Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill

In 2006, a new art museum building was opened in St. Louis – the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, on the grounds of Washington University in St. Louis. As it turns out, it’s not really a new museum; it originally opened in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts. And it’s one of the oldest teaching museums in the United States.

Last week, we visited to see its latest exhibition, “The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill,” co-sponsored by the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri (home of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and with a first-class museum on Churchill in World War II). Timothy Riley, paintings curator for the National Churchill Museum, curated this exhibition at the Kemper.

In some ways, this felt like old home week.

Kemper Art Museum
One of the people instrumental in bringing the exhibition together was Richard Mahoney, the CEO for whom I wrote speeches for seven years. He was more than a fan of Churchill; he was a collector of Churchill memorabilia and had read virtually everything about the British statesman. One thing you may not know about speechwriters is that, if they’re worth their pay, they will read what their speakers read. Wall Street Journal, check. Business Week, check. The History of the English Speaking Peoples (four volumes)? The History of World War II (six volumes)? And does anyone know how many speeches Churchill gave?

It was a lot of work. Things went fine until the CEO started reading Charles Dickens, starting with The Pickwick Papers. I ended up buying the 21-volume set of Charles Dickens' works published by Oxford University Press. And read Peter Ackroyd’s 1000+page biography of Dickens. On the cool side, I was about the only person I know who ever got paid for reading the works and biography of Dickens in the office. (The vice chairman at the time, for whom I also wrote speeches, was a major fan of Mark Twain. Yes, I’ve had an unusual career, even for a communications person.)

At one time, four paintings by Churchill hung in our company’s conference center. At least three of those are in this exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum (I’m uncertain about the fourth). Many of these paintings have a history, and the exhibition tells those histories. One, of Marrakech, was painted while Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met at Casablanca; it was the only painting he did during World War II and he gave it to Roosevelt. Another, of the surf at Miami Beach, was painted in the six weeks in 1946 Churchill stayed there while preparing the Iron Curtain speech. Still another was submitted under another name to an amateur competition and won first proze, although one judge dissented and said no amateur could have painted it.

It’s a wonderful exhibition, with works loaned by the Getty Museum, the Hallmark Art Collection in Kansas City, the Chartwell Art Collection, and numerous private collections. Churchill painting about 550 paintings, and about 50 are included at the Kemper show. It runs through Feb. 14. For sale in the Kemper shop is Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings by David Coombs with Minnie Churchill; the price is $55 (although, oddly enough, Amazon sells it for considerably more.)

Right across the hallway from the Churchill exhibition was one on World War I; more on that tomorrow.

Illustration: Boats at Cannes Harbor, oil on canvas by Sir Winston Churchill (1937); National Churchill Museum, Fulton, Mo.

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