In 1915, after the debacle in the Dardanelles, and with an ugly war transpiring across the English Channel, Winston Churchill was let go from the British Admiralty. Anxious to relax his mind and emotions, he purchased a box of oil paints. In his garden at Hoe Farm, Godalming, Surrey, he faced for the first time a white canvas and laid a spot of blue sky “the size of a bean” somewhere on the upper half. “My hand,” he said, “seemed arrested by a silent veto.” While contemplating his commitment, he heard a car in the driveway. It was Lady Lavery, the wife of the painter Sir John Lavery. A well-known artist herself, she grabbed the largest of Winston’s new brushes and slathered on the blue sky in a trice. This event prompted Winston to conclude that the most important thing for an artist to have was “audacity.”
Painting joined Churchill’s vocations of politics, reading, bricklaying and writing. In his little book, Painting as a Pastime, he tells of the benefits and joys of his forty-year hobby.
Winston considered himself an amateur. This did not stop his work from going into the Royal collections, the Royal Academy, even the Metropolitan in New York. He gave his work away at the drop of a cigar. His darling Clementine collected it like crazy, and it was all over Chartwell when he died in 1965. For him, painting was a “doing” activity and his writings on art are an inspiration and a wry amusement for any creative person: “An added interest to every common scene, an occupation for every idle hour, an unceasing voyage of entrancing discovery — these are high prizes. If you try, and fail, there is not much harm done. The nursery will grab what the studio has rejected. And then you can always go out and kill some animal, humiliate some rival on the links, or despoil some friend across the green table.” See Art Quotes by
Winston’s styles varied with the influences of the titled artists that crossed his path — Sir William Orpen, Sir Alfred Munnings, Sir William Nicholson, to name a few. But he was never jaded. He was forever a student. He came to know and understand a great deal. “Buy a paint-box, and have a try,” he advised.
PS: “The canvas receives a message dispatched from the natural object, comes through a post office en route, transmitted by code, turned from light into paint. It reaches the canvas a cryptogram.” (Sir Winston Churchill)
Esoterica: While Churchill was predominantly a plein air painter, he was also into creative invention. “For Sir Winston, the magic lantern and the projection of glass slides onto a canvas, were sensible methods of overcoming his lack of skill as a draughtsman. Not discovering art until he was forty years old, he had no wish to waste time learning how to draw.” (David Coombs)
Sir Winston Churchill 1874-1965
Quotes from Sir Winston Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime
A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using and tiring it, just in the same way he can wear out the elbows of his coat.
The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is a policy of first importance to a public man.
It is no use doing what you like; you have got to like what you do.
Human beings are of three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death.
Human beings are of two classes: those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and those whose work and pleasure are one.
It may be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds.
One may imagine that a man who blew the trumpet for his living would be glad to play the violin for his amusement.
Painting is a companion with whom one may walk a great part of life’s journey.
Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely.
I do not presume to explain how to paint, but only how to get enjoyment.
The first quality that is needed is Audacity.
Painting a picture is like trying to fight a battle.
In battles two things are usually required of the Commander-in-Chief: to make a good plan for his army and, secondly, to keep a strong reserve.
A heightened sense of the observation of nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.
Every garden presents innumerable fascinating problems.
Armed with a paint-box, one cannot be bored, at loose ends, or have several days on one’s hands.
The pictorial battlefield becomes a sea of mud mercifully veiled by the fog of war.
At one side of the palette there is white, at the other black; and neither is ever used neat.
There is no better exercise than to study and devour a picture, and then, without looking at it again, to attempt the next day to reproduce it.
Leave to the masters of art trained by a lifetime of devotion the wonderful process of picture-building and picture creation. Go out into the sunlight and be happy with what you see.
The painter wanders and loiters contentedly from place to place, always on the lookout for some brilliant butterfly of a picture which can be caught and carried safely home.
The vistas of possibility are only limited by the shortness of life.
Thank you for sharing Winston Churchill’s “unceasing voyage of entrancing discovery.” I’ve been trying for years to explain to people what an interesting and involving challenge creating art is, and that it’s the process that’s important, not the result. It’s the process that fascinates, distracts, involves, challenges, inspires, aggravates, infuriates, satisfies, and rewards those of us who will engage in it. The results… some are better than others. In the end, it’s good to have a few wonderful results, but it’s the glorious Process that makes a life well lived.
Painting as a Pastime
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
Someone gave me a copy of Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime when I was still an art student and it has stayed with me ever since, six times across the Atlantic, several moves in Canada. It is tattered but unbowed, quoted in my own book, Painting the Ontario Landscape, recommended to students. The image of the redoubtable Churchill facing one of his biggest challenges, a blank canvas, inevitably encourages even the faintest of heart.
(RG note) Keep an eye out for a first edition. A signed copy sells for about US $7500.
Drawing not necessary
Kurt Kellogg, Michigan, USA
I especially like Churchill’s idea of not learning to draw. Although most art teachers believe drawing is of great importance in learning how to paint, I disagree. I don’t think it’s a necessity. I learned how to draw after I had completed my first three or four landscapes. I currently work as an abstract artist — creating art that is very linear. My large abstract paintings reveal a draughtsman’s ability that comes naturally. I am blessed to have this ability, but I don’t think everyone needs it to be a successful artist.
The last critique
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St Louis, MO, USA
Churchill’s portrait was painted by Graham Sutherland, who at the time was ‘the’ artist in the UK. It was commissioned by both Houses of Parliament, and the whole episode became very public. For years we had seen, and were familiar with, the photograph of Churchill by Karsh, which captured his personality totally. So there was a great expectation that a painting would be even better. There was tremendous national interest in this new commission.
I grew up in Britain and I remember watching all the studies that Graham Sutherland did. Sir Winston sat for over seventy hours. However the final portrait just couldn’t compete with the public image we all had. Sutherland had painted a grumpy old man, and despite lots of pressure otherwise, it was so despised by Lady Churchill, that upon Winston’s death, she destroyed it. There was a tremendous public relief; the masses hated it. We were told that this was great art, and it wasn’t.
by Pat Weekley
Thank you for including the work of this great man, Winston Churchill. Not a perfect man by any means but a great man. I enjoyed his quotes and will treasure them. I am curious, is there a web site devoted to his works? I’d like to see more.
(RG note) The best place to find an extensive collection of Winston Churchill’s paintings is in the book Churchill, his paintings: A Catalogue compiled by David Coombs (London, 1967). On Churchill’s death in 1965, an effort was made to round up and photograph as many of his works as could be found. Lady Spencer Churchill wrote in the Foreword: “For more than forty years my husband pursued the art of painting with all his customary energy and zeal. His pictures have now been brought together and illustrated in this catalogue, whose publication will, I hope, enable many people to share something of the immense pleasure and stimulation that my husband so often found in his art.” The book is due for reissue in 2003.
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
If you are famous or notorious, you are by definition public property and anything you do becomes interesting at best, scandalous or abhorrent at worst. In the visual art world it is particularly easy for a celebrity to become known, whatever his or her artistic prowess, because the strictures that apply to other artistic skills, such as composing music or writing, do not apply here, on the lines of the adage: anyone can paint, if he or she feels like it. It’s great if “celebrity” paintings are accomplished, but that’s not what it’s about. Good examples of the illustrious taking to the brush might include Sir Paul McCartney and a host of other artists from other genres. One of the most recent public celebrities to come to light is Prince Harry, following in the aquarelle footsteps of his Father, Prince Charles. I don’t think his paintings would have merited more that the usual “talented” or “well done” at his public school if his name had been John Jones.
The fact that Churchill couldn’t draw is of no consequence. He’s in good company when you consider how many painters use projectors, photocopiers and other gadgets to compose and achieve the results they desire, and how many in the past used the technical aids that were available in their day.
I don’t wish to set myself up in judgment on any of these famous people, who have as much right to self-expression as any of us, but it is true to say that their paintings are more coveted by collectors and galleries than most (if given the choice, they wouldn’t go for Mary Brown’s if a Charles watercolour were in the offing), and they are as often as not priceless simply because the artists (or perpetrators) are who they are.
Churchill coined a wonderful name for still-life. He loved painting on location, but with the British climate being wet and windy this was not always possible. True, Churchill was also partial to alcoholic refreshment. When the weather was too bad to go out he would set up a still-life and paint away at home. He called these pictures his “bottlescapes.”
(RG note) Winston Churchill sent five paintings to be exhibited in Paris in the 1920s. Four were sold for £30 each. For the Paris test of his ability he hid his identity under an assumed name: Charles Morin.
Modesty and sympathy were evident in what Churchill told a fellow painter, Sergeant Edmund Murray, his bodyguard from 1950 to 1965. Murray had been in the Foreign Legion and the London Metropolitan Police. Interviewing him to gauge his suitability, Churchill said, “You have had a most interesting life. And I hear you even paint in oils.” After Murray had his work rejected by the Royal Academy, Churchill told him, “You know, your paintings are so much better than mine, but yours are judged on their merit.”
Churchill again favoured a pseudonym (Mr. Winter) in 1947 when offering works to the Royal Academy, so his fame in other spheres was not exploited. Two pictures were accepted and eventually the title of Honorary Academician Extraordinary was conferred on him. The painter Sir Oswald Birley noted: “If Churchill had given the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been by all odds the world’s greatest painter.”
A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Churchill was conscious of the unity of poetry, painting and sculpture. His rise from gifted amateur to academician was no easy flight but, with twinkling mischief which charmed even his enemies, he could be dismissive of his painting skills. (Ron Robbins)
No more politicians’ art
by Gertjan Zwigglar
It is wonderful that Winston could spend time painting. He was pretty good at it. So was another war criminal, Adolf Hitler. He painted also, and was pretty good too. He lost the war, Churchill won, so we praise his work.
Alas, there is a very dark side to Sir Winston, the darling of the bankers who wanted a war in 1915. Sir Winston needed to figure out a way to get the United States into that war, so he let the German subs sink the passenger liner Lusitania. This was a deliberate act in which over 1500 Americans lost their lives. It was effective, the US joined the war and many more innocent Americans lost their lives.
I don’t celebrate politicians’ works. As far as I am concerned, it is those very people who make us go to war. Politicians are lower than slime molds and should be avoided at all costs. Politicians are an anathema to all artists because they create the sordid economic messes that prevent people from having the money to buy art. Please, no more politicians’ art. They are artists with swords and guns, who re-create our reality into something they can live with, not us.
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff
In a workshop with Tiko Kerr he gave me the feedback, “Be bold.” On the days when I feel I might just as well “phone it in” in relation to my painting, I remember his words, and it usually helps me to carry on. It’s the best piece of advice I have ever had.
by Karen Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
The well-known artist (anonymous in the last responses) who juries artwork feels that much of the work is below par, and shouldn’t be out there (I’ve seen a lot like that too). But I feel he is being a bit unfair. There are lots of worthy artists who need to get their work out there. No one just jumps into a gallery with their work and starts selling it. It makes me curious: how did HE get his start? Perhaps he started to paint in a time of less stiff competition, and it was easier to get galleries, or at least a market for work. It seems to me today, there is a great deal of pretty darn good stuff out there, and that isn’t even beginning to touch on the real amateur stuff. Plus, there are fashions and so on, but it is hard to get a venue to show one’s work. He sounds as though he is speaking from the superiority of his successful art career! However, I would urge him to keep being involved, being supportive of folks struggling to get their work seen.
by Joy Cooper, West Virginia, USA
I agree with Sue Bauman (her remarks are in the previous clickback) about not encouraging mediocrity. I asked a juror once to help me understand the piece that had been awarded a prize. The reply was, “This person shows promise.” It was, in my opinion, a crudely executed piece even though the color choices worked and the composition had a nice diagonal. I’m showing naiveté perhaps, but I have this perception that awards are to acknowledge outstanding performance — way beyond “promise.” A photographer friend was advised when she started exhibiting her work to either take photos for juried shows OR to please the public. He suggested that you could do either well, but not both. Enter shows — but don’t take them or yourself seriously.
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA
In reply to your comments on confidence — I vividly remember after the first couple of years as a beginner painter, nothing seemed good enough. I was constantly in a space of negative self-talk, until the act of painting took over and absorbed my consciousness. Interestingly, the negative self-talk was usually in response to how I thought the “market” might judge each painting. This negativity invaded my space at the same time I was asking God, Universe, Spirit, muse (whatever you choose to call that higher energy) to work through me to achieve the best work that I could create at that time. Finally it dawned on me that I was negating the very essence of that higher energy by my negative judgment.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Carol Lyons of Irvington, NY, who wrote, “The Art Museum in Dallas, Texas has a permanent exhibit of Churchill’s painting along with several originals.”
And Tricia Migdoll of Australia who wrote, “I never knew Churchill could paint — and what good paintings they are. ‘If you can pick up a paintbrush, you can paint’ was the quote by workshop teacher Rene Bolten that got me going and encouraged me to ‘give it a try.'”