Winston Churchill’s passion for painting in France

Samantha David talks to author Paul Rafferty on his new book about Winston Churchill's lesser-known passion for painting

4 January 2021
By Samantha David

Paul Rafferty is a painter, but his latest book does not contain any of his work. “It just didn’t seem relevant, somehow,” he says. Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera is something of an odyssey, walking in a giant’s footsteps in order to discover a lesser-known side of arguably one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen.

“I found a watercolour in an antique bookshop in California signed by Winston Churchill, which set me off. That picture turned out to be a fake; he never used watercolours. But because I lived in the area where he painted some of his landscapes, I gradually just started finding the locations. I’m very visual; I see his paintings and often I just know immediately where they were painted. Other times, I have to track the locations down.

“I sometimes even find places on Google Earth... but then if the locations are on private property, I have to be diplomatic and political to get access and take photographs of the scenes he painted, standing in the exact same spot where he set up his easel.”

The paintings in the book are mostly by Churchill although there are one or two by other artists who painted the same scenes. “Sometimes I was able to authenticate works, and in one case I even managed to find a photograph of Churchill painting a missing painting of the River Sorgue at Fontaine de Vaucluse.”

The book also looks at Churchill’s artistic influences and style. His paintings are now worth from £150,000 to £1,800,000 each, although lots of people are unaware of his passion for art. Whether or not the price is due to the painter’s fame as a politician is beside the point to Paul.

“Art is always subjective, and I personally like them. Churchill’s painting is bold and decisive, relaxed and poised. They are straightforward and clear. His works show someone very concerned with colour. If he saw a red roof, he painted it red. So I genuinely look at it from a painter’s eye. I know how difficult it is to do. He painted beautiful views, things he found ‘paintatious’ – he saw something lovely, pitched up there and painted it.”

One of Paul’s favourite stories is about Churchill discussing the war with US President Franklin D Roosevelt in Casablanca. “He insisted they took a picnic to the Atlas Mountains at sunset to see the colours of the sky. After Roosevelt had gone, Churchill stayed and painted a picture of it, which he subsequently gave to the President as a keepsake. It was the only painting he did during the Second World War, and it now belongs to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.”

Winston Churchill started painting in 1915, at the age of 40, and was prolific. He painted at least 500 canvasses in his lifetime, maybe as many as 600. Discoveries are scrupulously checked and authenticated by the Churchill Paintings Group. “But I have photos of Churchill painting canvasses which have disappeared, so who knows if they will turn up.”

Paul says Churchill painted purely for himself. “He was very modest about his art, and was always very happy to engage with painters, talk to them and get their feedback and guidance. He didn’t sell his work, he framed most of his paintings and put them on the walls so he could look at them.”

What comes out of the book is Churchill’s real love for France. He painted in locations all over the country; in St-Jeande- Luz, Normandy, Fontaine, Vaucluse. He loved French food, the classic ‘menu du jour’, spring onions.

He loved beautiful things, beautiful food, good wines... and, of course, France’s beautiful landscapes.

Paul Rafferty exhibits every two years in the Portland Gallery in London. He also has a small gallery in St-Paul-de-Vence. See www.paulrafferty.art for more

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