What image does the name Winston Churchill conjure up in your mind? For many it will be the iconic pictures of Churchill. Cigar clamped in his jaw, looking determined as he faces down the war time threat to Britain’s freedom. Perhaps the victory sign raised to cheering crowds after VE Day? Churchill is the symbol of British tenacity in the face of great threat. But there were many sides to Churchill’s character including great sensitivity.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Winston Churchill's book Painting as a Pastime. It is a short book, but reveals a side of Churchill that few have appreciated. That a figure of such magnitude would write about painting says much about his character and the virtues of art.
In 1915 Churchill faced an uncertain political future. He was at his lowest ebb after a few unsuccessful years in the military. He found himself sidelined and depressed. It was at this juncture, in his early forties that he decided to try painting for the first time. Churchill took to painting with, in his own words, great audacity.
With the help of an artist friend Churchill learned how to defeat the tyranny of a white canvas. Churchill would administer “several large, fierce strokes” with a large brush on the cowering canvas. He never felt in awe of a canvas since then. No fiddling with little brushes with a meek heart. Get stuck in and enjoy the release that painting brings to mind and soul
Churchill had a strong attraction to oil painting over watercolor. The versatility and power of oils appealed to his nature. Plus Churchill appreciated that mistakes could be adjusted or even scraped away with ease. A point I can endorse!
Churchill sought to achieve a balance between work and play long before this idea became trendy. Painting was the ideal distraction from the demands of politics. The right-brain remedy of painting was essential to his effectiveness as a leader. There is no doubt that Churchill needed painting to save him from a difficult time in his life. Plus painting restored his energies when he faced the extraordinary demands of wartime leadership.
Painting helped Churchill enjoy nature more.
“I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.”
Painting outdoors delighted Churchill: “Go out into the sunlight and be happy with what you see.”
Was there any better way to keep occupied than painting?
“Armed with a paint-box, one cannot be bored, one cannot be left at a loose end, one cannot have several days on one’s hands.”
It is interesting to note Churchill's fascination with impressionism and post-impressionists. Remember that these movements were still new in the 1920’s. Churchill loved strong color and bold shapes. He said that artists like Manet, Monet, Cezanne and Matisse “have brought back to the pictorial art a new draught of joie de vivre.”
Painting was not only about enjoyment for Churchill. He appreciated the health benefits to body and mind too.
“What a useful exercise painting may be for the development of an accurate and retentive memory.”
What better way to distract a troubled mind than painting.
“I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow there is no room for them in the mental screen”
“Happy are the painters, for they never shall be lonely: light and colour; peace and hope will keep them company to the end –or almost to the end of the day.”
Winston Churchill became an accomplished painter producing over 500 paintings. He also exhibited at the British Royal Academy. If Churchill could find the time to paint then we all can.
This short book reminded me that even in these cynical times painting is a wonderful cure for the mind and spirit for all ages. For example children can express their creativity away from gadgets. What about stressed executives, those facing boredom, middle-age angst or old age worries? Painting will help. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from Winston Churchill and get yourself a paint-box today.