Artists Who Started Late in Life: Winston Churchill
Art can be therapy.
There is time for everything you deem important. I remember once my grown daughter asked me how I had money for photographs, camera, film, and developing, when they were children, knowing that our income was so tight. I told her you make money for what’s important: you budget for what’s vital to you. It’s the same with time. If art isn’t of importance, you won’t ever find the time for it. That’s the way it is.
For this artist, it is amazing that he found time for so many things and art too. But art became an important tool to help him deal with the bouts of depression he suffered all his life. Art can be very therapeutic. This is the story of Winston Churchill as an artist.
Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.— Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (30 November 1874-24 January 1965)
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. He did a lot of things in his life: Officer in the British Army, historian, writer, journalist, Prime Minister, statesman and artist. He won the Nobel Prize in literature and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States. However, the artist part of the list of his accomplishments may surprise many people. He is remembered for a lot of things but artist isn’t usually at the top of that list. Most people don’t even know he was an artist too. Here is the story.
Did you know Winston Churchill was a painter before now?
A premie baby
He was born two months premature, into an aristocratic family in Oxfordshire, Great Britian. He was in a hurry to greet the world. From the age of two to six, Churchill lived in Dublin, where his father was private secretary to his grandfather, the Viceroy. This gave him occasion to see military parades and develop a fascination with military matters.
You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.— Winston Churchill
Teased for his lisp and red hair.
The boy had a lateral lisp that continued throughout his life and a stutter that some described as severe and astonishing. This had to have contributed to his troubles in school. He was sent to three independent schools and his academic record was generally poor, for which he was punished. He was nicknamed Copperknob for his red hair color. Though he did poorly in his schoolwork, he loved literature and the English language. When his father died at the age of 45, he became convinced that he too would die young and decided he had better make his mark in the world as soon as possible. I think all these things added to the bouts with depression he faced and learned to deal with aided by art.
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.— Winston Churchill
Military Officer and Journalist
After school he applied to attend the Royal Military College and had to take the entrance exam three times before passing. He worked hard and managed to graduate 8th in a class of 150. He became an officer in the cavalry but still felt he didn’t have enough income to support a life style equal to other officers. This is one of the reasons he took an interest as a war correspondent. His writing brought him public attention and earned a significant additional income for him. He not only wrote for the several London papers but also books about the campaigns that he was in. While in the Cuban War for Independence, he acquired a taste for Havana cigars, which he smoked the rest of his life. During this time he wrote several books including one about his early life. Most of the accurate information about his life comes from these books. He continued writing for the journalistic papers during the several wars and campaigns Great Britain was involved in. He also continued writing books, including a two-volume biography of his father that received public acclaim.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to out duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”— Winston Churchill
Serving as Prime Minister during the Second World War was hard on his health, as it was on many people. He suffered a mild heart attack in 1941 and even a mild stroke later in 1949. Still he pushed himself to maintain an active public life almost till his death.He married and had 4 children, one of which died very young. There is so much more to put into his story. There is so much to say about these years that I couldn’t possibly find space to include it all so I will just jump into the artistic endeavors.
Learning to paint in his late 30's
The most interesting thing for me was that in-between his public offices and military career or writing for newspapers, he painted. As he describes it in his autobiography, he just wasn’t the type to sit and do nothing. So the idea struck him in his late 30s that he had always wanted to learn how to paint and had, until then, never had the time for it. So he sent his butler to the store to buy all the latest equipment for this endeavor. (That must be nice, to send your butler to the store.) When he returned, he set up the easel, paints and brushes out in the garden for Churchill to paint. Churchill looked around at the beautiful English country garden: flowers, pond, trees. He picked up a brush and looked down at the paints. Where to begin? He remembered from school that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, so he squeezed out these colors on his pallet. There before him was a perfect, pristine, white canvas waiting to receive the master’s touch.
I don't know what I'm doing.
And that’s when it hit him. He didn’t know what he was doing. Where are you supposed to begin anyway? What if he ruined it? What if people laughed? What if he stinks at this? And so he was paralyzed, standing there unable to do anything for quite some time.
My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.— Winston Churchill
Elderly lady to help
As the story goes, people then began arriving for tea. Lady Churchill was entertaining the guests, when one of them spied Churchill out in the garden and went out to see. She waddled up to him and asked what he was doing. Not wanting the interruption and definitely not wanting anyone to see what he was doing, he grumbled, “Nothing.” At this point she saw that indeed he was doing nothing, so she laughed. It’s probably not wise to laugh at Sir Winston Churchill, but she did. She saw that he was stuck so she snatched the brush out of his hand. He was stunned. Then she looked down at the three colors squeezed out neatly on his pallet and she stirred them together. As any artist knows, when you mix red, yellow and blue together, you get a brown goopy mud. He couldn’t believe what she was doing to his paints. Then she looked up at his canvas and with her mud she made three swipes at his perfect white canvas, put the brush back into his hand and waddled back toward the house. He was dumbfounded.
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.— Winston Churchill
A distinct improvement
In his autobiography he wrote that if he had his wits about him, he would have run after her, tackled her to the ground and beat her up about the head and shoulders. But as he watched the brown goop dripping down his pristine white canvas, he realized she had done him a tremendous favor. Anything he painted now would be a distinct improvement.
The Power of the White
You see, she had destroyed the Power of the White. We artists know that the first mark is the hardest because the Power of the White is so strong. It is so perfect that you begin to doubt yourself, asking who do I think I am. You are afraid to make the mark but after you do, after you destroy the Power of the White, drawing anything becomes easier. Many of us draw a line or a swipe even if it is something to be erased later, just to mar the surface and destroy that White.
Go, destroy the White!
When I taught beginners I would come with the drawings already begun so that we could jump right into painting. Afterward my encouraged beginners would go out and buy all the materials on my list and take them home ready to paint for themselves and suddenly feel ill equipped. They don’t realize it is the Power of the White, not lack of confidence they need to overcome. So I started telling this Winston Churchill story on the first day of classes so people would know what to expect when they got home with their white paper.
Writers have this problem too.
The Power of the White is a similar phenomenon that writers go through seeing the perfect white paper with nothing written on it. It is imposing and blaring, sometimes paralyzing. You have to be bold, be brave and make your mark even if you don’t want the first line, the first sentence to remain in the end.
I love this story because Churchill explains better than I have ever heard before the problem with beginning as an artist. It isn’t the skill, talent or even confidence, that holds us back but an obscure power we give to perfect white things. Go, therefore, and destroy the White wherever you find it, my friend.
A haven and escape.
Churchill did well as an artist mostly as a hobby and sometimes selling his work. He took great pleasure in his painting. Art became a haven and a place to overcome his spells of depression, from which he suffered all his life. He is best known for his Impressionist scenes of landscape, which he painted while on holiday in France, Egypt, or Morocco. Many are in private collections and museums today.