In the movie Operation Mincemeat, about the infamous 1943 British hoax to disguise the Allies’ invasion of Sicily during World War II, there’s a Churchill scene where the P.M. sits in a dark paneled chamber subtly adorned with landscape paintings—oils of green-on-green and muted gray skies, gold frames nicely aged. As the camera pans the room’s perimeter, it takes in these bygone status signifiers one after another, like those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons where a character is running indoors and the same vase of flowers on a round accent table keeps scrolling by.
This is not to diminish the classic green landscape painting, a genre not exclusive to the Brits (see: Barbizon School) but one more beloved in their country than anywhere else on the planet. It’s to emphasize Churchill’s intense love of painting as an act, his love of the natural world and the look of his native land.
Churchill didn’t think much about art before the age of 40, when he took up panting as a “pastime” to relieve anxiety and depression. But his pastime made him a connoisseur of landscapes, mostly where he lived and traveled in the home counties. He made more than 130 of his 500 extant paintings there, though some of his pictures depict scenes from Egypt, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia, and Rotterdam.
Given our recent reckoning with racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, Churchill has taken on more tarnish in this regard than he’d already acquired over the decades. What’s strange, though, is that his stature as a painter continues to rise. His paintings “are seeing a recent uptick in interest and prices, according to some dealers, auction houses and art historians.” His Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque fetched a high price this year when it was sold by Angelina Jolie, who’d received it from Brad Pitt before their breakup.
Stranger still is that Churchill’s rising stature as an artist is happening when painting as an art form means less and less to our culture—when the creation of objects of skill and beauty relegates you to being a “craftsperson,” a pejorative.
Pre-twentieth-century landscape painting had its last kick in the 1960s, with a proliferation of cheap, machine-made reproductions of museum landscapes—from the great masters to the Hudson River School—sold with fancy frames in dime stores like Woolworth’s. It’s not that people in the sixties had any great love of landscapes; it’s that a classic painting in a rococo frame still had status symbol value, and landscapes were benign enough for the wall behind the couch.
The 1960s were also the height of the paint-by-number oil kit, allowing anyone to be an “amateur painter,” a trend among upper-middle-class Americans in the 1950s, when abstract expressionists made the cover of Time.
Since that cultural trickle-down, non-abstract landscapes that aren’t the work of a major artist get sold as antiques and collectibles versus artwork. In fact, original oil painting of any kind has diminished in value to average people. Just look at those multi-million-dollar homes on HGTV where the “wall art” is nothing more than paper reproductions. A decade or so ago, there was a millennial decorating trend of creating galleries of self-consciously amateur oil paintings found at thrift shops. The subject didn’t matter; the novelty of oil paint was the sole unifying principle, like a wall of copper Jell-O molds.
The pictures Churchill painted were not like those somber estate landscapes from the Operation Mincemeat set décor. “I must say I like bright colours,” he wrote in Painting as a Pastime, his tiny 1932 book. “I agree with Ruskin in his denunciation of that school of painting who ‘eat slate-pencil and chalk.’ ”
You could attribute Churchill’s dislike of abstract art to conservatism, but when you see how the pursuit of technique opened up a new world for him, you might think otherwise: “So many colours 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 colour, rose, orange, green, or violet.”
C. S. Lewis wrote that we don’t simply want to gaze at beauty; we “want to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Churchill appears not to have had this concert with beauty before his tactile experience with a brush and paint: “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.”
Whatever your feelings about Churchill’s historical importance, as a leader during the war, he saw the underside of rot on a global scale. He used painting to keep at bay the depression he referred to as “the Black Dog”: “If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live,” he said. “I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”
Churchill’s landscape paintings present a calm, folk-art beauty, with warm harmonizing colors of comfort and reassurance. When I look at his View of Chartwell (his manor house in Kent) on the dustjacket of Painting as a Pastime, I can’t help thinking of the stark contrast to the landscapes I see most often in the news—black and gray images of carnage in Ukraine, the dead metal of Russian tanks. I can’t help but think that Churchill’s 1938 Chartwell was a mental refuge from the horrific terrain of the War to End All Wars—and perhaps preparation for the horrific terrain to come.
Ultimately, Churchill found liberation from the awfulness of the human world with painting’s fortuitous wormhole into our planet’s often overwhelming beauty: “I think the heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.”
I wonder if the reason landscapes mean so little to us now is that they are a product of something we would never want for ourselves—time spent deeply engaged in looking. We no longer have the patience or desire to look; we refuse to make that investment.
We have learned over the decades to look away from nature as a means of solace and escape. How interesting that now, as our natural world begins to slip away for good, we put value on the artistic work of someone like Churchill—a figure who had many very important things to look after, and yet he chose to look at what was there. §