Sir Winston Churchill is an iconic giant. He was a renowned statesman, a two-time British prime minister, a Nobel Prize-winning author—and perhaps even a savior of Western civilization.
However, most people don’t know he was also a painter—and few have had the chance to see his art. This makes The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill, on display at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert through May 30, a rare treat.
Churchill (Nov. 30, 1874-Jan. 24, 1965) was born into one of the great aristocratic families of Great Britain, the Spencers; another Spencer was Princess Diana. His father was a politician, and his mother was an American-born British socialite. Winston joined the British Army and was elected to Parliament in 1900.
Churchill began painting in 1915, after stepping down as the political head of the British Navy. He was a self-taught artist, but because of his stature, he was able to befriend many of the top British painters. He was always modest about his work—but successfully entered several competitions under assumed names.
He painted in the Impressionist style and preferred to paint outdoors. It’s estimated that he produced about 500 paintings over a 40-year period. He never sold his work and only gave paintings as gifts to his friends and relatives. Most of his work remains in the museum at Chartwell. There are a few pieces in other museums, with the remaining paintings in private collections, including those of Queen Elizabeth II, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
The value of Churchill’s art has risen dramatically over the years. A painting originally given to Clare Booth Luce, “Chartwell Landscape With Sheep,” sold for 1 million pounds in 2007.
“Although painting was just a hobby, Churchill learned new skills which he used in his political and diplomatic life,” said Duncan Sandys, a great-grandson of Winston Churchill, according to a Heather James news release. “It gave him a sanctuary during adversity and, I believe, made him more effective in 1940 as Hitler prepared to invade Britain.”
The 11 paintings on display at Heather James Fine Art are from the 1920s to 1940s, from the collection of the late Julian Sandys, Churchill’s eldest grandchild and Duncan’s father.
I asked Chip Tom, a curator for Heather James Fine Art, how the exhibit came to the valley.
“The exhibit came about from a local desert person introducing us to the Churchill family,” Tom said. “We have been working with the family for about 6 months in trying to organize bringing the paintings to the desert.”
Tom said the response to the exhibit has been fantastic. “Part of the mission of Heather James Fine Art is to bring world-class, museum-quality work to the desert communities and make it available to the public,” he said. “This is for everyone in the valley. We’re not a museum, but you can come and enjoy great art, and there is no entry fee.”
I made several visits to the gallery to spend some time with these paintings. The hand of the artist is palpable; they are very honest works. There are areas that speak of technical brilliance and artistic insight, but Churchill doesn’t try to hide the struggle and frustration when he didn’t get it quite right. As an amateur painter myself, I found this encouraging.
There are nine landscapes, a seascape and a still life in the collection. “On the Var,” from 1935, is the largest and most polished. It reads as a tribute to Cezanne—but there is an area in the foreground, depicting a small stream, that was obviously problematic for Churchill. In “Lake Near Breccles in Autumn,” also painted in the 1930s, he had no such problem: The surface and reflections of the water are rendered in confident and fluid brushstrokes reminiscent of Monet’s waterlilies.
We will never know exactly how painting influenced Churchill’s role as a statesman, leader and writer. However, we do know painting was important enough to him that once he picked up a brush, he never traveled without his paint box, canvases and easel.
The exhibit The Paintings of Sir William Churchill is on display through Wednesday, May 30, at Heather James Fine Art, 45188 Portola Ave., in Palm Desert. For more information, call 760-346-8926, or visit www.heatherjames.com.