Winston Churchill’s paintings have always been expensive. But are collectors merely buying a historic name, or is his work accomplished in its own right?
A self-taught artist
Winston Churchill was one of History’s greatest Statesmen. An Anglo American Prime Minister who stood against the tyranny of the Nazis. Most of his professional life was taken up with the tensions of international politics, and this is how the modern world now universally remembers him. A squat, cigar-chomping, bulldog of a man, striding forcefully among the blitzed out rubble of London. But there was another aspect to him, an altogether more contemplative, peaceful temperament that he expressed through his paintings.
Winston first took up a brush in 1915, while he and his family were enjoying a much-needed retreat from London in the Surrey countryside. It was the summer after the World War I Dardanelles disaster, a military humiliation for the British that many blamed personally on Churchill. He was in the midst of a deep depression, feeling that at the age of 40, that his political career was over. Painting offered him an emotional release.
He was almost entirely self-taught. According to his wife, Clementine, Winston had never even visited an art gallery before starting on his first canvas. Perhaps because of this, he had a refreshingly down to earth attitude to his work stating “I do not presume to explain how to paint, but only how to get enjoyment. Do not turn the superior eye of critical passivity upon [your] efforts. Buy a paint-box and have a try. ”
“Happy are the painters”
Churchill understood the need for a change of gear and a change of focus: painting required a set of precise yet intuitive set of skills that exercised a different part of his mind from those used for the cut and thrust of national politics. The challenge and difficulty of capturing the scene satisfactorily proved a tonic to his mind. He summed up why he painted concisely, writing “Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely.” In short, painting kept him sane.
Despite his casual attitude to his ability, from the outset, Churchill sought to learn as much as possible about technique to improve his burgeoning skills. He benefited from knowing some of the greatest artists of the day, including the great portraitist Sir John Lavery, who bestowed upon Churchill a great deal of wisdom and advice. Churchill also sought to study from those artists he admired, travelling to Paris with the artist Charles Montag to see the French Impressionists. These artists were a revelation to Winston. He later commented.
“These were disciples of Cezanne. They view Nature as a mass of shimmering light in which forms and surfaces are comparatively unimportant, indeed hardly visible, but which gleans and glows with beautiful harmonies and contrasts of colour … Now I must try to represent it by innumerable small separate lozenge-shaped patches of colour – often pure colour – It sounds curious. All the same, do not be in a hurry to reject the method. Go back a few yards and survey the results. Each of the little points of colour is now playing his part in the general effect.” The paintings of the Impressionists had a profound impact, and this bold palette was to be a staple of Winston Churchill’s paintings from then onward.
Churchill worked with an almost compulsive intensity. Fluid impasto and scintillating colour combinations reverberated across the picture plane. Churchill described his particular joy in observing nature’s palette in a booklet Painting as a Pastime stating: “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”
The South of France – Churchill’s best period
Winston loved to travel and throughout his busy life, always found time to holiday abroad. Of course, his paints, brushes and easels accompanied him wherever he went. In particular, he was drawn to the warm climate of the South of France where like the Impressionist before him, he found the landscape especially inspiring. He was particularly interested in the effects of light and shadow in his work, and this is seen in his most impressive compositions like “The Sunken Garden. Cap Martin”. Churchill captures the strength of the Mediterranean sun as it streaks through the leaves casting long shadows from the gnarled and twisting forms of the ancient olive trees that scatter the grove.
A gift to Roosevelt – and a wonderful purchase for Bradd Pitt
During the Second World War, Churchill ceased painting altogether, producing just one canvas. But it was to be one of his best works. The-Tower-of-Koutoubia-Mosque was painted after the Casablanca Conference, held on January 1943, to discuss the Allied war strategy. Churchill insisted on showing off the city to president Roosevelt calling it the “Paris of Africa”. It inspired him to pick up this easel again briefly. Although he was always reluctant to part with his work, on its completion, he immediately gifted the work to Roosevelt. The movie star Bradd Pitt now owns it.
Winston Churchill’s paintings have become increasingly valuable in the last decade, to the extent that he is now one of the worlds most avidly collected and marketable artists. Auction prices have more than doubled in that time. But are Churchill’s canvases actually any good? The director of the Art Institute of Chicago certainly did not think so, brusquely refusing a retrospective of his work stating: ‘We have certain professional standards.’
So are people merely buying the amateurish daubing of an iconic politician? Or do does his work stand up to scrutiny despite the academic disdain of most professional connoisseurs? Well, rather depressingly his most expensive works are too often his most conservative and dull. For decades “Chartwell landscape with sheep” held the auction record. A chocolate box confection of imperfect symmetry and muted colour the canvas eclipsed the previous price for his work realising over $2 million. Why? Surely the subject matter rather than the technique? Fortunately for good taste, it has recently been surpassed by the more Impressionistic and vibrant “Goldfish” which realised over $2.75 million.
Churchill beats Hitler again
So are Winston Churchill’s paintings good, bad or indifferent? Well, of course, all Art is subjective. But to my eye, his output, though of varying levels of competence, stands up to critical rigour. Indeed his best work is comparable to all but the greatest of the French impressionists.
Agree or disagree about his ability; what is unchallenged is that he is a much better artist than Adolf Hitler! The Art market would seem to concur, with Hitlers most expensive painting being a watercolour of Munich’s city hall auctioned in 2014 for €130,000 – a fraction of the record price for a Churchill oil at $2.75 million.
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