I Spent a Morning Looking at Winston Churchill's Paintings—With His Granddaughter
“The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill” opened Nov. 13 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum—and present the morning of the opening was Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter and a successful artist herself. We walked through the exhibition, curated by Tim Riley of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, and Sandys shared with me the stories behind and memories evoked in the paintings that held a special resonance for her.
”The whole thing looks wonderful,” says Sandys as she places a hand on my arm to show me the first painting. It’s not the first time Churchill’s paintings have gone on display, but she’s pleased with how Riley has laid it all out by theme.
Churchill’s paintings very much belong to the times in which they were painted. The works are wonderful to look at and examine as well—this isn’t an exhibition where paintings are put up just because someone famous dabbled with art as a hobby. In them, Churchill seems influenced by both impressionism and realism, abstracting figures and scenes with dashes of color.
He also kept politics and painting separate (more on that later), meaning that these works are a glimpse into his private and thoroughly human life. There are scenes from a holiday; a landscape of his home and grounds; a portrait of his wife, Clementine; a still life of wine and liquor bottles on a table. He painted what life outside of work meant to him.
You can see him in the paintings, too: One, a view of water and the sky (not the one above, but it’s reasonably similar), catches Sandys’ eye. “You see how he’s done the water? It’s very brave just to leave it almost totally dark and these slashes of white-ish paint across it to show the reflections,” she says. “You see? Sometimes water is like a mirror, and so it’s brave to do that, and he hasn’t messed around with it after—he hasn’t been tempted to—because he’s a bold person.”
Regarding the painting above, which Sandys inherited after Clementine died, “I chose that because I thought it was very lovely,” says Sandys. “Regardless of who had painted it, it’s a beautiful painting. I think you feel you could step right in, go right in there and say hello to that person, and we’re thinking that it might well be my grandmother. She was very elegant …
“He mentioned that since becoming a painter, which he didn’t do until he was 40, he found himself noticing things in nature much more—much more strongly and much more clearly than he did before. I think photographers feel that way too, you know … So he noticed the light and shade then, and he noticed shadows, you see. And going into that garden, you might just think, ‘Oh, isn’t that lovely?’ and the light and the green and sunny and pillars. When you paint, you have to see which part is bright and which is dark, so this sort of thing is a perfect example of how he saw nature with more interest and more clearly than he would before.”
One of the things I learned that surprised me while speaking later with Riley, who is the paintings curator at the National Churchill Museum, was that this legendary military commander started painting at 40 after a bit of a mid-life crisis: He was demoted from First Lord of the Admiralty to an obscure cabinet job following a WWI disaster at Gallipoli. The first painting in the exhibition, a self-portrait, is one of his earliest and is painted in the shadows—black, browns and somber colors—evoking some of the despondency he felt during that period. Churchill bounced back from that setback to restore his reputation and career and become a hero of WWII.
But it’s because of this initial catalyst that Churchill would keep politics and painting separate, using the latter as an outlet. One of the last paintings, though, mixes the two, sending a little chill up my spine. It’s a seaside scene, the “Beach at Walmer,” picturing several figures (family members and himself) knee-deep in the waves, backs to the viewer and looking out to the horizon. In the foreground, somewhat jarringly, is an old cannon, also pointed out toward the sea. Riley explains that it was painted when Churchill was the lone voice in the British government to call for resistance to Hitler, whom he rightly read as an impending and serious threat. The painting is a response to that: The swimmers are oblivious to the cannon behind them, ready to fend off impending threat just across the ocean.
“The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill” runs through Feb. 14 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.