Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




The Statesman as Artist


David Cannadine


London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018

Hardcover. xiv+172 pages. ISBN 978-1472945211. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen





‘Churchill was not a great artist, but he was a very accomplished painter’ [27]


Professor Cannadine’s interest in Churchill is well known, as testified by his many publications on the great statesman.(1) Here, however, he departs from his strict historical and political approach to offer what is surprisingly the first book to collect all of Churchill’s writings on art from 1912 to 1954 as well as judgements on his art by outsiders from 1950 to 1970. In addition the book has two eight-page sections of full-colour reproductions, providing a selection of 32 of Churchill’s paintings from 1915 to 1959.


‘Churchill did not begin painting until his fortieth year’, Cannadine reminds us in his 55-page Introduction [10]. It is therefore obvious that he was not what is conventionally known as a born artist. To make things worse, the author also reminds us, he does not seem to have been in the least interested in the pictorial arts in his youth, unlike some of his ancestors. Yet he may have had somehow unknowingly inherited some of their tastes. Another angle of attack to explain his evolution is his early gifts for describing a scene in writing: ‘for Churchill, the visual was as important as the verbal’, the author convincingly argues, often with references to Professor Rose’s insistence on Churchill’s penchant for theatricality, including the silent movies.(2)

The particular circumstances of Churchill’s first steps with a brush – his evident depressive mood after the Dardanelles fiasco and his eviction (undeserved in his eyes) from the Admiralty in May 1915 – allow Cannadine to remind us that ‘just as many soldiers [Field-Marshal Alexander and General Eisenhower foremost among them] painted, so many depressives sought solace in creativity’ [e.g. among statesmen King Frederick William I of Prussia or President George W. Bush ‘as a way of coming to terms with his responsibility for the casualties in the Iraq War’] [11]. Thus, ‘from the late 1910s to the late 1950s, painting was one of the most successful stratagems that Churchill devised for banishing depression’ [11] – and thus also his love for Mediterranean scenes in the wide sense, ‘those warm, brightly-lit landscapes which banished depression rather than expressed it’ [13]. Many famous artists of his time, especially after the slaughter of 1914-1918, of course produced very gloomy pictures – which may be one of the reasons why he shunned their work, as ‘he was at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to modern abstract art as it developed during his lifetime in the hands of such innovative masters as Chagall or Picasso’ [5], which did not prevent him from denouncing the Nazi attacks against Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) from 1937 in the name of ‘freedom of artistic expression’ [26]. Cannadine might have added that this was only a reflection of his literary tastes: he had no time for the novels of his contemporaries of the Bloomsbury group, still less for those of James Joyce. As in literature, he took his models from the past: ‘He was especially appreciative of Turner, the Impressionists and Matisse, and shared their fascination with the effect of light on landscape and water’ [19]. And if ‘he continued to urge the need to “hold a middle course between tradition and innovation” ’ to his fellow Royal Academicians into the 1950s [34], he himself always shied away from innovation.

There was a price to pay, of course. Whereas people with very conservative tastes and probably a philistine approach to art like Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were full of admiration (‘You can at least tell what he painted, and that is more than you can say about many of these modern painters’, Harry Truman once exclaimed [38]), the art world was not entirely convinced of Churchill’s talents. Here, Cannadine introduces us to the thorny question of the complex amalgamation between Churchill as politician and Churchill as painter – and this amalgamation was used by others for their own purposes. One extreme example is the series of exhibitions of his work in the United States following the inaugural one in Kansas City, a place specially associated with Eisenhower, who persuaded the local City Gallery to mount a display of thirty of Churchill’s pictures in 1958. One could have doubts about the real motives behind the whole enterprise, in Kansas City as well as in other cities which later hosted the show: they were certainly not all artistic. The Smithsonian in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York did not have any reservations – or at least they did not prevail. Cannadine continues:

The art museums in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago all refused, on the grounds that Churchill’s works were of insufficient merit or originality; but in Chicago there was a huge public outcry, and the director of the Art Institute resigned soon after [38].

Now who can say that these gallery directors were not right in arguing that the same pictures signed by an unknown beginner would have been rejected out of hand? And who can deny that their more prudent colleagues, fearing for their jobs or their careers, probably preferred to lie low rather than confront the unsophisticated general public? And finally (as well as conversely) who can insist that pictures exhibited in a public gallery have to meet élitist standards – thus in fact generally excluding the poorly-educated public which nevertheless maintains them with its taxes? We learn that ‘today, his paintings may also be found hanging in museums and private collections around the world, from Buckingham Palace to Brunei’ [43] – but what does that prove? Are the Royal Family and the Sultans of Brunei famed for their refined artistic taste?

All these difficult questions arose as soon as Churchill ceased to exhibit his work under a pseudonym. Why he did so is alas probably due to human frailty in the form of vanity – Churchill of course craved recognition all his life, in any form. All his talk of ‘daubs’ and being ‘a weekend and holiday amateur’ is of course a fig leaf to conceal his notorious false modesty.

So when Cannadine suggests that, in total contrast with his militant and/or lucrative writing, ‘Churchill painted primarily for therapy, pleasure and relaxation’ [17], this is only partly (though largely) true: one should arguably add ‘and recognition’ – and increasingly so after 1945. Curiously, whereas the Introduction has excellent pages on the link between Gallipoli and Churchill’s adoption of his new hobby in 1915, with a likely wish for recognition of his artistic talents by his family and close friends, it does not really examine the possible craving for public applause of his dimension as a great painter as compensation for his excruciating 1945 political defeat.


The Introduction is followed by two distinct Parts. Part One, ‘Churchill on Art’, reprints twelve of his essays, only one of which – but the most important – is really well known: Painting as a Pastime. We have here [Text 10] the final (1948) version of what started as ‘two articles which appeared in the Strand magazine, published in December 1921 and January 1922’ [18]. Painting as a Pastime is of course required reading for anyone interested in Churchill as painter, and no doubt many readers of Churchill: The Statesman as Artist will already be familiar with it.

The other eleven, in contrast, are not so easy to find, starting with his two speeches to the Royal Academy annual banquets as First Lord of the Admiralty, ‘Not a very amiable topic’ (1912) [Text 1]  and ‘The naval greatness of Britain’ (1913) [Text 2]  – in which he had nothing to say about painting, except that modern battleships did not provide aesthetically pleasing subjects for the artist, unlike the ancient ‘ships of the line’ [63]. Churchill was again invited to speak at the Royal Academy annual banquets in the inter-war years.

In 1919, ‘Art in all its forms’ being his theme [Text 3], he praised ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent, ‘with all its brilliant genius and painful significance’ [68] – a banal, non-committal comment if ever there was one. In 1927, he spoke of ‘Art and politics’ [Text 4]  with a sub-text which his audience may or may not have perceived, since he was now one of them, having exhibited in Paris under a pseudonym in his amateur capacity. The style and vocabulary are strongly reminiscent of his 1921-1922 Strand articles, with the implied analogy between battling with the canvas and the political struggle. The 1932 speech was devoted to ‘Political painters’ [Text 5], and for the first time he explicitly referred to his hobby ‘as a humble amateur’ [73] – but in practice he only attacked the leading figures of the National Government in a witty depiction of their political action as (failed) artistic efforts. His last pre-war Royal Academy banquet speech, ‘We ought indeed to cherish the arts’ [Text 9], on 30 April 1938 – six weeks after the Anschluss – explicitly referred to the freedom of the artist, who ‘in another country’ would be submitted to ‘grievous penalties […] if he should be suspected of preferring vermillion to madder brown’ [92], concluding that ‘Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due’ [94].

Between his 1932 and 1938 speeches at the the Royal Academy annual banquets, he wrote two articles in the Daily Mail on its exhibitions. The first (7 May 1932) was entitled ‘The Academy reveals Britain’s brave gaiety’ [Text 6] and it is notable for its last lines, which associate Britain’s geographic insularity with its artistic insularity (Churchill could not ignore the grim paintings of Otto Dix and his friends):

My other prevailing impression is the gaiety and love of colour which characterise our art at the present time. We do not have much sunshine in our island, but the English people in every walk of life delight in flowers and gardens, and greet our grey skies with more flowers than any other people grow. This year’s Royal Academy reflects with remarkable, if unconscious, truth this English and island taste [82].

The second (16 May 1934), explaining why ‘This year’s Royal Academy is exhilarating’ [Text 7], is no doubt the most interesting of all the texts reprinted in Part One. The reason is that for once, Churchill takes the plunge and does not hesitate to give good or bad marks to the works on display and their authors. Not unexpectedly, he has strong reservations over Stanley Spencer (one may wonder what he thought of Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife, or The Leg of Mutton of 1937) and Dame Laura Knight while he praises his friends and mentors, Sir John Lavery and William Sickert. Did Churchill know – he probably did – that Robert Bevan (1865-1925), had been a pupil of Sickert’s? In any case, he ranks his Horse Sale at the Barbican (1914) as ‘among the illustrations of the exhibition’ [88] (it had just been presented to the nation by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest).

And in 1937, when he was invited to give a short speech on the occasion of the opening of the ‘ “Sea power” in art’ exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries [Text 8], he gave a strongly patriotic encomium of the Royal Navy as the protector of British civil and artistic liberties, sardonically alluding to a country ‘across the North Sea or German Ocean’ in which the unfortunate artist had ‘only the alternative of being hung if your picture were accepted or hanged if it were rejected’ [90].

Part One ends with two short speeches given to the Royal Academy annual banquets after the war. Sadly, the first one, ‘Between tradition and innovation’ (1953) [Text 11] is little more than a rehash of his 1938 address, with exactly the same theme and arguments: ‘The function of such an institution as the Royal Academy is to hold a middle course between tradition and innovation’ [121] – verbatim from the 1938 text [93], with five absolutely identical sentences following. Ditto for ‘On the whole I find myself on the side of the disciplinarians’ and the two sentences which follow [122]: not a word is different from the 1938 version [92]. In the second, ‘A new elevation of the mind’ (1954) [Text 12], Churchill only really speaks of art in his last few sentences, implicitly transposing the old saying, ‘Music soothes the soul’, to suggest that, far from being a frivolous activity when nuclear weapons threaten general annihilation, ‘the arts have a noble and vital part to play’ [125]. This of course reflected his constant preoccupation at the time – trying to arrange a summit to stop the nuclear race.


Part Two, ‘On Churchill’s art’, also presents its texts in chronological order, starting with Eric Newton’s very favourable review of Painting as a Pastime in the New York Times (12 February 1950), ‘Painting a picture is like fighting a battle’ [Text 1]. Newton pays him what is possibly the ultimate tribute to an artist: ‘No man who was not in furious earnest could paint as competently as this’ [132]. This hard-to-find article is followed by two well-known chapters taken from widely available collections from the 1950s. The first, ‘Unity, vitality, infinity and repose’, by Thomas Bodkin [Text 2], comes from Charles Eade’s Churchill by his Contemporaries (1953) and in its opening paragraphs, it aptly posits what remains the central question in any aesthetic assesment of his paintings’ intrinsic value:

The critic must be prejudiced, one way or another, by the knowledge that the man who produced these pictures has amply proved himself to be the possessor of genius as a statesman, as a historian and as an orator […]

It is all very well to ask the critic: what would you think of his pictures if you came suddenly upon a large number of them, unsigned and untitled, for the first time in a public exhibition? [133]

Professor Bodkin (1887-1961), former Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (1927-1935) and founding Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham (1935-1952) was of course no lightweight in the art world – and his finely balanced final judgement is all the more valuable: ‘Sir Winston should be described comprehensively as an artist. No one, least of all himself, wishes to describe him as a Master’ [138].

Likewise, Sir John Rothenstein (1901-1992), the author of the next piece, ‘Gay, brilliantly coloured canvasses’ [Text 3], reprinted from Winston Spencer Churchill : Servant of the Crown and Commonwealth, edited by Sir James Marchant in 1954 to celebrate Churchill’s eightieth birthday, was Director and Keeper of the Tate Gallery at the time of writing, and his views cannot be lightly dismissed:

The high peaks of his achievement, in my opinion, are ‘The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell’ (1948), ‘The Loup River Québec [sic(3)]’ (1947), ‘Chartwell under Snow’ (1947) and ‘Cannes Harbour, Evening’ (1923). These express, with insight and candour, his exultant enjoyment of living [144].

In contrast to these two reprinted book chapters, Text 4, ‘Long may he thrive!’ (the last words of the piece) was never published as such, but only as a Foreword by Augustus John to the Royal Academy catalogue for the 1959 Churchill exhibition. Interestingly, Augustus John tells us that when he first saw Churchill’s early pictures at John Lavery’s studio he more or less dismissed them as amateurish in the worst meaning of the word – only to realise much later ‘how, by disregarding the wiseacres and the lures of Fashion, he has, as if by pure instinct, put into practice what surely must be the basic principle of the Masters: “to thine own self be true…” ’ [146].

The same exhibition forms the subject of another piece by Professor Bodkin – a review in the Birmingham Post, ‘A recognisable individuality’ (11 March 1959) [Text 5]. Bodkin frankly concedes that ‘his great gifts for the practice of pictorial art would not seem by themselves alone to have justified that decision’(4) – but he goes on to correct this by arguing that ‘it would be a great mistake to regard Sir Winston’s pictures as works which fail to reach a high professional standard’ [149], and like Rothenstein in 1954, he gives us his list of favourites: ‘Black Swans at Chartwell’, ‘Snow at Chartwell’, ‘The Goldfish Pool’ and ‘Chartwell Kitchen Garden’ – each of course reflecting ‘a theme after its painter’s heart’: his profound love for Chartwell in ‘the fair countryside of Kent’ [153].

The concluding section of Part Two, ‘A great presiding presence’ [Text 6] is another piece by Sir John Rothenstein – a passage from his 1970 autobiography in which he reminisces about Churchill, from his first visit to Chartwell in February 1949 to his funeral, ‘a superbly contrived public work of art, dignified, splendid, tender, ingenious’ [165]. Most interestingly, on two different occasions Rothenstein mentions Churchill’s anger at the spurious story attributing to him offensive words towards Picasso – Sir John makes it obvious that there was not the slightest foundation for that canard. But the most valuable aspect of the passage is undoubtedly Rothenstein’s account of the protracted but good-humoured discussions and negotiations between Churchill and the Tate in 1955 about what picture(s) should be acquired by the gallery: eventually, Churchill donated The Loup River, Alpes Maritimes (1930) – ‘in my opinion one of his best’, Rothenstein writes [163].

It is a pity that, probably due to copyright problems, the colour plates do not include this Loup River, Alpes Maritimes (1930). Neither do they illustrate many of the preferred canvasses by Bodkin and Rothenstein, in particular The Goldfish Pond at Chartwell. That said, we do have a wide selection (with short but useful commentaries) of Churchill’s best production, from his first attempts in 1915 (portraits of his sister-in-law and Lavery, and self-portrait) and 1916 (Plug Street’), to his many vivid depictions of Blenheim and Chartwell in the 1920s, followed by his colourful landscapes of the French Riviera and Morocco in the 1930s – a favourite theme resumed and expanded in the 1950s.(5)

On the other hand, Plates 5-6-7 (and possibly others) are not to be seen on Coombs’ classic compendium(6) – unless I am mistaken. Churchill’s ‘canon’ of writings now seems to be fairly established – but that of his innumerable paintings (over 500 at the latest count) is in constant need of revision, or so it seems.


Professor Cannadine’s book will play no small part in the process. Needless to say that his contribution to knowledge and appreciation of the Greatest Briton of all time(7) is most welcome – and that all major Municipal and University libraries should make it available to their readers. Unreservedly recommended.


(1) His articles and book chapters on Churchill are too numerous to be listed here. One of his collections comprising substantial Churchill material was reviewed in Cercles.


(2) Rose, Jonathan. The Literary Churchill : Author, Reader, Actor. Yale University Press, 2014. See review.


(3) The Loup is of course a river in the South of France.


(4) That is, the decision to create him an Honorary Academician Extraordinary.


(5) Erroneously, the name of the owners of the villa, La Pausa, where he painted so many of his French Riviera pictures and the still-life reproduced on Plate 31 is spelt as ‘Reeves’ in the caption – it should in fact be Reves (also on p.37 and in the Index).


(6) Coombs, David. Churchill : His Paintings – A Catalogue. Foreword by Lady Spencer-Churchill. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1967 (Second Edition. Coombs, David & Churchill, Minnie. Winston Churchill : The Artist and His Paintings. London: Chaucer Press, 2003. American Edition: Sir Winston Churchill’s Life through his Paintings. Foreword by Mary Soames. Delray Beach (Florida): Levenger Press, 2003).


(7) See BBC poll: ‘Churchill voted greatest Briton’. Sunday 24 November 2002.




Cercles © 2018

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.