Mary Soames and I first met when she sought my help while working on her memoir: Winston Churchill His Life as Painter. We swiftly found that we shared not only real admiration for her father’s paintings but similar appreciation of his book Painting as a Pastime. Thereafter, we very happily joined forces to champion, from our different perspectives, wider interest in both.
Like her mother Clementine, Mary had a keen eye for a fine painting, which explains the supreme quality of her collection of Winston’s pictures – a few of which she may have seen while he was painting them and all of which she lived with until the end of her days. Some of the paintings included in this Sotheby’s sale were gifts of love from her father, others came from her mother who was Winston’s most consistent and fearless critic. Clementine had a wide knowledge of art and with this, an eye also for the best of Churchill’s works.
One especially fine painting in Mary Soames’s collection is entitled Sunset Over the Sea, Orange and Purple (see lot 71). By coincidence, and amongst several hundred unframed Churchill paintings on canvas and canvas board, this picture was the most outstanding of a small group of paintings on panel that I well remember seeing in 1965, when I went to the Churchills’ country home, Chartwell in Kent, to begin cataloguing his pictures there. That this is the earliest picture by her father in Mary’s collection, has been confirmed in the last few months by the re-discovery of a companion work by Churchill, now known to have been painted by Winston in 1923 at San Raphael on the French Riviera near Cannes, during a long writing and painting holiday with his wife and children. A recent General Election led to the fall of the Government in which he had served as Secretary of State for the Colonies and he had also lost his parliamentary seat. Despite these major political setbacks for Churchill, there is a discernible feeling of “hope” in Sunset Over the Sea, Orange and Purple as well as the strong influence of French Impressionism. It is moreover worked without any hesitation, confirming his confidence as an artist: barely eight years since he had been first attracted to the “muse of painting”. This is an imperative story that says everything for Churchill’s unremitting determination, once aroused, to overcome all difficulties – however personally forbidding, however aesthetically congenial.
In the summer of 1915 Churchill had been forced to take responsibility for the Allied disaster at the Dardanelles and to resign from the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Though still a member of the Cabinet his situation was such that he “knew everything but could do nothing” – for Churchill, an impossible position which led him to become not only frustrated but seriously depressed. He thought in fact that aged only 40, his political career was finished. Also in that fateful summer Winston and his brother Jack, who was serving with the army in France, decided to send their families to a rural haven, one conveniently near London and free from the risks of Zeppelin bombing raids on the capital; they chose an old farmhouse near Godalming in Surrey.
One afternoon while disconsolately pacing the lawn overlooking the house, Churchill noticed his sister-in-law painting the scene in watercolours. He paused to watch. Gwendoline invited him to try his hand, but this delicate medium was not sympathetic for someone of Winston’s compulsive energy and drive, and he decided instead to attempt painting in oils. The next day he secured paints, brushes and canvas and set to his new task, with little success until the unexpected arrival of Hazel, the vivacious artist wife of his friend the painter Sir John Lavery. With Irish élan and the confidence of close friendship, Hazel immediately showed Winston that he had to attack the canvas with a brush full of paint - with immediate and, for him, satisfactory results. So encouraged and with a natural instinct for a composition, as well as some study in Lavery’s Studio, Churchill painted a number of small pictures in and around the house at Hoe Farm – already proving his ambition to tackle relatively difficult subjects. Later to be confirmed by his painting Tapestries at Blenheim (see lot 239).
Soon after, Winston decided to resign from the government to join the army. While on leave from his Battalion on the Western Front, he was taken round the galleries in Paris by the artist Charles Montag – who until the latter’s death in 1956 was to become his lifelong mentor and painting companion. The effect of his introduction to French Impressionist painters is best described in Churchill’s own words (from Painting as a Pastime):
“Have not Manet and Monet, Cézanne and Matisse... brought back to the pictorial art a new draught of joie de vivre; and the beauty of their work is instinct with gaiety, and floats in sparkling air.”
During his military service, Churchill had taken with him, and used, paints, canvases and brushes, as he was always to do for the rest of his life. Many of his paintings in Mary Soames collection done while visiting relatives and friends at home, or on holiday abroad, show not only the extent and variety of his travels, but his equivalent need thereon to paint.
In 1916, with his battalion facing amalgamation, like many others so forced because of the growing number of casualties, Churchill decided to resign his command and return to politics and a senior government position. Back in London, Churchill made the time to study once again with Sir John Lavery. Winston’s basic problem was being doubtful of his abilities and Lavery encouraged him to paint directly, with courage, and then to stop when his picture was finished, often difficult for Churchill.
By 1921 Churchill had developed his painting skills so impressively that his friend Charles Montag was able to arrange an exhibition of his latest work at the prestigious Galerie Druet on the Rue Royale in Paris. Typically for Churchill he insisted on using a pseudonym: Charles Morin. Later in the same year, Churchill wrote for the Strand Magazine the first of two successive articles entitled Painting as a Pastime. Wise, witty and self-deprecating, the text is very revealing in clearly showing that, for Winston, the act of painting was essential to him physically and, equally importantly as a way of wholly filling his mind, in all totally distracting him from the insistent cares and worries of his public duties and responsibilities. Relatively little noticed these days in Painting as a Pastime is Churchill’s unalloyed admiration for Turner’s paintings: his compositional skills and technical prowess. Obviously Winston must have studied several of Turner’s works with very close attention.
After Lavery, the next important influence on Churchill was his friendship with the painter Walter Richard Sickert (see lots 13-14). He taught him how to use a grille to transfer proportions accurately onto canvas and how to make use of photographs which, if nothing else, helped Winston overcome his lack of formal training, especially in respect of painting figures. Sickert was a friend of Lady Churchill’s mother when Blanche was living in Dieppe with her daughters. On one occasion, Sickert took Clementine for a day visiting the galleries in Paris including a meeting with Camille Pissarro in his Studio. All this is touchingly recalled by Sickert’s drawing of Dieppe in Mary Soames’ collection.
But the single most important influence on Winston Churchill was William Nicholson whose charm and skills enraptured the while family – so delightfully seen in the series of drawings of cats in Mary Soames’s collection (see p.32). However, it was Nicholson’s methods and understanding of painting that proved enduring for Winston – not least Nicholson’s way with still lifes. Mary Soames owned one of these (see lot 244), as well as two contrasting examples by her father of his own work in this genre: Silver Life (see lot 256) and Magnolia (see lot 137).
An artist’s name often associated with Churchill is Paul Maze. Although Clementine was doubtful about him and never invited him to Chartwell, Winston enjoyed his company over many years and would have benefited from his advice from time to time. They painted together at the Château St Georges Motel in France and their long association is commemorated in Mary Soames’s collection by Maze’s HMY Britannia in the Port of London (see lot 15).
Another artist who admired Churchill’s work was Sir Oswald Birley whose portraits, done at Chartwell, of Winston (Mary’s favourite of her father (see lot 169)) and his ravishing image of the young Mary Soames are both in her collection. Undoubtedly too, Churchill would have sought advice from Birley.
It was always his professional artist friends who appreciated Churchill’s genuine abilities as a painter, about which he was irredeemably modest and always uncertain. In 1947, the then president of the Royal Academy Sir Alfred Munnings succeeded in persuading Winston to send two of his paintings to its annual open Summer Exhibition. Churchill agreed but only on the understanding that they were submitted, once again under a pseudonym: David Winter. To Munnings’ huge delight both were accepted and hung; one was acquired later for the national collection by the Tate Gallery.
A decade after, in 1958, President Eisenhower wrote to Churchill: “a travelling exhibition of your paintings in the United States would... I am certain serve in a very definite way to strengthen the friendship between our two countries...” Churchill was very, very doubtful about the idea but was eventually persuaded to agree, and an exhibition of 35 of his paintings toured in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, attracting more than half a million visitors. This was Churchill’s first one man exhibition and in 1959 it finally settled in London at the Royal Academy of Arts – with equivalent public success.
While Clementine was Winston’s greatest and most enduring love, something near to that magical human quality was felt by Churchill for his country home. Three paintings in Mary Soames’ collection confirm this, Corner of the Drawing Room at Chartwell (see lot 70), so redolent of Clementine’s elegant talents as a home maker; The Weald of Kent under Snow, Painted from Chartwell (see lot 187) shows the view that was a constant delight – as well as the garden wall that Churchill himself took such pleasure in constructing; and finally The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell (see lot 181), built for Churchill and a favourite retreat in his last years. Both these latter demonstrate Churchill’s own deep regard for the Impressionists: “surely we owe a debt to those who have so wonderfully vivified and illuminated modern landscape painting.”
Yet, as Churchill also wrote in Painting as a Pastime: “We must not be ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket.”