In 1947, Winston Churchill, then age 73, wrote about his dead father appearing to him and the imaginary conversation that unfolded between the two. When his father asks him what he is doing, Churchill answers him he is trying to copy an old portrait of his. Later on, the father inquiries how the son makes a living.
“Not, surely, by these,” he says, pointing at several pictures.
The part about the portrait and the pictures is not imaginary. Churchill, the masterful orator, assertive stateman, Nobel Prize winner and unwavering wartime leader, discovered painting in his 40s and went on to produce more than 500 artworks in the decades that followed.
A fraction of his works is now the focus of a much-anticipated show opening Dec. 2 at The Society of the Four Arts. Drawing from the vast collection of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.i, A Man for all Seasons: The Art of Winston Churchill includes paintings from the same mind that created the “Iron Curtain” speech 71 years ago.
Timothy Riley, who serves as director and chief curator for the National Churchill Museum – the stage of that historic speech – recalls being fascinated by Churchill’s creativity and discovering that it was very present in other aspects of his life.
“He was a visionary thinker and a creative leader who saw the world as few other did. It seems natural that he took up painting and became so passionate about it,” said Riley, who has written several essays about Churchill and curated very successful exhibitions focused on his art, including A Passion for Painting, in Long Beach, Calif., and The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis.
What makes this one different is that it brings together images by Britain’s famous prime minister and of the man himself. Competing for attention are letters and original documents, including the final draft of the “Sinews of Peace” speech where his last-minute edits and thought process are revealed.
“He is painting with words; you can see that in this document,” said Riley.
The bold personality of the British Bulldog – as he came to be viewed – is evidenced by his palette choices. Churchill loved bright, bold colors and the light offered by Southern France and Marrakesh, both of which he visited often. He also favored oils. Some works reflect his joy of challenges, such as capturing reflections in the water, while others explore his favorite subjects: landscapes and seascapes.
“He felt sorry for the poor browns,” said Riley. “He once said that h preferred landscapes over portraits because trees don’t talk back to you or criticize your work.”
It is the first time an exhibition of this nature and magnitude comes to Palm Beach County, but it makes sense in many ways. In 1946, following the Second World War and before heading to Fulton, Churchill spent six weeks in Miami with his wife, Clementine. Venetian Causeway, one of the pieces he did during that stay, has now returned to South Florida to be part of this show.
“It’s a beautiful view of the water with palm trees,” Riley said. “It’s quite special.”
It is also very rare given that Churchill didn’t do many paintings in North America and certainly not while juggling visits to Cuba, the Parrot Jungle, Hialeah racetrack and putting final touches to his speech.
But the most personal interpretation of this great Briton comes from the hand of his granddaughter and part-time Palm Beach resident, Edwina Sandys, an accomplished artist in her own right. Brush with History, a 44” x 34” acrylic piece from 2014, depicts her grandfather at the easel surrounded by some of his favorite things: his hat, cigar, books, paints and drinks of choice. It’s a familiar image.
“We used to stand behind his chair when he was painting and putting magic on the canvas,” said Sandys. “It seemed like magic. He was the first painter I knew.”
Sandys was born in London in 1938 to Churchill’s eldest daughter, Diana. Occasionally he would make suggestions to the little sketches she would hand him. Today, she acknowledges their similarities while regretting not being able to show him her body of work.
“I rejoice in the bold, brilliant colors. I like being in colors even more than he did,” said Sandys, who will elaborate on her grandfather’s life and art on a related event scheduled for Dec. 9 at 11 a.m.
She agrees that painting came to the rescue of a man she knew carried the heaviest of weights on his shoulders and served as antidote to a nervous breakdown anybody else in his shoes surely would have suffered.
“As an artist myself, I know when you are engaged in the painting, you are consumed by it for a while. It takes you away from what is a big worry,” she said.
For the Four Arts exhibition, she has recreated the feel of one of her most famous sculptures, Breakthrough, which is displayed at Westminster College. The original piece done in 1990 is made out of eight sections of the Berlin Wall that Sandys obtained soon after it came down. It features two cutout spaces resembling the shapes of a man and a woman; the idea being people can walk and make their own breakthrough. Graffiti adorns one side while the other side remains blank. The reimagined version included here is a photo-on-canvas blowup the exact size of the original sculpture and covers an entire wall. In lieu of the cutout spaces, we get mirrors.
Also among the 28 paintings, film clips, rare photos, and historic memorabilia is a striking oil portrait by Frank Salisbury. The 1943 work titled Blood Sweat, & Tears stands at 49-by-39 inches and has a somewhat relaxed Churchill greet viewers at the entrance, as if an introduction were necessary.
Because that’s the thing about this exhibition; these are not works by an unknown artist that visitors are coming to see. How to give someone that illustrious fair credit for his artistic ability without letting his famous reputation drive one’s opinion? Isn’t one more prone to elevate his talent just because of who he is?
“I’m not sure you have to,” said Riley. “Many will come to this exhibition because of the name Churchill, but most people will leave knowing and appreciating that he was a serious painter.”
Recently, his works have been selling for or above their estimated value. Last year’s sale of Venetian Causeway (supposedly for $250,000) and the $860,000 paid this past September for one still -life point to an increase interest in Churchill’s artworks. His Goldfish Pool at Chartwell from 1932 sold for $2.7 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. That’s the most anyone has paid for one of his paintings. A smaller, abstract depiction of his beloved goldfish pond fetched $467,000 on Nov. 21 at an auction scheduled in London. Done in 1962, this was Churchill’s final piece. He died three years later at age 90.
He never sold one of his artworks during his lifetime. In uncharacteristic fashion, the confident man known for gesturing the V of victory with his fingers, had doubts about his artistic skill. When asked about his plans to exhibit, this is how he put it: “They are not worth it. They are only of interest in having been painted by a notorious character!”
Riley disagrees with the man himself.
“I think some of his finest paintings – and there are a number of them in this exhibition– are worthy of any museum in the world.”
A Man for All Seasons: The Art of Winston Churchill is showing at the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, until Jan. 14. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. through 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5. Call 655-7226 or visit www.fourarts.org.