Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue River, Rance in 1948.(Getty Images)
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill produced only one painting. We should be grateful he otherwise eschewed his beloved pastime. As he wrote in a 1948 essay, “Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. All one’s mental light, such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task. Time stands respectfully aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door.” Given his description of painting as fully engrossing, who knows how differently the war might have turned out had the indispensable leader given in more often to the temptation to put brush to canvas.
Churchill’s outsized role during the global struggle makes it easy to see why historians and biographers have paid scant attention to his painting—there is so much else to write about—but it was an important part of his life. Though he was 40 before he began to paint, he managed to produce about 500 canvases.
So it is fascinating to read Churchill: The Statesman as Artist—a new collection of his own writing about art, plus reviews of his work by contemporary critics, edited and introduced by David Cannadine—alongside two other new books: Andrew Roberts’s full biography and John von Heyking’s monograph about Churchill and friendship. Cannadine, Roberts, and von Heyking each mention one painting in particular—the one painting Churchill made during the war years. The story of that painting can help us better understand the interplay of friendship and painting in his life, and how both related to his greater vision in politics and war.
Churchill himself told the story in the fourth volume of his wartime memoirs. In January 1943, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was getting ready to leave the Casablanca conference to return to the United States, Churchill stopped him and pleaded, “You cannot go all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech,” and then insisted, “I must be with you when you see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas Mountains.” FDR agreed. The two leaders set off on a heavily guarded, five-hour journey across the desert to Villa Taylor, the residence of American vice consul Kenneth Pendar. As Churchill related, they “talked a great deal of shop, but also touched on lighter matters.” This was just a couple of months after the Battle of Alamein, a battle so decisive that Churchill referred to it as the “hinge of fate” (the name he would confer on that volume of his memoirs). American friendship—demonstrated in the form of badly needed supplies—had been so essential in giving the British an advantage that Churchill invoked the old aphorism, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
When they arrived in Marrakesh, Churchill and Pendar climbed the 60 steps to the top of the villa’s tower. FDR allowed two men to carry him up; among these companions he felt comfortable enough not to hide his disability. They watched the sun set over snow-capped mountains, recalled evocatively by Pendar as a “mystical” moment, by one of the bodyguards as a “riot” of color, and by FDR as “the most breathtakingly beautiful” scene he had ever witnessed.
“He is the truest friend,” Churchill said when FDR left. “He has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Churchill was so moved by his time with the American president that he decided to commemorate the moment. Almost immediately after the president departed the next day, Churchill returned to the tower, where he spent two days painting The Tower of Katoubia Mosque; he later gave it to FDR.
In his book’s lengthy and helpful introduction, Cannadine explains how the preoccupations of the war years kept the prime minister from painting. But he was ever the artist. Cannadine reminds readers that in the June 1940 speech famously ending “This was their finest hour,” Churchill contrasted “the abyss of a new dark age” if Hitler were to win the war with the “broad sunlit uplands” if he were to be defeated. In other words, Churchill looked to lead his country and its allies to the same vistas that he loved to paint. Marrakesh provided such a view and he insisted on experiencing it with a friend who shared that vision.
Not only did Churchill paint word-pictures with his oratory, but his whole mode of rhetorical composition, Cannadine argues, is similar to his artistic composition.
Not surprisingly, then, when Churchill later came to write about painting, he revealingly described the ideal finished canvas as resembling “a long, sustained, interlocking argument,” characterized by “a single unity of conception”—words that would equally apply to the composition and the structure of his finest orations.
These could apply, too, to his battle plans: Churchill compared fighting a battle to painting a picture, suggesting that the latter is “more exciting.”
Cannadine notes the irony that Churchill, a successful amateur artist, played such a huge role in defeating Hitler, a failed professional artist. One of the critical commentaries he includes in his book confirms Churchill’s talent.“Judged by any fair test,” art historian Thomas Bodkin wrote in 1959, Churchill “has to be regarded as a serious and accomplished painter who has won, on his merits, the right to take a place among the ranks of his professional colleagues.”
John von Heyking’s Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship leans heavily on philosophy and is at times quite technical. However, it fulfills the promise of its subtitle by zooming in on Churchill as friend. Remarking on the time in Marrakesh, von Heyking writes, “There they shared what Aristotle calls a joint perception of the good, the consummate act of virtue friendship.” They were taking in the whole scene, which for most friends of Churchill usually meant the entire military scene. The author reminds readers that Churchill wrote of the friendship between his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy as “two bodies with one soul” and “working like two lobes of the same brain.” It is that kind of friendship that Churchill shared with FDR.
In addition to his appraisal of Churchill as friend, von Heyking points to another example of Churchill’s foresight resembling that of an artist. It should come as no surprise that Churchill had a plan for winning the war. But it is extraordinary that he sketched out his six volumes of memoirs in December 1940—before having yet lived out all the events of even the second volume. Colleagues complained that, as von Heyking puts it, “he was fighting the war simply to write the history.” Again, Churchill demonstrated the mind of an artist at work, concerned as much with eventual presentation as with current decision.
Andrew Roberts bears the most challenging task in his cradle-to-grave biography,Churchill: Walking with Destiny. In the mammoth work of some 980 pages (not counting notes and other end material), Churchill as artist plays a bit role, cropping up only a handful of times. Actually, that Churchill painted just once during the war is, at best the third most surprising fact on the relevant page of Roberts’s book. He remarks in a footnote that Churchill suffered “housemaid’s elbow” while painting The Tower of Katoubia Mosque and that Angelina Jolie currently owns the piece.
Roberts meticulously reports on all the key events in Churchill’s life, always acknowledging the man’s flaws as he uncovers them. But Roberts also refutes the claims of detractors—a word he employs more than a dozen times in the book—who have demonized Churchill.
Roberts is a master storyteller who skillfully breaks the life of Churchill into two parts, in keeping with a quote from Churchill’s own The Gathering Storm: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” In the first half of the book, Roberts lays out the events of “the preparation” with daring restraint, allowing them to foreshadow the second half, “the trial,” so the reader is equipped for (but not exhausted ahead of) the payoff. Churchill’s first 65 years before becoming prime minister were full of errors of judgment—opposing women’s right to vote, trying to stop Indian self-government, and more—as well as personal and political setbacks. He succeeded, Roberts writes, “despite parental neglect, the disapproval of contemporaries, a prison incarceration, a dozen close brushes with death, political obloquy, financial insecurity, military disaster, press and public ridicule, backstabbing colleagues, continual misrepresentation and even, from some quarters, decades of hatred, among countless other setbacks.” At times, in Roberts’s telling, Churchill comes across as prophetic—for instance, at age 16, Churchill told a friend he would save London. And, of course, he did.
There are more than a thousand Churchill biographies, and Roberts’s book references many well-regarded ones, including those of Norman Rose, Roy Jenkins, Candice Millard, and Jon Meacham. But William Manchester’s trilogy The Last Lion, finished posthumously by Paul Reid, does not appear in Roberts’s bibliography and goes entirely unmentioned. Given the presence of those many other notable and worthy secondary sources, the absence of The Last Lion, a work of matchless prose, is glaring.
An even greater oversight is ignoring John Lukacs’s Five Days in London. Lukacs examined the period from May 24 to May 28, 1940, comparing it to Alamein in its importance. “Even then,” Lukacs wrote, in describing 1942, “Britain could not win the war. In the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it. Then and there he saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization. And about that hinge of fate his War Memoirs...are largely silent.”
It is worth lingering on that timeframe since many biographers and readers get swept away by the war’s battles and speeches. It is easier to recognize affirmative actions—whether successes or failures—than things that didn’t happen but could have. Churchill himself, who spent years reconstructing his life’s vicissitudes in minute detail, entirely excluded from his memoirs the war cabinet sessions of that stretch of May 1940. Lukacs, however, reminds readers that Churchill convinced a divided group—who, as Jonathan Schneer put it in his recent book Ministers at War, “did not treat him with the reverence he so often receives today”—not to form a separate peace with Germany. Roberts does not disagree with Lukacs’s assessment—“The important point about Churchill in 1940,” Roberts writes, “is not that he stopped a German invasion that year, but that he stopped the British Government from making peace”—yet it carries less weight without the behind-the-scenes coverage.
However, these are mere quibbles about a book of epic length. And they can especially be forgiven in light of the wealth of new material Roberts offers. In his acknowledgments, Roberts thanks Queen Elizabeth II for allowing him to be the first Churchill biographer with unrestricted access to the diaries of her father, King George VI. Roberts does a solid job of comparing some of the claims in Churchill’s memoirs against the diary entries that the king often wrote immediately after their meetings. As just one small example, Churchill presented a seemingly credible story of how he was officially invited by the king to form a new government. In Churchill’s telling, he jokingly pretends not to know why he has been called to meet with the king: “Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.” But the king in his diary merely notes that Churchill “told me that he had not thought this was the reason for my having sent for him”; there is no suggestion that the king took Churchill to be joking.
Roberts also makes extensive use of the complete diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, recently published by Yale. Although it would be 47 years before the Soviet Union acknowledged its massacre of Polish troops in Katyn forest, Maisky recorded Churchill’s stance on the German announcement of mass graves on April 18, 1943. “Even if the German statements were to prove to be true, my attitude towards you would not change. You are a brave people, Stalin is a great warrior, and at the moment I approach everything primarily as a soldier who is interested in defeating the common enemy as quickly as possible.” Churchill’s stance was morally unsupportable, Roberts writes, “but politically it was unavoidable.”
Roberts persuasively argues that these documents, and others he has been the first to use, make it, as he writes, “at last possible to paint [Churchill] in something approaching his true colours.”
In the final paragraph of The Gathering Storm, Churchill remembered his feeling when he became prime minister: “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.”
One can hear in these words the spirit of a painter who likewise is master over the whole scene—free to conceive, initiate, and manage what unfolds before him. This is the Churchill that Cannadine, von Heyking, and Roberts present, a man capable of prophesy and policy, a man informed by art and friendship, a man admired and criticized in his own time as in ours.
Churchill continued to find “painting complete as a distraction” even as his “mental light” faded during his final coma—a point von Heyking illustrates on his book’s last page, quoting the prime minister’s daughter Sarah Churchill: “Sometimes his hand would begin to move in painting gestures, and we would know that he was happy. Needless to say, we wondered what particular scene was crossing his mind.”
Churchill was, von Heyking concludes, surely “painting the ‘whole scene’ with ‘perfect comprehensive judgment,’ ‘untiring eye and absolute selflessness,’ friends and all.”