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Winston Churchill in British Art, 1900 to the Present Day


Jonathan Black


London : Bloomsbury, 2017

Hardcover. xxiv+287 p. ISBN 978-1472592392. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




Dr Black, currently Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at the School of Critical Studies and Creative Industries of Kingston University, London, starts his fine monograph with what is now a well-established tradition in all works on Churchill (1874-1965): a justification for presenting yet another book on the great man to the reading public. This is not a difficult task, as he very convincingly concludes his introductory paragraph with what is both a perfectly correct and highly astonishing assertion considering the mass of publications on Churchill:

This book, however, is the first to take a close and searching look at how Churchill has been presented in British art, from when he first leapt to public prominence around 1900 during the Second Anglo-Boer War, to our time and the enduring fascination he holds for leading contemporary artists. [1]

The great difficulty, of course, lies in defining ‘art’: here, Black includes paintings, drawings, unfinished sketches, and sculpture – perhaps more controversially adding press cartoons. Indeed, whereas his treatment of paintings and sculpture is almost exhaustive, the same does not and cannot hold good for the innumerable cartoons which appeared all through Churchill’s long life – and anyway they have already benefited from at least two seminal books, as he is the first to acknowledge. Likewise, Black also includes a few famous photographs, but here again with no pretension to exhaustivity in such a vast extant corpus. ‘British’ – what is a ‘British’ artist in the 20th century? Many of the names discussed were foreign-born, like Belsky, Epstein, Karsh, Nemon or Topolski. On the other hand, Douglas Chandor (1897-1953), born in England though he later settled in the United States, is omitted. It is a pity since his superb portrait of Churchill in his uniform of Honorary Air Commodore of the 615 Squadron, RAF (1946, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC), which provides the cover illustration for Wrigley’s essential Biographical Companion, is associated with an anecdote as Black likes them (to our great delight): Chandor later reported that at some stage his sitter intervened, seizing his brush, to make his own waist thinner. Also incomprehensibly omitted, considering that the author claims to cover Churchill’s representation in British artfrom when he first leapt to public prominence around 1900’ is the first ever oil portrait (1900) of the young MP by George William Fish (1876-1930?), now in the Oldham picture gallery, to whom the anonymous patron who commissioned it donated it in 1903. The ‘human interest’ dimension of the canvas is enhanced by the fact that Churchill never forgot it, asking for reproductions in 1947. So, why Black does not mention it remains extremely puzzling.

Still, as Samuel Johnson remarked in his Dictionary (1755), ‘In this Work when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed’, it would be grossly unfair not to point out the excellent coverage – especially of paintings and sculpture – which Black offers. Classically, his study follows the chronology of Churchill’s life and career, starting with ‘Young Winston : At war and in Politics, 1898-1914’ [Chapter 1]. The purely biographical narrative, relying mostly on Roy Jenkins’s Churchill and totally ignoring the mammoth Official Biography and its volumes of documents by Sir Martin Gilbert, will not teach anything to confirmed Churchill devotees, but it does not contain any errors, and this is the main point as it will not mislead the general ‘non-Churchillian’ public for whom it is evidently intended. The chapter comprises nine black-and-white reproductions, some of lesser-known images, like the illustration by Mortimer Mempes (1855-1938) for War Impressions (1901) [Fig.1.4], and it is complemented by the first of the twelve very attractive colour plates in the special middle section of the book: a fine caricature by ‘Nibs’ (1861-1928) of Churchill as Home Secretary (Vanity Fair, 11 March 1911) – unfortunately not mentioned, let alone discussed, in the text proper [Plate 1].

The next three colour plates are connected with Chapter 2, ‘Disaster and Rehabilitation in the First World War, 1914-1918’. Plate 2 shows Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty (1915) by Ernest Townsend (1880-1944), a commission with a very complicated story, embroiled in the Asquith-Lloyd George rivalry inside the Liberal Party after December 1916, and with Churchill re-joining the Conservative Party in 1924. The result was that it was not formally hanged in the National Liberal Club, for which it had been destined, until May 1940 [pp.30-33]. The affair of the Townsend portrait is a perfect example of the controversy which so often surrounded Churchill in his long career – an aspect of his personality that he arguably encouraged, including in his portraits, which most often conveyed connotations of defiance: defiance of his political enemies, defiance of the foreign enemy and finally defiance of his implacable physical enemy, deformity and infirmity due to old age. Defiance of the foreign enemy is very much in evidence in Plate 3, Winston Churchill as Colonel of the Royal Scots wearing a French Steel Helmet (1916), by his friend Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), now prominently displayed at Chartwell, his country manor from 1924, next to the famous casque Adrian modèle 1916 which he wears on the picture. Of course, Black shows the equally famous photograph taken on 15 December 1915, when General Fayolle offered the poilu’s helmet to Major Churchill, as he then was [Fig.2.2]. Instead of giving us Orpen’s well-known portrait of 1916, which can easily be found elsewhere, Black reproduces first an uncommon preparatory drawing [Fig.2.2] and then a colour lithograph of 1941 of the 1916 canvas which, he reminds us, ‘was a favourite of the sitter’s and adorned his London [in fact Chartwell’s] dining room until the end of his days’ [42] and ‘hung inside 10 Downing Street while he was Prime Minister (1940-1945)’ [43]. No martial defiance here, unlike that of the Lavery portrait: Churchill is in a pensive mood, remembering the Dardanelles disaster which nearly ruined his political career for ever. Reminiscing with his former private secretary ‘Jock’ Colville at Chartwell in 1964, Churchill indeed confirmed that he thought this was the best portrait of him because it had so well captured his mood of unhappiness at the time.

But then, as we know, Churchill was able to rejoin the front ranks of British politics, the postwar period being the subject of the next chapter, ‘Churchill’s Roaring Twenties : From Liberal to Conservative’. In this connection, the colour section presents two plates. One [Plate 6] is extremely well known, by a famous artist : Winston Churchill (1927) by Sickert (1860-1942), complemented by a preparatory drawing given in Fig.3.14. The other Winston Churchill, by Ambrose McEvoy (1878-1927), dates from 1919-1920 [Plate 5] and is hardly ever reproduced in Churchill books. A lot has been written on Churchill and Sickert – how they became friends in 1927 through Clementine, who had met the painter long before her husband, in Dieppe in the last year of the 19th century, and how Churchill immediately asked the artist to teach him his techniques. A lot has also been written on how their friendship survived the rejection by Churchill and Clementine of the very forceful portrait which Sickert produced of his new pupil soon after their first meeting. ‘He objected that it made him look “crapulous” and “bilious” and resemble a bookie – not the sort of mental association one wanted as Chancellor of the Exchequer’ [75]. Today, of course, Sickert’s painting is regarded as one of the best portraits of Churchill. By contrast, little has been written on McEvoy’s ‘enigmatic and rather haunting portrait of Churchill’ [55] and we would have liked Black to fill that irritating void, to give us more information than how it changed hands after the artist’s death  – but he does not. A missed opportunity for both author and reader, no doubt. Instead, Black devotes a lot of space (and illustrations) to David Low’s cartoons – not that this is uninteresting per se, but there are plenty of other books in which one can find this information, unlike McEvoy’s painting. And since Black justifiably rates Low’s cartoons highly, he should have included his masterpiece – the colour ‘retrospective’ of Churchill’s life in his various clothes since his nappies on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.

‘Churchill’s “Wilderness Years” – the 1930s’ [Chapter 4] are also a wilderness for paintings, with the exception of the lost work by Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949), Breakfast at Chartwell (1935), which survives only as a study [Fig.4.3]. Clementine liked and Churchill admired Nicholson, who like Sickert taught him some of his techniques – so much so that he called him « Cher Maître » [84]. All this is well known – but Black has a very inspiring page on Eric Kennington (1888-1960, best remembered for his oil portrait of Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, KCB, DSO, MC, 1940) and his sculpture of 1933-1935, God of War [Fig.4.4], ‘which appears to have been inspired by an intriguing combination of Churchill and Mussolini’ [85]. Interestingly, some thirty-five years later, one member of the committee which had commissioned the Westminster Square statue of Churchill [1973, Plate 11] was reassured when seeing a late version in the studio of the sculptor, Ivor Roberts-Jones (1913-1996), as ‘On a previous visit he thought Churchill bore rather too close a resemblance to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’ [214]. Well – a defiant square jaw is a defiant square jaw: this may be the reason why Clementine so often intervened to try to ‘soften’ Churchill’s expression as captured by painters, sculptors and photographers.

Even during the war, when Churchill cultivated the image of the ferocious lion or fierce bulldog for perfectly understandable reasons [Chapter 5, ‘Finest Hour? Churchill and the Second World War, 1939-1945’], she was not convinced that this should be reflected in the portraits and photographs offered to the public. Interestingly, Black tells us how she rejected the famous picture taken by Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) in Ottawa in 1941 [Fig.5.10] on the grounds that Churchill’s furious look was (her words in 1958) ‘a manufactured expression and not a natural one’ [106]. Two bland wartime oil portraits are discussed and illustrated : Prime Minister Winston Churchill by Sir Frank Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) [Fig.5.11] and Profile for Victory by Alfred Egerton Cooper (1883-1974) [Fig.5.14]. The bronze bust by Clare Sheridan (1885-1970), his cousin, cast in 1942 [Fig.5.15] has far more force in it, and it is interesting to follow the evolution of her perception of him by comparing it with the Head which she produced in 1919 [Fig.3.2]. Sir Walter Reid (1879-1961) later said that he saw Churchill as a ‘weary giant’ [110] during the sittings for his bronze Head of the Prime Minister in 1942, commissioned by Sir Edwin Lutyens as President of the Royal Academy, and now at the Imperial War Museum – and indeed the proccupied look on his face perfectly reflects this year full of disasters until the resounding victory at El Alamein in November. Neither artificially angry nor benignly smiling, this very effective ‘head’ probably represents Churchill as most of his contemporaries remembered him. The largest part of the chapter, however is devoted to cartoons, not portraits or busts, with the warm wartime caricatures which have remained famous, by Illingworth, Low, Strube and Vicky.

 ‘Churchill as Cold War Leader of the Opposition and as Prime Minister, 1945-1955’ [Chapter 6] undoubtedly forms the richest chapter in the book – by the wealth of Nemon scuptures discussed and illustrated, by the extensive treatment and illustration of the Sutherland controversy, and by the rarity of some of the reproductions. I would argue that the book is worth acquiring if only for the outrageously irreverent, but warmly affectionate watercolour (unfortunately reproduced in black and white) by Henry Mayo Bateman, Winston Churchill à la Picasso c. 1949 [Fig.6.2], since it seems almost impossible to see it anywhere else. Curiously, in his commentary – which tells us more on Churchill and Picasso (well-trodden ground, that) than on Bateman and this particular drawing [131-132] – Black does not mention Bateman’s much earlier cartoon, ‘Winston Churchill smiles at the camera’ (1912). The relations between Churchill and Oscar Nemon (1906-1985) are also well-trodden ground, including their initial ‘encounter’ in the luxury Moroccan hotel, La Mamounia, in 1950, and Black reminds us that by the late 1960s, ‘his designs [for new statues] would invariably be approved by the Churchill family’ [208]. The strength of the chapter – as well as all the chapters which follow – lies in the wide range of Nemon works illustrated: sketches [Fig.6.6], busts [Fig.6.7], seated statues [Fig.6.10 & 6.11], standing statues [Fig.8.1], family scene [Fig.8.5]. For the discussion of the Sutherland controversy – also well documented elsewhere – the strong point is to be found in the wealth of preparatory sketches: no less than seven figures [6.12 to 6.18], with the magnificent colour reproduction of Sutherland’s Study of Churchill in Garter Robes (1954) [Plate 9]. What a contrast in artistic treatment and overall effect with its facing plate, the conventional and uninteresting Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill MP, Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition (1946) [Plate 8] – an official commission by the Speaker of the House of Commons to  Sir Oswald Birdley (1880-1952)! Two years after the Sutherland incident, an artist of the younger generation, Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), aroused Churchill’s anger over another ‘unflattering’ (in fact extremely good artistically) portrait [Plate 10] à la Sickert – a painter whom Spear ‘held in high regard’ [181]. So much so that Churchill refused to shake hands with him. And yet a new trend had evidently been set. Gone were the days when a deferential Chandor could accept Churchill’s interference with his representation of his real waistline.

Amittedly, in ‘Churchill’s Twilight Years, 1955-1965’ [Chapter 7], one continues to find ‘flattering’ images of the retired Prime Minister, like The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports by Bernard Hailstone (1910-1987) [Study (1955), Fig. 7.1], but things deteriorated again in 1958 when David McFall (1919-1988) showed his first designs [Fig.7.5 & 7.6] for the proposed statue of Churchill to be erected in his constituency of Woodford. The main objection was that ‘it depicted an old man’ whereas what was required was an image of Churchill ‘as he was in about 1944-1945’ [195], and Clementine was not satisfied with some features, including her husband’s ‘swollen’ lower lip [196]. It seems that McFall took all this criticism into account, and the final result [Fig.7.7] was unveiled in October 1959 to apparent general satisfaction, though the local population remained doubful. Churchill’s death did not lead only to hagiography, as shown in what Black calls ‘[Gerald] Scarfe's haunting portrait’, Sir Winston Churchill on his Last Day in the House of Commons, 27 July 1964 [Fig.7.10], a cartoon ‘reproduced on the front cover of Private Eye six days after the funeral, on 5 February 1965’, which ‘predictably caused outrage’ [203] – understandably when one sees it.

Black must have chosen his dates carefully for his next chapter, ‘Churchill’s Visual Legacy : Memorials, 1965-1999’, because in contrast with the Epilogue which follows, ‘Churchill for the Twenty-first Century’, the last third of the 20th century was in fact a period of renewed deference, with two great sculptors dominating it: Nemon, already mentioned, and Ivor Roberts-Jones (1913-1996), on whom Black co-wrote a book in 2013. To cut a long story short, Roberts-Jones finally obtained the commission for the statue of Churchill to be erected in Parliament Square in the teeth of fierce opposition led by Nemon – who more or less considered that it was his due and was supported by ‘Churchill’s widow, his daughter Sarah, and grandson Winston Churchill [born 1940]’ [213]. The bronze statue (3.6 metres, 1971-1973) benefits from both a poor colour illustration in situ [Plate 11] and a good photograph of a preliminary maquette (also bronze, 80 cm, 1970) [Fig.8.3].

Black’s discussion of Roberts-Jones’s Parliament Square statue provides him with a ready-made transition to his final chapter, entitled ‘Epilogue : Churchill for the Twenty-first Century’, since it starts with the highly publicised ‘anti-capitalist action’ (as seen by its supporters) or ‘vandalisation’ (for the shocked public) of May 2000, making the statue an objet détourné by sticking a ‘Mohican’ strip of green turf on the bare skull during a demonstration. Nothing new in that: Black mentions Strube in 1920 [225] – but at the time, of course, Churchill was not a national icon. The idea was taken up in 2003 by Bansky (born in 1975 – thirty years after the end of the war and ten years after Churchill’s death), who this time produced his objet détourné by copying the outlines of the famous Karsh photograph, boldly adding a yellowish ‘Mohican’, and calling the image Turf War [Plate 12]. Inevitably a real bronze statue of a ‘Mohican’ Churchill had to be produced – and one duly appeared in 2008, a bust by Marcus Harvey (born in 1963) simply called Punk Churchill [Fig.E.3]. Very cleverly, in fact, Harvey declared to the press that his ‘Mohican’ bust ‘underlines his [Churchill’s] reputation as someone who stood aside [from] and sometimes up to the establishment’ [228], as every Churchill supporter would agree. Harvey’s desecration of a national idol is in fact extremely well executed technically, as Churchill’s face is an excellent likeness – only ‘spoilt’ (if one rejects artistic licence) by the offensive addition. Black also discusses Ralph Steadman’s drawing of a Churchillian Cat (2010), a ‘lovable, sorrowful and rather vulnerable’ creature [231] – but it does not have the force of Harvey’s statement. His final comments are for a screen print by Sarah Haines (born 1979), Winston Churchill trying on a Fez (2010), which, he argues, ‘captures the charm of Churchill’s boyish smile’ [235]. If anything, her work shows that the debunking offensive which seemed to be the hallmark of the twenty-first century is possibly petering out.

The author curiously concludes his most attractive monograph with a well-known phrase by General Alan Brooke (as he was during the Second World War), the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (the head of all British, Imperial and Commonwealth armed forces) from December 1941, working at Churchill’s side for the rest of the war, who wrote in his diary: ‘Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent’ [235]. This attitude may have been present in many others of his contemporaries – but it is certainly not reflected in the corpus of works reproduced and discussed, since one would be hard put to it to find the image of a ‘despicable’ Churchill among them, with the exception of a German / Nazi caricature [Fig.5.1] which evidently cannot qualify as ‘British art’.

Unreservedly recommended, not only to librarians, but as a fine present for a Churchill buff, or for that matter anyone interested in the perception of ‘The Greatest Briton of All Time’ (BBC poll, 2002).


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