It was late summer 1939. Winston Churchill, then a member of the British Parliament, and artist Paul Maze were leisurely painting at their easels by a babbling brook in the French countryside. Suddenly, a young messenger boy came running across the field, clutching a telegram. “Situation worsening,” it read. “Advice: Come home. You might have a job,” Maze would later recall in a documentary.
Maze began packing up his belongings. Churchill, paintbrush in hand and cigar wedged in his mouth, did not turn from his canvas. “You’ll finish that painting,” he scolded. “You won’t do another one for another four years.”
Days later, the Second World War broke out. Restored by the relief that painting provided him, Churchill soon took leadership of the British navy and rode the Queen Mary into the Atlantic. He would become British prime minister the following year.
Churchill was known for his prolific writings, eloquent speeches and political leadership. Lesser known was his love affair with painting, his refuge from the stresses of politics and journalism. During especially trying times, political and personal, painting was how Churchill staved off what he called “the black dog” of depression.
Ten of Churchill’s landscapes and seascapes will be on view in “Passion for Painting: The Art of Winston Churchill Exhibit Aboard the Queen Mary,” opening May 27 in Long Beach. The storied ship – prized as a feat of engineering and luxury in its time and Churchill’s floating battle headquarters during World War II – celebrates the 80th anniversary of its maiden voyage this month. To mark the occasion, the ship will open an art gallery with Churchill’s works, which will hang for at least six months. Maze’s portrait of Churchill at his easel, painted that day the telegram arrived in France, also will be on view.
The exhibit is a collaboration between the Queen Mary and the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Eight of the paintings come from the private collection of the family of Churchill’s grandson, the late Julian Sandys; they’re normally on the walls of family members’ homes in London. The others are from the Churchill museum.
“Painting was essential to Churchill. It’s where he went to restore himself,” Churchill great-grandson Duncan Sandys says aboard the Queen Mary. “He’d be consumed by painting. It would refresh his mind.”
Churchill wrote more than 5,000 speeches and 43 book-length works, not to mention steered a political career and a family. He also painted more than 500 works, carting his paintbrush and enormous easel even when traveling for work. Painting was not only part of this “prodigious output,” Sandys says, but “it’s also what enabled everything else.”
Churchill didn’t begin painting until after he was 40. The hobby grew out of desperation. In 1915, after the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli during World War I, he was forced to resign as first lord of the Admiralty and fell into a depression. While he was vacationing in the English countryside, his sister-in-law, Gwendoline “Goonie” Churchill, a watercolorist, offered him her paintbrush. He took to it immediately. Churchill went on to study oil painting with his neighbors in London, Irish painter John Lavery and his wife, Hazel, as well as with other artist friends such as Maze, but he wasn’t professionally trained.
He was inspired by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and painted a large portion of his canvases in the South of France. He was taken by the light and colors there, particularly the reflections of light on water.
But he didn’t create to exhibit or sell. He considered himself a hobbyist and painted only for pleasure, storing most of his finished paintings in his Chartwell studio or on the walls of his homes.
Painting changed the politician’s writing style, Sandys says. In his pre-1915 speeches, his great-grandson notes, Churchill’s writing was fairly technical. After he took up painting, his speeches were peppered with visual references to light and color, his imagery more vivid.
“This was radio, there were no visuals,” Sandys says of the era. “Yet he was able to create this wonderful sort of vision, this painting, that people could see and understand. It’s what so inspired them and enabled him to rally people across the world.”