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Win­ston Churchill has been un­avoid­ably com­pared to Adolf Hitler, in­so­far as both were drawn to paint­ing. Churchill’s pas­sion for art re­tained an am­a­teur sta­tus, whereas Hitler tried, and failed, to earn a liv­ing as a painter of cityscapes in Vi­enna.

Mel Brooks’ com­edy film The Pro­duc­ers

(1968) fea­tures an ad­dled Nazi, Franz Liebekind, who praises Hitler the painter while slat­ing Churchill’s “rot­ten paint­ing, rot­ten!”

Ma­te­ri­ally at least, the for­mer PM’S art out­val­ues Hitler’s to­day. In 2017, Churchill’s Gold­fish Pool at Chartwell

(1962), de­scribed as his last oil paint­ing, sold for £357,000 at Sotheby’s in London, over an es­ti­mate of £50,000-80,000. In 2007, Churchill’s Chartwell: Land­scape with Sheep, a view of his es­tate near Wester­ham in Kent, fetched £1 mil­lion at the same sales venue.

By con­trast, in 2015, a group of 14 paint­ings, wa­ter­colours, and draw­ings by Hitler fetched just over £300,000 at Wei­dler auc­tion house in Nurem­berg, Ger­many. The high­est price for an in­di­vid­ual art­work by the Nazi leader, just over £89,000, was paid for a paint­ing of King Lud­wig II’S Neuschwanstein Cas­tle, by a col­lec­tor from China.

The ques­tion of com­par­a­tive artis­tic value arises as well. In re­sponse, Churchill: The States­man as Artist, a new book, has been pub­lished by Blooms­bury Con­tin­uum. Edited and in­tro­duced by David Can­na­dine, gen­eral edi­tor of the Ox­ford Dic­tio­nary of Na­tional Bi­og­ra­phy and pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Academy, it con­tains per­cep­tive writ­ings about art by Sir Win­ston, as well as es­says by art world no­ta­bles who knew him per­son­ally.

Can­na­dine notes that Churchill adopted paint­ing as an in­ten­sive hobby at the age of 40. In 1915, dur­ing the Great War, af­ter or­der­ing what would prove to be a dis­as­trous at­tack upon Gal­lipoli, Turkey, he was re­moved from his post as First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty. With free time to oc­cupy, Churchill found that paint­ing fully oc­cu­pied his mind, dis­tract­ing him from re­cur­ring dark moods and anx­i­ety that he termed black dog. His es­says, es­pe­cially Paint­ing as a Pas­time (1948), show that Churchill was acutely aware of how painters use vi­sion and mem­ory to cre­ate can­vases.

The con­cen­trated ac­tiv­ity of paint­ing was so joy­ful and es­sen­tial for him that he once claimed, “With­out paint­ing, I could not live… I couldn’t bear the strain of things.” Can­na­dine adds: “[Churchill] may not have been a great artist but, with­out paint­ing, he might never have been the great man he even­tu­ally be­came.”

Un­til he was en­fee­bled by old age, Churchill was a dili­gent painter, leav­ing more than 500 can­vases. This is an im­pres­sive num­ber, con­sid­er­ing the books he found time to write, apart from his po­lit­i­cal and govern­ment ac­tiv­i­ties. He would claim that a half-hour spent stand­ing to salute sol­diers on pa­rade or to wor­ship in church were fa­tigu­ing, whereas no one could be tired by stand­ing for three hours to work on a can­vas.

And the qual­ity of his works?

Churchill was an am­a­teur painter, much in­flu­enced by the Im­pres­sion­ists. He was moved by sun and light, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of such French pre­de­ces­sors as Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Churchill’s own nearcon­tem­po­rary, Henri Matisse.

In such typ­i­cal Churchill land­scapes as Har­bour, Cannes (1933) and Château St-ge­orges-mo­tel (c.1935), the wa­ter is ren­dered far more vividly, and in­deed im­pres­sion­is­ti­cally, than any build­ings.

By con­trast, Churchill’s at­tempts to re­pro­duce ar­chi­tec­ture of­ten re­sulted in lumpy ed­i­fices, awk­wardly asym­met­ri­cal. But wa­ter, light, and air were his ideal do­mains, and these he cel­e­brated ar­dently. In Paint­ing as a Pas­time, he ob­served that to re­pro­duce na­ture as a “mass of shim­mer­ing light”, it was nec­es­sary to use “in­nu­mer­able small sep­a­rate lozenge-shaped points and patches of colour – of­ten pure colour – so that it looked more like a tes­sel­lated pave­ment that a ma­rine pic­ture”.

Can­na­dine, al­though no art critic, as­serts con­vinc­ingly: “Churchill was not a great artist, but he was a very ac­com­plished painter, whereas Hitler had no talent what­so­ever.” The Nazi dic­ta­tor’s finicky, rigid, oddly pow­er­less daubs might ap­peal to Chi­nese col­lec­tors, but oth­er­wise find no se­ri­ous ad­mir­ers among art con­nois­seurs.

An­other fas­cist dic­ta­tor, Spain’s Fran­cisco Franco, while less pro­lific than ei­ther Churchill or Hitler, cre­ated re­al­is­tic genre scenes of hunt­ing and the like, ex­press­ing dark sadism, as in one can­vas of a bear be­ing at­tacked by a pack of hounds, rip­ping one apart.

Paint­ings were also cre­ated by Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower, re­port­edly in em­u­la­tion of Churchill. Eisen­hower’s sim­plis­tic ef­forts are prim­i­tive or naïve art in the worst sense of those terms, pos­si­bly even worse in qual­ity than Hitler’s. Then there are the more re­cently pub­li­cised paint­ings by Ge­orge W. Bush. The 43rd pres­i­dent of the United States cre­ated por­traits of world rulers that were dis­played in a 2014 ex­hibit, The Art of Lead­er­ship: A Pres­i­dent’s Per­sonal Diplo­macy, at Bush’s Pres­i­den­tial

Li­brary in Texas. Bush’s paint­ings were closely based on pho­tos of all the sub­jects, found on Google and Wikipedia.

Dubya’s art­works have some of the car­toon­ish su­per­fi­cial­ity found in works by Andy Warhol or the young David Hock­ney, in­flu­enced by pop art. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, in 2014 the di­rec­tor of the Con­tem­po­rary Arts Mu­seum Hous­ton likened Bush’s paint­ings to those of the Rus­sian-french painter Chaim Sou­tine.

To put it mildly, Sou­tine was a ma­jor

con­trib­u­tor to Ex­pres­sion­ism, whereas Ge­orge W. Bush was em­phat­i­cally not.

Yet for a Texas art world pro­fes­sional, dis­miss­ing art­works by a for­mer pres­i­dent might be as un­com­fort­able as it would have been for any of Churchill’s ad­mir­ing con­tem­po­raries to scorn his paint­ing hobby.

For­tu­nately, he did rise above the morass of delin­quent and ris­i­ble pseu­doart by other lead­ers. No other ruler­painter of the past in­ves­ti­gated the art of his day, con­sult­ing with ma­jor au­thor­i­ties in or­der to weigh their ad­vice, as Churchill did. His in­quis­i­tive, quest­ing ap­proach re­sem­bled his factfind­ing mis­sions about pub­lic mat­ters in­volv­ing life and death.

To bet­ter un­der­stand the chal­lenges of mak­ing art, he stud­ied the Vic­to­rian art crit­i­cism of John Ruskin and other writ­ers. Yet no mat­ter how se­ri­ously Churchill took paint­ing, even dur­ing his life­time, there was dis­agree­ment from ex­perts about how to cope with the re­sult­ing art­works.

In 1958, a tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of 35 can­vases by Churchill was shown at Kansas City’s Nel­son Gallery of Art, later trav­el­ling to Wash­ing­ton DC’S Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion and New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum. But dis­tin­guished mu­se­ums in Pitts­burgh, Chicago, and Cincin­nati, re­fused to dis­play the ex­hibit.

Can­na­dine re­counts, pos­si­bly with tacit out­rage, that the mu­se­ums de­murred “on the grounds that Churchill’s works were of in­suf­fi­cient merit or orig­i­nal­ity”. Just two decades ago, when a group of more than 100 works by Churchill were as­sem­bled at Sotheby’s in London, the art critic Brian Sewell de­clared that the se­lec­tion was a “load of bloody rub­bish”.

Per­haps taken in bulk and as­sessed with­out bi­o­graph­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal con­text, Churchill’s can­vases will al­ways dis­ap­point a sec­tion of the pro­fes­sional art world. Yet some of the most per­cip­i­ent art his­to­ri­ans have been beguiled by his cre­ativ­ity. A case in point, omit­ted from the Blooms­bury Con­tin­uum vol­ume, is Win­ston Churchill as Painter and Critic by Sir Ernst Gom­brich, orig­i­nally pub­lished in The At­lantic in March 1965.

A daz­zlingly in­sight­ful art his­to­rian, E. H. Gom­brich mon­i­tored Ger­man ra­dio broad­casts dur­ing the Sec­ond World War for the BBC World Ser­vice. In 1945, when a Nazi broad­cast was pref­aced by An­ton Bruck­ner’s Sym­phony No. 7, writ­ten to com­mem­o­rate the death of Richard Wag­ner, Gom­brich de­duced that Hitler had died and broke the news to


Sym­pa­thetic but never in thrall, un­like other for­mer Churchill as­so­ciates, Gom­brich iden­ti­fies the great man as an am­a­teur or dilet­tante from a gen­er­a­tion of re­al­is­tic painters. They all ex­pressed the “joy of paint­ing boldly in strong colours… What mat­tered in­creas­ingly was spon­tane­ity, bold­ness and a cer­tain fresh­ness of vi­sion that was summed up in the catch­word of the in­no­cent eye.”

Bold­ness Churchill cer­tainly had,

mak­ing up for a lack of ex­per­tise that might be ex­pected from a full-time pro­fes­sional artist. As he put it, for those who “go on a joyride in a paint­box… au­dac­ity is the only ticket”. And for this genre of art, this at­tribute went a long way, mak­ing his can­vases more palat­able than they oth­er­wise might have been.

Gom­brich fur­ther ad­mires Churchill’s men­tal prepa­ra­tion and self-anal­y­sis as an artist. The psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenges of per­cep­tion and re­pro­duc­tion of na­ture in art were bravely em­braced by Churchill. As he was to some ex­tent self­med­i­cat­ing with the hobby of paint­ing, part of his ther­apy was un­der­stand­ing the ef­fects of the leisure-time ac­tiv­ity upon his body and mind. To this end, Churchill de­scribed his start in paint­ing as a scene of vi­o­la­tion com­mit­ted upon an “ab­so­lutely cow­er­ing can­vas. Any one could see that it could not hit back… The sickly in­hi­bi­tions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my vic­tim with Berserk fury”.

Gom­brich cau­tioned any­one who sought to read too deeply into Churchill’s art for ev­i­dence of his in­ner feel­ings: “It may be ar­gued that these cor­re­spon­dences be­tween a per­son­al­ity and its ex­pres­sion are both triv­ial and de­cep­tive. Hitler, the scream­ing dem­a­gogue, painted tame wa­ter-colours. No doubt these too re­flected one side of his char­ac­ter. He would not have painted them oth­er­wise. But no­body could learn much worth know­ing about ei­ther of the pro­tag­o­nists of World War II from a con­tem­pla­tion of their works.”

Even if Churchill’s paint­ings them­selves are not a di­rect ex­pres­sion of

him­self to the ex­tent that a pro­fes­sional artist’s nec­es­sar­ily would be, he went about cre­at­ing them in a quintessen­tially Churchillian way.

Gom­brich adds: “He took up the new hobby with that zest that was all his own and grasped the whole sit­u­a­tion with a clar­ity and an in­sight that mark the great states­man and his­to­rian.” For this rea­son, art looks likely to con­tinue as an in­dis­pens­able part of his leg­end, with the brandy, cigars, soul-in­spir­ing speeches, or­a­tor­i­cal skills, and the rest.

Even Mel Brooks might con­cede that Churchill’s paint­ings were part of what made him such a sto­ried leader at a time of his­tor­i­cal cri­sis for Britain and the rest of the civilised world.

Churchill: The States­man as Artist by David Can­na­dine is pub­lished by Blooms­bury, £25

Photo © Churchill Her­itage, Cour­tesy of Cur­tis Brown, London

PRO­LIFIC: This self­por­trait, circa 1915, was among more than 500 paint­ings by Win­ston Churchill

Pho­tos: © Churchill Her­itage, Cour­tesy of Cur­tis Brown, London

AC­COM­PLISHED:1 View of Monte Carlo and Monaco, circa 19302 In­domitable, 1955

Pho­tos: © Churchill Her­itage, Cour­tesy of Cur­tis Brown, London

CHURCHILLIAN:1 Mar­rakech, circa 19352 Win­ter Sun­shine at Chartwell, circa 1924

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