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Winston Churchill

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Sir Winston Churchill: 1874-1965...England

"Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost the end, of the day."
~ Sir Winston Churchill

The greatest British leader of the 20th century, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, is most celebrated for his leadership during World War II. During this long political career, Churchill held every important cabinet office in the British government, except foreign minister. Outside the political arena, he was known for his interests in the arts. He was a great orator and loved the language arts. Skill at writing took him all that way to the peak of literature when he won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. This prize was for his many historical and biographical works including his book Painting as a Pastime (1948). Another of his interests that he greatly enjoyed, as the book title implies, was painting and the visual arts. Prime Minister, artist. "In all battles two things are usually required of the Commander-in-Chief. Firstly, to make a good plan for his army and, secondly, to keep a strong reserve. Both these are also obligatory upon the painter." So how does one of the greatest political leader in history become a painter? Well, we need to start at the beginning.

Sir Winston Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and American, Jennie Jerome. After a brief career in the army that took him to battle in Cuba, India, South Africa, and Egypt, he became a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1900. He held many high posts in Liberal and Conservative governments during the first three decades of the century. As the tension was building up toward Word War I, Churchill was placed in charge of the navy and building a great fleet for war. In a strategic maneuver, Churchill focused on opening the Dardanelles Straight to give the Allies a straight shot at aiding the Russian military via the Black Sea and blast the Ottomans out of the war. The British naval attack failed and the land campaign a total shambles. The Allies lost a lot of ground in the war at that point. In 1915, Churchill was the scapegoat for this and was severely demoted. He went into a great personal depression and many of his close friends worried about him and his mental condition, including Clementine, his wife of seven years who was the mother of their three young children. He and his family moved to a farm in the Surrey region of England.

One day on the farm, Winston saw his sister-in-law, Gwendeline, painting with some watercolors out in a garden. He was greatly captivated by her work and wanted to give it a try. At her encouragement, Churchill experimented with the watercolor set but thought he would like oil painting better. Clementine went out right away to get her husband a set of oil painting supplies, but due to ignorance of painting, she neglected to buy any turpentine. This caused him some temporary frustration with painting, but after some additional supply purchases and some advice from artist friend and teacher Sir John Lavery, Churchill began to enjoy painting very much. For Churchill at this time, painting was a release from anxiety and the pressures of his life. An exercise in tension release that would become increasingly useful as his career once again began to advance.

Teachers are important to any pupil, even if that pupil is Winston Churchill. Sir Lavery was an Irish Impressionist that enjoyed painting middle class people in recreational activities, but would be more popular and sought out as a realist portrait and war propaganda painter. His American wife, Hazel, was also crucial to the encouragement that allowed Churchill the drive to paint. Churchill would often paint at Lavery’s London studio.

The artistic advice did not stop with the Lavery family. Winston Churchill also received artistic guidance from: Swiss landscape painter Charles Montag, president of the Royal Academy of Art Sir Alfred Munnings, art patron Sir Edward Marsh, art connoisseur and collector Sir Philip Sassoon American artist John Singer Sargent, English Impressionist Walter Sickert, among others.

Churchill had painted many subjects all over the world. He painted from the front lines of World War I at Ploegsteert, Belgium. He pained to cope with the death of his three year old daughter in 1921. He painted the pyramids in Egypt. He painted for enjoyment. He painted because he was driven to do so. "Not only does the act of painting divert, rest, and stimulate the mind, it also expands and develops the power of observation in the realms both of nature and of art."

At the end of Word War I, Churchill took on another cabinet post and served in House of Commons until he was briefly voted out in 1922, only to be reelected to the post in 1924. This is a seat he would retain for the next forty years, as well as taking on a variety of other roles over the years.

When Germany marched into Poland in September of 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany and thus began World War II. Churchill was again appointed by Prime Minister Chamberlain to lead the British Navy. The public began to turn in Chamberlain after Norway was attacked in 1940 and after the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium on May 10 of that year, Chamberlain resigned. The Britain was at war and had no leadership that could hold the military and citizens together to fight for what Churchill saw as the war that Britain needed to fight. King George VI asked Churchill to take the difficult responsibility as Britain’s Prime Minister. He accepted with an honest stance saying that "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." For the next two years he fought on as France was being ravaged and eventually captured by the Nazis. The following three years he was one of the big three leaders in the Allied forces, along with Franklyn Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Churchill assembled a great war cabinet and fought on and motivated all Allied troops and citizens until the war ended in 1945. The same year he was voted out of office as Prime Minister. A disappointing result for this great leader. He used this time to speak out against the communist ideals growing as world threat. He was again elected prime minister in 1951. He again, at the age of 80, resigned as prime minister in 1955 but remained a member of the House of Commons. Almost all of his time was not focused on his favorite pastime, painting.

Although an amateur painter, I feel that it is important to visit the art of Winston Churchill. At an exhibition of his works in Kansas City, President Truman said the paintings were "Damn good. At least you can tell what they are and that is more than you can say for a lot of these modern painters." Would I care about this work as much if he was not arguably the most recognized Prime Minister in British history or one of the major forces behind the Allied victory in World War II? Bluntly, I say no. But that is not really the point. The point is that we as learners need to see a different application to the question we should all ask; “Why should invest my time into art?” Churchill is a great example for us all. It is important to not only see the work of the professional artist that is commissioned to make thought provoking artworks. We need to see the artists that innovate art. We need to see the artists that push the limits of what is artistically created. We need to see the artists that develop the streams and styles that force art evolve through time. All the same: we can all be artists even if we are not innovators of art, just as Churchill was; We can all find release in art, just as Churchill did; We can all be life long artists, just as Churchill was. We do not need to be the one in a million artist that will innovate art to be able to enjoy our personal participation in art. Churchill was featured at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1959. Why? He is Sir Winston Churchill. Will this be the result for a high percentage of hobby artists? Not at all. But in my mind, it is not about being in the gallery show: it is about communication, peace, and release as artists. He passed this wisdom of happiness throght art on to the people in his books and essays on the topic, as well as his friends, like President Dwight Eisenhower, whom he taught to paint. Winston Churchill died two months after his 90th birthday, having produced over 500 painting in his life. How many will you create? "When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject."

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063