Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossom’d trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine’
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron (1788-1824))
We are grateful to David Coombs for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
The river Rhine and the Drachenfels have been a source of inspiration not only to poets and writers for centuries, including Byron and the German poet Heinrich Heine, but also artists, in particular J.M.W. Turner. Therefore it is not surprising to see that Churchill, too, was drawn to paint this most picturesque and romantic location. Here he captures in quick, impressionistic strokes the hustle and bustle of this busy waterway with boats steaming up the river and colourful crowds swarming on what appears to be a pontoon bridge, combining the picturesque with the advent of modern infrastructure. Painting the scene from a distance, the funicular winds up the mountain towards the legendary ruins perched high on the Drachenfels overlooking the quick-flowing river. The Burg Drachenfels was destroyed in the 17th century, its stone since quarried for buildings in Cologne, notably the cathedral. The wild and untouched nature of this environment inspired artists, especially the Romanticists whose works were becoming political symbols of a growing national sentiment in the 19th Century. The significance of this would not have been lost on Churchill, fully aware as he would have been, of the Rhine’s strategic significance as an important artery flowing through Europe: from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France and through the Netherlands. The Rhine was a vital waterway from as far back as the Roman times when it, along with the Danube, formed most of the northern inland frontier of the Roman Empire. The fortifications along the banks such as Burg Drachenfels, testify to the tactical importance that the Rhine has played in history.
Churchill most likely painted this work when he visited Germany in 1932 whilst touring the battlefields where his famous ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough – whose biography he was writing – had defeated the French-led coalition in 1704. This trip was six months before Hitler took power and, famously, Hitler and Churchill came the closest they would to meeting face-to-face. The Rhineland during this period was a politically sensitive area: a demilitarised zone from 1918 until Hitler, in 1935, defied the Treaty of Versailles marching his troops over the Rhine. Churchill, on his return to England after this trip, was to warn his countrymen of the mood of Germany, specifically of the rise of Nazism, Nationalist Processions and the Rearmament programme that was in progress, and he was in particular to oppose German appeasement. In a passionate speech to parliament on 23rd November he specifically warns against the ‘bands of sturdy Teutonic youths marching though the streets and roads of Germany, with the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for the Fatherland’ (Winston Churchill quoted in Martin Gilbert, Churchill A Life, Pimlico, London, 2000, p.510).
Given the most probable date of the work, and the extraordinary role that Churchill was to play in just seven years’ time, and the importance of the Rhine in the Second World War, this painting takes on an added significance as an important historical visual document, painted at a particularly politically sensitive time in a hotly contended area.
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