Minnie Churchill: my grandfather-in-law Sir Winston’s passion for painting

Art and auctions, Events, Exhibitions, Military, Paintings and Sculpture — By on November 13, 2017 at 1:00 AM

Minnie Churchill and Simon Bird.

Minnie Churchill: my grandfather-in-law Sir Winston’s passion for painting

By James Brewer

Winston Churchill, “the British bulldog,” regularly packed paintbrushes and palette on his visits overseas. He even set to painting straight after a summit in Morocco with US president Franklin D Roosevelt.

The wartime leader’s granddaughter-in-law, Minnie Churchill, regaled a recent event in London with an account of his dedication to landscapes, seascapes, scenes with gardens and great houses, and still life.

Mrs Churchill was responsible for tracking down more than 500 of Sir Winston’s paintings and one sculpture from many countries and gathering stories associated with their ownership.

She spent six years on this initiative and the result was a book co-authored with art historian David Coombs, the illustrated, 256-page Sir Winston Churchill, His Life and His Paintings and on which she based her talk.

She undertook this absorbing work to show her love and respect for the great man. “It was a journey for me, a way to give something back,” she said, and she has given her interests in the authoritative book to Churchill Heritage.

Minnie was formerly married to Winston Churchill (1940-2010), who followed his grandfather into politics. She knew Sir Winston (1874-1965) for only the last five years of his life, and recalled being invited for lunch to 28 Hyde Park Gate, his home in London. Sir Winston talked about his experience in the Boer War.

After the lunch, Sir Winston summoned his butler to bring back the cream jug, poured cream on the table and let his ginger cat lap up the treat. “I thought,” said Mrs Churchill, “how sweet it was he cared about his cat, but I shudder to think what Lady Churchill thought.”

Winston painting at Chartwell.

Mrs Churchill recalled seeing on the floor of one room row upon row of canvases in many genres, and concurred with an art expert who had said: “I knew that Winston painted, but I had no idea he was so good at it.”

Sir Winston started painting as a hobby in 1915 after the military disaster of the Gallipoli campaign in which 58,000 Allied soldiers, including 29,000 British and Irish, and 11,000 Australian and New Zealand troops – perished; on the other side, 87,000 Ottoman Turkish troops died.

In the recriminations, Sir Winston lost his post as First Lord of the Admiralty in the Asquith government, and despaired that his career was finished. His resignation brought “long hours of a truly unwanted leisure” and he went to command an infantry battalion in France.

Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime.

Among those who say that Sir Winston was unfairly blamed for the Dardanelles failure is Mrs Churchill, who told the London event: “My grandfather was killed at Gallipoli, and my grandmother never put the blame on Winston,” rather on those who delayed the invasion of the peninsula.

Sir Winston said of the turning point in his career: “I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, and then the muse of painting came to my rescue.”

Before 1915 he had never been to an art gallery, but around that time saw in Paris the output of French Impressionists. Winston discovered his sister-in-law (Lady Gwendoline Bertie, known familiarly as Goonie, who was the wife of Jack Churchill) painting in a garden, and was immediately hooked. He said that to have reached the age of 40 without appreciating the joy of painting, and then suddenly be plunged into the middle of an intense form of communication is an astonishing and enriching experience. Presented with the equipment, “I seized the largest brush and have never felt in awe of the canvas since.”

A critic wrote: “Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship, I believe he would have been a great master with the brush,”

At the end of 1921 Churchill wrote two articles for a magazine, Painting as a Pastime, which were to be published as a book. Of the medium, he said: “There really is nothing like oils. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out.”

Mrs Churchill signs copies of her book.

He learned eagerly from, and knew several of, the great painters; for instance he copied several pictures of John Singer Sargent. Churchill closely studied the paintings of Turner, Cézanne, and Monet. The impressionists were a considerable influence, evident in such works as his Sunset over the Sea, orange and purple, of 1923. Walter Sickert taught him how to use photographs as an aide-memoire, and said of his friend William Nicholson that he was “the person that taught me most about painting”.

Sir Winston was hesitant to show under his name, and when there was in 1921 a display of his pictures at a Paris gallery, they were labelled “by Charles Morin.” Sadly, those works have seemingly been lost for ever, said Mrs Churchill.

He loved painting overseas: his paint box and palette accompanied him, even on the most formal visits. During World War II he finished only one painting, of the sun setting over the Atlas mountains at Marrakech.  This was The Tower of Katoubia Mosque, an oil on canvas executed after a summit meeting in Casablanca with President Roosevelt and presented to the American leader. The piece changed hands several times after the death of Roosevelt, until acquired for a reported £2.5m to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, “but now we are wondering what has happened to it,” said Mrs Churchill, with the celebrity couple over the last year being on the brink of divorce. The couple have to date been generous in loaning the work.

After the war, when he lost the General Election, Sir Winston borrowed a house on the shore of Lake Como, giving rise to further compositions.

Arnold von Bohlen und Halbach, Minnie Churchill, Simon Bird.

Sir Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, urged him to enter some of his pictures in the summer exhibition in 1947, and two were successfully submitted under the name David Winter. Only when they had been accepted did the author reveal his identity. Winter Sunshine, Chartwell is still on show at his house in Kent, and The Loup River, Alpes Maritimes, was secured for the national collection by the Tate. He was honoured with the title of Royal Academician Extraordinary.

Mrs Churchill’s account was supplemented by Simon Bird who delivered an overview of Churchill’s oeuvre from the perspective of an admirer. He said that Sir Winston’s first picture was of Goonie, his brother Jack’s wife. One copy, Ruins of the Cathedral of St Vaast, Arras (1918) (after Sargent), was better than the original, the opinion of Mr Bird.

Churchill’s treatment of shadow and shade, and the glorious colour he applied, were praised by Mr Bird, who further drew attention to the fine execution of architectural features in many of the paintings. Water and trees feature frequently: “Trees, he loved.” Mr Bird’s favourite picture is View on the River Var, an impressionist landscape in the south of France encompassing the tributary of the Rhône, mountains and a small town in the distance.

Another remarkable study is Tapestries at Blenheim, a complicated subject to attempt, with the composition made even more daring by setting them in the context of the room’s carved and gilded furniture. The tapestries tell of the successes of his ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough.

Mr Bird recounted as a side-line serious and less serious stories of Sir Winston. He said that as colonial secretary, Churchill had wanted the Kurds to have their own country and was critical of the drawing of boundary lines without any reference to the politics of the area.

A humorous story had Sir Winston relaxing in his vest and without shoes in the cabin of a ship when the door was pushed open and a GI shouted, “hey captain, where’s the john?” Churchill replied: “When you leave my cabin it is second door on the right, the one that says Gentlemen – but don’t be put off by that.”

For 40 years, Sir Winston gained so much pleasure from this pastime of painting, from the moment he walked into a garden after the Dardanelles disaster, said Mrs Churchill, who is an amateur painter with acrylics, and in the style of her illustrious hero.

A close family friend, Arnold von Bohlen und Halbach, told the meeting of his exploit with Mrs Churchill’s former husband when both were keen young amateur pilots. Despite having clocked up a sparse 100 hours of flight experience, the duo managed to fly around Africa in a single-engine aircraft. They overcame the objections of Sir Winston to the exploit by pointing out that as a young man Winston had participated in military charges.

Mrs Churchill is the daughter of the late Sir Gerard and Lady d’Erlanger, former chairman of BOAC and BEA, and founder of Air Transport Auxiliary, which delivered 308,567 aircraft during World War II. She and Winston divorced in 1997.

She was the director of Churchill Heritage, which holds the copyright to the artwork of Sir Winston.

Mrs Churchill devotes much time to charitable works. She has been on the independent monitoring board for the Home Office to Portland Young Offenders Prison for 10 years; has served on the management committee of St Catherine’s Hospice; and was a trustee of the National Benevolent Fund for the Aged. She is a trustee of the International Trust for Nature Conservancy, which monitors and protects tigers and snow leopards in Nepal and northern India. She is a deputy lieutenant of Dorset.

The organiser of the event, on November 8, 2017 at Ognisko, the Polish Hearth Club in Exhibition Road, Kensington, was the portrait painter Barbara Kaczmarowska (Basia) Hamilton, a friend of Mrs Churchill.

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