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To escape ‘black dog’ of depression following military defeats, Winston Churchill turned to painting

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Winston Churchill's “Beach at Walmer.”";s:

Defeat is not one of the primary words associated with Sir Winston Churchill’s career. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, he gave the prophetic “Iron Curtain Speech” at Westminster College in 1946, and, most importantly, he emerged victorious during World War II as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. What many people don’t know is that Churchill did in fact experience the agony of defeat…and that’s what fueled his second life as a painter.

Churchill’s best paintings are now being displayed at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in collaboration with the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death and the 100th anniversary of his first painting.

Timothy Riley, the exhibition’s curator, said that Churchill began painting in 1915 at the age of 40 after his first large-scale defeat, during World War I.

“He was a late bloomer as far as painting was concerned,” Riley said. “There’s really no evidence as a child that Churchill was interested in the arts in any way. He liked to play with lead soldiers, and really launched his military career that way. It was a successful military career. We think of him as a World War II war leader, but he was very involved in World War I.”

"To escape this very dark moment in his life he began to put very bright colors on the canvas. He found that painting lifted him out of despair. He never turned back."

Churchill served as the First Lord of the Admiralty until he led the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, which had over 180,000 Allied casualties, and was forced to resign. Riley said his friends and family saw him as a politically and militarily failed man—Churchill succumbed to his “black dog” of depression.

“To escape this very dark moment in his life he began to put very bright colors on the canvas,” Riley said. “He found that painting lifted him out of despair. He never turned back. From 1915 through the end of his career, he continued to paint.”

Churchill once again leaned on painting as an outlet for his depression when he was not re-elected as prime minister of the UK following World War II. In fact, when he came to Missouri in 1946 at the invitation of President Harry S. Truman to give the famous Iron Curtain speech, he was unemployed. Directly prior to his visit to Fulton, he stopped in Miami first to paint.

His travel easel from that trip is displayed at the Kemper, along with a painting he did of a sunset in Marrakesh that he witnessed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they attended the Casablanca Conference in 1943. It was the only painting he made during World War II.

Credit Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Winston Churchill's "Valley of Ourika and Atlas Mountains."

By seeing the works of Churchill on display, one can better understand him as both a man and as a military leader. Of particular note is a painting called “Beach at Walmer,” which he painting in 1938, before the start of World War II.

Depicted is a family playing in the surf, at a beach looking over the English Channel toward continental Europe. In the foreground sits a menacing Napoleonic cannon also pointed in the direction of their gaze.

“It is unusual,” Riley said. “It is one of the very few paintings that mixes painting and politics for Churchill.”

Churchill was one of the lone voices in Britain at the time trying to call attention to the looming threat of Nazi Germany. At the time he painted the beach scene, the Munich Agreement had just been signed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, appeasing the Nazis from engaging in war by handing over parts of Czechoslovakia. The cannon looming in the foreground of the pleasant beach scene was Churchill’s response to such policies while his hands were tied politically.

There are 47 total canvases on display at the museum, along with the only sculpture Churchill ever made. 

"Amateur, the root, means love. Love what you do. Churchill certainly loved, he had a passion for, painting."

The exhibit combines paintings from private U.S. collectors, Churchill’s family home at Chartwell and the Royal Academy of London.

“Churchill during his lifetime did not exhibit his works,” Riley said. “He was an amateur painter and took every effort to emphasize that when he spoke about his accomplishments.”

However, Riley said, that doesn’t mean that the paintings are of bad quality by anyone else’s standards.

“Amateur, the root, means love,” Riley said. “Love what you do. Churchill certainly loved, he had a passion for, painting.”

Related Event

What: "The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill"
When: Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 – Feb. 14, 2016
11 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Where: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum located on Washington University's Danforth Campus near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards.
More information.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.    

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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