Winston Churchill is best known for his political, military, and literary accomplishments, but in his free time he took up the art of painting and developed quite a proficiency.
View of Chartwell (his country estate)
Churchill started painting in 1915 after being removed as First Lord of the Admiralty as a result of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and enjoyed the pursuit for the rest of his life until his passing in 1965.
In 1922 he wrote a short essay on the subject called Painting as a Pastime. In his typical vigorous writing style, he recommends taking up hobbies as an antidote to stress:
Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale. Some advise exercise, and others, repose. Some counsel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety. No doubt all of these may play their part according to the individual temperament, but the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change.
Change is the master key. […] A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat […] It is no use saying to the tired “mental muscles” “I will give you a good rest,” “I will go for a long walk,” or “I will lie down and think of nothing.” The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring, it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded."
The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man. To be really happy and safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real. It is no use starting late in life to say: “I will take an interest in this or that.” Such an attempt only aggravates the strain of mental effort."
But which hobby to cultivate? Churchill goes through several options, and writes this beautiful passage about the wonders of reading books:
The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library […] Peer into [books]. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.
Eventually though, he advises against reading as a sole hobby since it is too close to “brain work” to offer remedy for those stressed out by it. Instead, he recommends painting.
I consider myself very lucky that late in life I have been able to develop this new taste and pastime. Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time, and I shall venture in the pages that follow to express the gratitude I feel. Painting is a companion with whom one may hope to walk a great part of life’s journey.
Painting is a friend who makes no undue demands, excites to no exhausting pursuits, keeps faithful pace even with feeble steps, and holds her canvas as a screen between us and the envious eyes of Time or the surly advance of Decrepitude.
Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end of the day.
Churchill painting in Miami Beach, Florida
He describes how painting awakened in him a deep appreciation for nature and nature’s details.
[Nature’s] fields, its mountains, its rivers, its bridges, its trees, its flowers, its atmosphere - all require and repay attentive observation from a special point of view. One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colors on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat; such lovely lights gilding or silvering surface or outline, all tinted exquisitely with pale color, rose orange, green or violet.
I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, the dreamy, purple shades of mountains, the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim, pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, “What a lot of people.”
The whole world is open with all its treasures. The simplest objects have their beauty. Every garden presents innumerable fascinating problems. Every land, every parish has its own tale to tell. And there are many lands differing from each other in countless ways, and each presenting delicious variants of color, light, form, and definition.
Obviously then, armed with a paint box, one cannot be bored, one cannot be left at a loose end, one cannot have “several days on one’s hands.” Good gracious! what there is to admire and how little time there is to see it in! For the first time one begins to envy Methuselah.
View on the River Var, 1935
Churchill’s most famous painting is titled “Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque,” and is the only painting he completed during World War II. In January 1943 he met with Franklin Roosevelt at Casablanca for an Allied summit at which they jointly decided on the policy of accepting nothing other than “unconditional surrender” of the Axis. After the summit he told Roosevelt “You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech. Let us spend two days there. I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”
From the balcony of their hotel, Churchill painted this view of the largest mosque in Marrakesh, with the Atlas Mountains rising behind it.
He gifted the painting to Roosevelt as a birthday present. The painting changed hands several times, and was hidden in a closet for a number of years before being rediscovered by an art dealer, who sold it to - of all people - Brad Pitt, who gifted it to his then-wife Angelina Jolie. She recently sold the painting in March 2021. It was expected to fetch about $2 million at a Christie’s auction and instead sold for an astonishing $11.5 million to an unknown buyer.
We’d love to hear from our readers about what hobbies bring you enjoyment and “relief, repose, refreshment.” Leave a comment or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We leave you with these parting thoughts from Churchill:
Lastly, let me say a word on painting as a spur to travel. There is really nothing like it. Every day and all day is provided with its expedition and its occupation - cheap, attainable, innocent, absorbing, recuperative.
The vain racket of the tourist gives way to the calm enjoyment of the philosopher, intensified by an enthralling sense of action and endeavor. Every country where the sun shines and every district in it has a theme of its own. The lights, the atmosphere, the aspect, the spirit, are all different; but each has its native charm. Even if you are only a poor painter you can feel the influence of the scene, guiding your brush, selecting the tubes you squeeze on to the palette. Even if you cannot portray it as you see it, you feel it, you know it, and you admire it forever.
[A friend] advised me to visit Avignon on account of its wonderful light, and certainly there is no more delightful center for a would-be painter’s activities; then Egypt, fierce and brilliant, presenting in infinite variety the single triplex them of the Nile, the desert, and the sun; or Palestine, a land of rare beauty - the beauty of the turquoise and the opal. And what of India? Who has ever interpreted its lurid splendors?
But after all, if only the sun will shine, one does not need to go beyond one’s own country. There is nothing more intense than the burnished steel and gold of a Highland stream; and at the beginning and close of almost every day the Thames displays to the citizens of London glories and delights which one must travel far to rival.