‘Shall we ever forget ? War-time Memories of London … The Gate of Goodbye: Ten years ago at Victoria Station – just before the train left for the Front. The agony of farewell to men who might never come back was then part of London’s everyday life.’ (Anonymous, Newspaper caption for the 1917 photograph by F. J. Mortimer, which inspired Winston Churchill to paint the present work)
Painted in 1927, Troops Going to the Front, 1917 is one of the few works by Churchill which has as its subject soldiers in the Great War. A photograph taken by F.J. Mortimer in 1917 (now in the Studio archives at Chartwell) inspired Churchill to paint this evocative canvas and the emotive scene shows soldiers waving farewell to their families and loved ones at Victoria Station as they leave to join the Front. For Churchill this image would have held a particular resonance as he had served on the Western Front in 1915 stationed on the borders of France and Belgium at Ploegsteert as Commander of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. During this time he executed a few works depicting his headquarters - a small farm house in the village. It was earlier that year that Churchill had first taken up painting as an escape from depression after the disaster of Dardanelles. Churchill was not to depict a scene from the Great War again until he painted the present work over ten years later and according to the records, he was not to return to this theme, making this work a particularly fascinating and rare example. Little did Churchill know when he painted Troops Going to the Front, 1917 in 1927, that another decade on war would break out for a second time and in his role as Prime Minister during this conflict, he would emerge as one of the greatest leaders of all time.
Stylistically, this important work demonstrates the influence of Churchill’s mentor, Walter Sickert (see lots 5, 9 and 140). Churchill met Sickert in 1927, twelve years after he had first started painting and the same year this work was executed. A childhood friend of Clementine, Sickert would play a significant role as mentor to Churchill both through visits and a series of ‘teaching’ letters. Churchill was open to new ideas and techniques and Sickert’s tutoring played an important role in his development as an artist. The elder artist's influence can be seen here in Churchill's use of a photograph as an aide memoire. At this time Sickert was encouraging Churchill to use newspaper cuttings for inspiration (see Sir Winston Churchill, Painting Lesson from Mr Sickert, The National Trust, Chartwell). Another innovative technique which Churchill used to great effect in this work is Sickert’s Camayeu preparation. This consisted of over-layering colours to achieve the visual effect of a slightly over-exposed photograph (see Walter Sickert, Lady Martin, 1935, Tate, London for an example of Sickert working in this manner). Churchill was tremendously excited by his achievements in this new experimentation and wrote to his wife of his joy in 1927:
‘I am really thrilled by the field [Sickert] is opening up to me. I see my way to paint far better pictures than I ever thought possible before. He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter’ (see Mary Soames, Winston Churchill His Life as a Painter, London, Collins, 1990, p.68).
Churchill gave this exceptionally rare work to his colleague R. A. Butler in
appreciation of his time as his Principal Private Secretary while he was Prime
Minister. 'Rab' was a significant figure in the Conservative party in the 1940s and '50s during which time he was Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Chancellor. Churchill appointed him as president of the Board of Education in 1941 during the war-time coalition and in this role he oversaw wrote the Education Act that introduced free secondary school education for the first time in Britain. The painting was inherited by his grandson, who has had a distinguished 24 year career in the British Army retiring as a Brigadier.
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