africa and open cockpit planes flying over bucolic landscapes. In one scene the Queen Mother suggests a suitor for Princess Margaret, “He’s such a gentleman. Do you know he paints as well”? Margaret’s response was telling, “Well of course–don’t they all”?
One such Gentleman, Winston Churchill was no exception. Towards the end of the series’ first season Churchill sits for his final portrait with a “Modernist” artist he distrusts. He chides his painter that he himself paints over a hundred paintings a year. Churchill ends up burning his portrait; a painting some believed a masterpiece, due to the fact that it lacked symbolism and was much too honest about his age. “If I find a scene compelling and I don’t like the factory in the background- I don’t paint the factory!”
Churchill was in fact a talented painter. Although, he did not learn to paint until his 40’s (he never had the patience, wishing not to “waste time” learning to draw), he dove feverishly into his hobby.
After being let go from the British Admiralty during WWI, Winston bought a box of oil paints to sooth “his mind and emotions”. At his garden at Hoe Farm he attempted his first painting. He lay a “spot of blue sky the size of a bean” and was then halted, “My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto.” Friend and painter, Lady Lavery arrived at that moment to “slather” on the sky on his behalf. From that moment forward he felt the most important thing for an artist to have was “Audacity.”
“We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joyride in the paint box. And, for this Audacity is the only ticket.”
As many paintings as Churchill painted, he always saw himself as an amateur. Even so, he cleverly snuck some paintings into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym, David Winter (where his painting, Winter Sunshine, Chartwell won a prize) and in a show in Paris under the name, Charles Morin at the Gallerie Druet, where he sold some paintings for 30 pounds.
Throughout his years as a painter, Churchill most enjoyed painting en plein aire, where he would absorb the air, light and color. He painted throughout his travels, both in leisure and in war. He traveled to Morocco, where he proclaimed the Atlas Mountains, “Pantaceous”. And, he would often return to his childhood haunts of Blenheim Palace to paint the garden grounds. But it was later in his “Wilderness Years” at Chartwell, his estate in the rolling countryside of Kent that he, along with bricklaying, and feeding his menagerie of animals, most loved to paint.
Churchill’s paintings are still being discovered today as the estates of friends and associates come up for auction. One such treasured gift to Roosevelt, a view of the tower in Marrakesh, was found in an estate sale of Roosevelt’s daughter’s apartment on Park Avenue.
Although, Churchill saw painting as a past time to sooth his nerves and help him experience the landscape, his paintings are today as valued as many masters, one painting selling for the gentlemanly sum of a million pounds.