“Winston Churchill: Artist” by John Rothernstein, Director and Keeper of the Tate Gallery in London.
‘“To know a painter,” said Delacroix after a visit to Corot, “you must see him in his studio.” I was accorded this privilege in regard to Mr. Winston Churchill.The morning I arrived at Chartwell, his country house in Kent, no car stood in front of the house, and, from the hall no sound was heard. Upon a table reposed a solitary object made familiar by innumerable photographs: a gray, wide-brimmed painting hat. I was contemplating this celebrated item with respect, as though it were the hat of a king, sent to represent him on some ceremonial occasion, when I heard soft padding steps approach, and presently, dressed in his sky-blue siren suit and shod in soft black slippers on which his initials were worked in gold, there appeared Mr. Churchilll benignly welcoming.
At large parties, the noise, the movement and the emanations of a number of personalities blur our impressions; it now seemed to me as we walked about the house that I was seeing my host for the first time. At such gatherings I had never sufficiently noted the fine wood-ash whiteness of his skin, the openness of his light blue eyes— how quick to smile at the laughable yet how quick, too, to steady and to harden in the contemplation of serious matters. Nor had I noticed how uniquely at ease he was in the world, this man dressed for convenience and comfort.
Before lunch we briefly visited his studio, a long narrow room brightly lit by high windows on one side and at the far end. Upon a long narrow table that stood lengthwise in the room were tidily arranged rows of clean paint tubes,, beside this table was a great terrestrial globe, a present, he told me, from the American Army. Except for this globe, there was throughout the house a conspicuous absence of any display of trophies, historic battle orders and the like. The suggestion was mooted not long since that Chartwell should be preserved as a museum: if it were left in its present state, there would be little to remind the visitor of the fabulous career of its former owner; if it were filled with appropriate exhibits it would give a wholly false impression of his manner of living.
During our first visit to his studio, Mr. Churchill told me that he would be grateful for any criticism of his painting I might care to make. “Speak, I pray, with absolute frankness,” he said as we went into lunch. As soon as we sat down, he began to speak of Walter Sickert. “He came to stay here and in a fortnight he imparted to me all his considered wisdom about painting. He had a room specially darkened to work in, but I wasn’t an apt pupil, for I rejoice in the highest lights and the brightest colours.” Mr. Churchill spoke with appreciation of Sickert’s knowledge of music halls, and he sang a nineteenth-century ballad he had learned from him, not just a line or two, but right through to the end. “I think the person who taught me most about painting,” he said, “was William Nicholson. I noticed you looking, I thought with admiration, at those drawings upstairs he made of my beloved cat.”’
Excerpt from “The Best of Flair,” edited by Fleur Cowles. Copyright (c) 2014 and reprinted by permission of Rizzoli New York.