The Manor House at Mells, near Frome in Somerset has long been associated with the Horner and Asquith families. At the time when this picture was created, the Manor House was the residence of Sir John and Lady Horner, dear friends of the Churchills, whose family had lived at Mells since the Reformation. Their younger daughter, Katharine Frances Horner, married Raymond Asquith, after a prolonged courtship, on 25thJuly 1907. Raymond’s father, Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, was Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916. Churchill served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, and First Lord of the Admiralty in Asquith's government before the First World War and became a close friend of the family. He was particularly fond of Raymond who was killed at the Somme in 1916.
Clementine and Winston attended several of the marvellous house parties at Mells during the 1910s and 1920s and the current work was no doubt executed during one of these visits. Within the work Churchill explores light and shadow. Strong verticals, horizontals and diagonals dissect the composition in the stone wall and pergola, as well as the dark shadows they cast. At the very centre of the painting is an arch, which when coupled with the shadows, seems almost to recall the empty and dramatic landscapes of Giorgio De Chirico. Churchill has captured the scene from the shadows and the viewer is drawn into the painting with a desire to pass through the arch into the sun.
As with so many of Churchill’s works a sense of privacy pervades the scene. His pictures form a kind of pictorial diary of his quiet life; a personal record of friends, family and household, their homes and holidays and their travels. These works are the product of a man off duty. For him painting’s greatest virtue was its power to make you forget everything else. In 'Painting as a Pastime', first published in The Strand Magazine 1922 Churchill wrote: ‘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’ (Churchill, ‘Painting as a Pastime’, quoted in Coombs and Churchill, 2011, op. cit., p. 85). Importantly, Churchill chose to illustrate the present work in The Strand Magazine alongside this essay in which he urges his readers to try painting, promising them an unceasing voyage of discovery and a heightened sense of observation.
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