Bright green trees and the cool blues of a stream enliven a painting of medieval wood and stone homes in an idyllic French country town.
“His works were stunning, idealistic—the weight and texture of his brush strokes not unlike that of glazed candy—yet they still carried a serious, mature tone,” sophomore Andrea Wallace said.
Wallace wasn’t describing Monet or Renoir—she was describing the art of none other than Sir Winston Churchill.
“The Art of Winston Churchill,” on display in the Daughtrey Gallery through March 10, is a testament to Churchill the man and the cause for which he fought.
“Churchill claimed that excellence in painting is the same principle as fighting a battle or making a philosophic argument,” Hillsdale College President and Churchill Scholar Larry Arnn said. “He claimed that painting is more exciting than fighting a battle successfully. Remarkable, from a man who had fought many battles.”
Churchill began painting in 1915 after a series of political misfortunes left him in an obscure post. He only stopped painting in 1958, when he could no longer hold a paintbrush.
“Just to paint is great fun,” Churchill wrote in his essay, “Painting as Pastime.” “The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so—before you die.”
“I think this one of the most important paragraphs Churchill wrote,” Arnn said.
The exhibit is on loan from the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri. However, not all of the pieces travel with the exhibit.
“Six of the nine paintings belong to the Sandys family,” Soren Geiger ’13, a research assistant on the Churchill Project, said. “Duncan Sandys married Diana Churchill—Winston’s daughter—which is how they came by the paintings. Two of the family members reached out to us to ask if we’d like to host the exhibit.”
Previously, Geiger explained, the exhibit had been on display in California, aboard the Queen Mary, an ocean liner which ferried Allied troops to Europe during World War II
“Churchill was a great and important man,” Arnn said. “The college is completing and publishing his biography. He loved to paint and was successful at it. He thought the activity fun and also important. We can learn something about statesmanship, art, truth, and beauty from it. So says Churchill.”
Geiger said that one of those lessons about statesmanship to be found in Churchill’s painting is how an artist—like the skillful politician—must observe and translate minute details into a bigger picture.
Throughout much of his life, Churchill suffered visits from what he called “the black dog” of depression. Some historians have theorized that his artwork was one emotional release that helped him deal with his mental illness.
“Churchill’s art is unique, because it is Churchill doing the painting and his works accord with what one can learn in studying the man,” Professor of Art Sam Knecht said. “Even though he painted external subjects, the management of art elements in his work invite the sense that each painting is a revelation of his inner spirit.”
Despite often being considered an amateur by many professional art critics, Churchill’s art has been well received by Hillsdale’s campus. Particularly, students have praised his paintings for their colorfulness and distinctive impressionistic style.
Also on display are artifacts and memorabilia from Churchill’s life, including a top hat signed for an aide’s birthday by Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt; a cigar humidifier given to Churchill by the people of Cuba; and the Union Jack which hung on the stage while Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.
The artifacts and the paintings present the vision of Western culture which Churchill sought to defend against the threats posed by the twin tyrannies of Nazism and communism.
“When Civilization reigns, in any country,” Churchill said in a 1938 speech at the University of Bristol, “a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.”
At one point during the World War II, the director of Britain’s National Gallery suggested moving the gallery’s collection from London to safety in Canada. When he asked Churchill for permission, Churchill reportedly refused, and insisted on keeping the paintings in London to remind the British people why they fought.
“There is confidence and consistent good cheer,” Knecht said, speaking of the Churchill paintings on display specifically. “Taken together his paintings affirm that he was an optimist, despite the many burdens he bore. There is reassuring sunlight in abundance in his works. There is the beauty of locale well-observed. There is color as opposed to drab.”
At his funeral, Churchill had the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country” played. The opening lines are: “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, / Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.”
Churchill painted what he loved. He painted scenes of the French countryside and of his home at Chartwell in southeast England. “The Art of Winston Churchill” shows much about Churchill’s ambition—that is, to protect the character of Western civilization.