Painting for Uncle Winston
A nephew of Sir Winston Churchill’s and an artist specializing in murals, JOHN SPENCER CHURCHILL was commissioned by his uncle to paint a mural commemorative of the Duke of Marlborough in the summer home at Chartwell. It was an exuding undertaking and one which forms part of Mr. Churchill’s new volume of reminiscences, A CHURCHILL CANVAS, to be published this month by Little, Brown.
AT THE end of 1933, my uncle, Winston Churchill, asked me to decorate his loggia in the garden at Chartwell.
My arrival at the house with paints, brushes, and blue boiler suit was quite an event, for I came m a new capacity, as an artist. Very generously, my uncle immediately threw open his studio and offered me easels, canvases, and anything else I needed. For my part, I was tilled with apprehension and despondency when I reflected that I was undertaking my first major work at the age of twenty-four. My artist friend and contemporary, Rex Whistler, had been successfully working as a professional since he was seventeen. I mentioned this to my uncle, who offered encouragement.
“The exciting years,” he said, “are from twenty to twenty-five. At that particular phase in his life he had been with the Fourth Hussars in India. When not playing polo and enjoying other agreeable pastimes with his brother officers, he locked himself up to study academic subjects which he had not been able to master at school and which equipped him for his political and literary career to come.
The loggia, in the northeast corner of the garden, is fifteen feet square, with a shallow vaulted ceiling thirteen feet high at its apex. Two sides of the building are open to the weather, and this was to cause trouble and necessitate an almost annual visit for repairs.
My uncle was in the midst of writing Volume II of his life of Marlborough, so we decided on our common ancestor as the subject for the mural. Having a definite assignment from the start pleased me. Nothing is more unsettling than to be told, “Oh, choose any subject you like!” One can be sure that eventually it will lead to disagreement.
I made preliminary sketches for the loggia, and my uncle accepted them. The design consisted of four niches painted in trompe Lodi showing busts of the four principal characters in the drama: Marlborough, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Queen Anne, and Sarah Duchess. Midway up the vaulted ceiling, at the corners, were four plaques of figures in a warm stone color representing the rivers on which Marlborough fought his battles — the Rhine, Meuse, Moselle, and Danube; and in between these were lunettes depicting the four battles — Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde, and Malplaquet. Surmounting it all was a balustrade, with my cousins Diana and Sarah looking down, and a “hole" of bright-blue sky in the ceiling.
I already knew quite a lot about Marlborough and his times, and anything I did not know I was soon to learn. Every detail of my design was minutely examined, criticized, and, if necessary, corrected by my uncle. But I strongly resisted his attempts to interfere with aesthetic matters, and it was here that we met aspects of painting on which we differed. For although my uncle appreciated the direct approach to painting — that is, to have something before you and paint it — and although he was curious to see how I solved the problem of telling the story of Marlborough on four blank walls and a ceiling, he was a little unsympathetic with regard to imagination, which is the essence of wall painting. When I came to execute the four lunettes of the battles, extra men had to be added here and there.
“What are all those people supposed to be doing?” he asked.
“Well,” I replied timidly, “they are the column of infantry that was moving around at that time, according to your book.”
“But they didn’t move like that.”
“I know, but they have to be fitted into the design of the whole,” I argued. “Artistic license—”
I obtained useful support from Sir William Nicholson, the distinguished Edwardian painter, who was staying at Chartwell to paint my uncle and aunt having breakfast in the dining room; the picture was to be presented to them on behalf of some organization. Sir William backed me up on all aesthetic points and often came out to the loggia to give advice.
IN A very short while I realized that unless I followed the same work timetable as my uncle, I would not be able to show the efficiency he expected. His timetable was certainly terrific. Even in those days he maintained that he needed only six hours’ sleep at the most. That put me at a disadvantage from the start; I definitely required eight hours. At seven A.M. he used to wake up and study all the newspapers. Breakfast was at about eight, with a menu that often included beef. Then came work on Marlborough until lunch at one fifteen, with a break around eleven for an inspection of my work to see what progress had been made. Progress there had to be, for as anyone who has worked for my uncle knows, the consequences are serious if no results can be produced. On the way back indoors from the loggia he visited the goldfish.
Lunch was accompanied by champagne and followed by port, brandy, and a cigar until three or four, when he resumed Marlborough or some other writing until five o’clock tea, which was improved by a whisky and soda. Further work was done until dinner, at eight fifteen. Dinner lasted, with more champagne, port, brandy, and cigars, until ten or eleven, at which hour he retired for more dictating, plus whisky and soda, until two or three o’clock in the morning.
This was a formidable timetable to follow, if only because it was January and February. I found it very cold at night working in the garden. However, I dutifully got up in time to be at work at seven A.M. When I came in to breakfast at about nine, I found in the dining room Sarah or some other member of the family, William Nicholson, and often Bill Deakin, a brilliant history scholar who helped in the research on Marlborough.
I immediately resumed work in the loggia until my uncle’s daily inspection at eleven, the strain of which was eased by alcoholic refreshment. Occasionally the progress seemed to him to be less than on other days, though it was really the same, and I would have to explain what I had done.
“Can’t we get rid of this vast white space?” he asked, pointing his cigar at the lower part of the ceiling.
“I will work on that bit next, if you particularly want me to,” I told him, “but it is not necessary because my method is to start at the top and work downward, thus avoiding any danger of messing up the bottom part.”
He digested this for a moment, then commented, “I always survey the whole scene with greater clarity if I attack the white areas first and afterward concentrate on the pockets of resistance.”
Now, this is a very reasonable if bellicose approach when confronted with a subject which is to be painted on a white canvas. In fact, many artists start on a tinted-down canvas and work to the darkest and lightest shades. But when a mural is being started, everything has been, or should have been, decided beforehand, so that it is mainly a matter of correct execution in the proper places.
I never ceased to marvel, though, at how my uncle gave my efforts undivided attention. One of the most important and interesting things I learned from him in those days was the emphasis he put on being able to switch his mind from one subject to another. He would suddenly stop work on the Marlborough book and go out to lay bricks for a new wall or paint a picture or feed the fish or write a political article. And whatever he was doing absorbed his attention so completely that obviously he had forgotten his previous task.
After he had given his secretaries a good morning’s dictation, which had to be typed out and presented to him in the afternoon, he would meet us in the drawing room for a glass ot sherry before lunch. Sarah would be there with older members of the family and William Nicholson, or perhaps Major General Packenham-Walsh, the War Office’s historical expert on the Marlborough period.
As often as not, lunch was devoted to unrelieved gloom about the international situation. Even in those early days of German military renaissance my uncle was convinced that war was inevitable. Being slightly fatalistic myself, I believed it too. The depressing conversation used to make William Nicholson quite sick. More than once he whispered to me, “Johnny, I’m going to leave the table on an excuse. I cannot stand it any more.” I did not like it either, but always remained transfixed by what my uncle said.
The awful thing was to be asked what one thought. Any answer was fatuous because my uncle had thought of it already and drawn his own conclusions. I never discussed politics with him, knowing perfectly well that his reaction would be as devastating as one of his intense silences. At such times he has a way of looking straight through you, and I have learned that the one thing not to do is to try to alleviate the crisis by stirring up some sort of conversation. If one does, the situation is only made worse by “What?” and “I can’t hear what you say.” Then, having repeated your statement, you get a terse reply, such as,”I don’t know what you are talking about.”
My uncle fixed me with one of these terrifying gazes at the end of lunch one day. After a while I ventured, “Who, Uncle Winston, was responsible for the idiotic drink laws in this country?” By this I meant the strange confusion of opening and closing times, and the club memberships which allow people to drink all day and night if they want to.
My uncle continued his inscrutable stare and said nothing. “The French,” I went on, after a long pause, “have a much more sensible law.”
At last my uncle showed signs of coming to life. “What is this you are discussing?” he demanded.
“The English drinking laws, Uncle Winston. I am wondering who made them.”
Instantly he snapped, “The government,” and relapsed into his former gloom. Which put me in my place pretty neatly.
Between the glooms we were treated to astounding snatches of thought about the Marlborough campaigns, which clarified his brain for the afternoon session with Bill Deakin. Once, after the ladies had withdrawn, Bill Deakin, Major General Packenham-Walsh, and I were about to sip our glasses of brandy when my uncle suddenly exclaimed, “There can be no doubt at all. Absolutely no doubt.”
We were completely in the dark, but were given a clue when he continued, “With the vast forces of Marlborough’s cavalry charging across the plain, what hope could the wretched French have had? The slaughter must have been terrific.”
We had another careful sip of brandy. My uncle then described the entire battle of Blenheim to General Walsh and asked him if he considered it correct. It was, so we rose from the table. My uncle had mastered the battle and went off to write the brilliant description of it which appears in his book.
AFTER tea there might be a game of six-pack bezique, but usually I missed tea altogether, because it meant too much of a break in the afternoon. A whisky and soda was always brought out to keep me warm. I found that in mural painting an uninterrupted stretch of six hours was the ideal to be aimed at. If I had only one or two hours ahead of me, it was hardly worth while beginning a session. I used to go to my uncle’s studio in the garden, where I had a large block of clay which I was making into a bust of him. I would study him very carefully at lunch and, remembering a particular feature, go and model it in. It was a good exercise in developing my powers of observation, and by the time I had finished the loggia I had also finished the bust, though I fell into the trap of making it just a bit larger than life size. I noticed with great interest my uncle’s hands, which are most expressive and beautiful, but, alas, they did not come into the bust. When painting a portrait, exquisite hands are a very tricky problem. In fact, hands in general arc difficult; it is so easy, as El Greco used to say, to make them look like radishes.
We always changed for dinner. Sometimes there were long periods of silence and thought, which were bearable when two or three of us were present because we could talk in undertones. On one occasion I was alone with Sarah, my uncle, and Mr. Gat, the ginger tom of the house. The table was very long and narrow. My uncle sat at the head, and Sarah and I were opposite each other at the middle. At the far end, facing my uncle, was Mr. Cat, sitting on a cushion which had been placed on a chair.
For this particular meal Mr. Cat was given a slice of pheasant and some cream, which he ate very cleverly from a plate on the table without making a mess. We were fascinated by the smooth way he achieved this, and Mr. Cat was so interested in doing it that he got hiccups. At exactly the same moment my uncle got hiccups as well, with the result that the two of them seemed to be gravely bowing to each other. The spectacle was so extraordinary that Sarah and I had to stuff our table napkins in our mouths in case we laughed. Then, of course, my uncle noticed and was very displeased.
“What on earth do you think you are doing?” he asked crossly. “I do not see anything funny at all.” By this time we were in agony from suppressed laughter.
Some of Mr. Cat’s other habits were less attractive. One evening Randolph, Nicholson, Brendan Bracken, Bob Boothby, my uncle, and I were in the dining room after the ladies had gone when the curtains moved and Mr. Cat appeared.
“Oh, look,” said my uncle brightly. “Cat has mouse.”
Although I like cats, the manner in which they toy with their prey is cruel and unnecessary. But my uncle was not in the least put out by the lifeand-death drama being played in front of him. He commented, “How interesting to see him exercise control over his victim.”
William Nicholson and I felt a bit green at the sight, and Brendan Bracken, that big tough politician who had helped me throw hecklers down the stairs at my uncle’s meetings, looked quite ill.
After a tense moment or two my uncle declared, “Now is the time.” And indeed, quite suddenly, with no fuss, the entire mouse disappeared down Mr. Cat’s throat, head first. There was no chewing. Then he cleaned his whiskers and silently stepped over to the fire for a nap.
The stricken silence that followed was broken by my uncle, proudly observing, “You see, a whole army destroyed in one move!”
Even when there were no visitors, we often sat around the dining table until about ten. I was a bit alarmed when I was left alone with my uncle because I would be cross-examined about my opinion of his book on Marlborough, or about some aspect of painting. A mere answer was never enough; an explanation of why one thought as one did was necessary as well. Sometimes one s reasoning would be criticized and one’s views seriously questioned. William Nicholson and I once extolled the great wall paintings of the Ajanta caves in India, but my uncle seemed to doubt their greatness. Perhaps this was because he had not studied the business of wall painting, Oriental types in particular.
Memory was one of the subjects I used to discuss with my uncle and Randolph at this time. My uncle’s ability to remember names, people, facts, and passages of writing is phenomenal, and I think he attributes it to a certain extent to his father, who was said to be able to read a page of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and then quote it word for word. My uncle could do much the same with Macaulay.
The question of spiritual life was also talked about, and my uncle always appeared to be intrigued by the fact that my brother, sister, and I are fundamentally Roman Catholic, in consequence of my mother’s being Catholic. It seemed that he wished he could understand our inner thoughts but could not, and there the matter ended. My uncle, like Napoleon, has always appreciated the importance of religion for the general public, even if he himself did not or could not get interested in it. He admits that he prayed very earnestly when escaping from prison in South Africa, but has never mentioned to me any other occasion of prayer.
Informative contributions to after-dinner conversation at Chartwell became easier when he asked his favorite question, “What do people say?” He was anxious to keep abreast of public opinion and used me as a private informant. Moving about as I did through a wide and varied cross section of society, I was in a good position to tell him. I made it my business to talk to anyone I met in pubs, clubs, trains, and buses. I questioned my brother artists, actors, businessmen, musicians, sculptors, and architects. On the whole, from 1934 onward, everyone was most alarmed by the Hitler situation and by the terrible Baldwin regime. But there were some unexpected views.
I had a girl friend who introduced me to her grandfather and mother. They were very wellto-do and lived in an enormous house in Chelsea with masses of servants. It was thought that I might make a good impression, but the grandfather’s attitude was far from friendly.
“So you’re a nephew of Winston Churchill!” he exclaimed. “Well, let me tell you this: whether there is a war or not, Britain will be absolutely finished if Winston Churchill gets into power again. Our only hope is for him to be put in prison and kept there.”
This was a view I did not repeat to my uncle. I thought it might cause even greater despondency.
After dinner we spent only a short time in the drawing room, and at about ten thirty my uncle retired with Bill Deakin for further work. The typists were ready to sit at their machines all night to produce the draft for him to read at breakfast. Meanwhile, I donned my boiler suit, jerseys, mufflers, and woolen stockings, and, by means of an electric light on a cable run from the house, worked in the loggia. Usually, at around one o’clock, the drawing room lights would go on again. That meant Bill Deakin had come downstairs for a break with whisky and soda. I joined him, and we discussed various topics of the moment, soothed by the strange, heavy stillness that settled in the house at night.
After two months the loggia was finished, and a general inspection was made. It was decided to call it from then on the Marlborough Pavilion.
I took my leave of Chartwell and embarked on the perilous journeys of professional art and marriage.