Churchill: The Statesman as Artist
edited by David Cannadine
David Cannadine, the dean of living British historians, begins his new volume Churchill: The Statesman as Artist with a mild enough justification. The book assembles all of Churchill's writings and speeches on art, plus writings from contemporary critics about his own art, and as Cannadine writes, “These writings have never previously been gathered together, and that in itself is ample justification for the appearance of this volume.”
This is true; it was a lack, and it's now been rectified. In this slim volume, Cannadine presents for readers a dozen writings and speeches Churchill produced on various subjects more or less connected to art, and he's added to that half a dozen pieces by critics and pundits about the phenomenon of Churchill as artist.
It must be said that these aren't particularly edifying writings, largely for an obvious reason: it was Churchill's stature as a statesman that elevated his hobby of picture-painting to a subject of any kind of attention. There's no doubt that his hobby brought Churchill much pleasure and probably a good measure of badly-needed relief, but it does the same things for hundreds of people who never get books written about them. This is because they are art enthusiasts but not actual artists, and the fact that this is also true of Churchill requires a bit of special pleading from Cannadine: “Yet while it was – and is – easy to dismiss him as being culturally uninformed, intellectually incurious and aesthetically unsophisticated,” he writes. “Churchill also possessed remarkably potent mental machinery, albeit academically untrained, and for a public figure he was also unusually creative and imaginative.”
For a public figure, maybe, but it's to be hoped that we'd judge our artists by a higher standard than comparing them to what Boris Johnson can do in his spare time. Churchill's paintings are almost comically derivative daubs done with undeniably conviction but a conspicuous lack of talent. And this is borne out in Churchill's own comments, here reprinted, on art, artists, and artistic method. At every turn, readers find him talking about an idea of art rather than art itself, and most of it is maundering boilerplate. Take as one example his comments in an “Art and Politics” speech given at the Royal Academy banquet at Burlington House in London on May 1, 1927:
All human beings may be divided exhaustively into two classes – those whose work is their toil and those whose work is their joy. Fancy painting all those delightful scenes and graceful forms, tracing the subtle curves of beauty and marking justly where the flash of light falls among the shadow, and doing all that, not as an amusement, but as a solid profession – as a means of earning one's daily bread and paying one's income tax.
A speech about “art and artists,” given with a straight face, declaring that all good art is produced with indifference to pay – it's flatly ludicrous. The speech goes on, and you can picture Churchill making a dramatic peering gesture as he intoned: “Looking around these walls we see reflected from them hours of pleasure, hours of intense creative enjoyment, bottled sunshine, captured inspiration, perennial delight.”
If you go to Burlington House and look around the hall where Churchill made that comment (a guess on his part, since he wouldn't have been able to see the paintings while he had his reading glasses on), you will see painting after painting after painting done by working artists very much concerned with earning their daily bread, people for whom painting was not a weekend hobby.
Unfortunately, the half-dozen reprinted comments about Churchill's art are no better. Without exception, they swim in platitudes and smack of favor-currying. They certainly do nothing to address Churchill's place in the annals of art, mainly because Churchill doesn't have one – he was an ardent dabbler and nothing more.
Churchill: The Statesman as Artist is therefore a bibliographical entry more than it is an actual book. It's important as such, asa its editor notes: no previous volume has done this job as fully as this one does. Readers interested in Churchill as a painter will certainly want to read this volume. It's difficult to imagine anybody else making it all the way through even 150 pages of this stuff.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.