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Winston Churchill’s love of painting on the French Riviera

In 2015, artist Paul Rafferty began a project to find the locations of Sir Winston Churchill’s painting locations for a book. His focus was the South of France, where he lives, though his discoveries went beyond this region. It became a voyage of discovery which took him to many of the most iconic locations of Provence and the Cote d’Azur and resulted in a gorgeous coffee table book, filled with photos and anecdotes.

An artist inspired by an artist

Long ago, in 2004, I came across a watercolour in an antique bookshop in Los Angeles. It was signed ‘Winston Churchill’. I took a photograph and sent it to David Coombs who is the authority on Churchill’s paintings. He informed me it was not by Sir Winston as he never painted in watercolour. Thus began my interest in Churchill’s paintings and a bond with David. I began to locate places where Churchill painted…

Finding these locations through a combination of Google Earth, cartes postales anciennes and knowledge of the region turned out to be a huge challenge. It was much more of an undertaking than I had ever imagined. Even before this, I had found myself painting some of Churchill’s locations, though many of the views were not obvious. The painting at Villa Sylvia in Cap Ferrat titled “The Little Harbour, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat” painted in 1921, is a good example. This pretty little cove lies just below the exquisite Villa Rothschild and I had painted this exact view before, though I had taken in a wider field of view. Churchill chose a more cropped view and focused on the villa. It was the jetty tower with its distinctive gazebo on top that I eventually recognised, one of many Eureka moments. This led me to find another painting of the garden of Villa Sylvia featuring an old pergola. The painting of the magnificent villa Churchill visited with Sir John Lavery was a new discovery, no one knew he’d ever been there.

Location, location, location

Finding the locations was just one element of my search. Getting into these places, if they were private, was a whole other task and no less daunting. I had to find out whom owned the villa or chateau. Try to contact the owner and ask permission to visit. These are very private, wealthy people with large secluded properties. Thankfully, the admiration for Churchill and documenting history won them over, and I was kindly granted access.

Living the good life on the French Riviera

There is no doubt that Churchill lived a grand life on the French Riviera. Not for him the life of  poor, starving artist. His travels were replete with valets, Scotland Yard Detective bodyguards, secretaries and all manner of equipment to write and paint. Churchill was a Francophile and loved his trips to the Cote d’Azur, coming often and staying as long as was permissible. Though there was one occasion he ventured there alone. Winston, arriving at the glorious Chateau de l’Horizon and low on funds, tried the hazardous experiment of foregoing his valet. Greeted by his hostess, Maxine Elliott, he said “You have no idea how easy it is to travel without a servant. I came away from London alone and it was quite simple.” Maxine replied “Winston, how brave of you.”

Winston was enraptured by the French Riviera, the sun, the colours and abundant subject matter were irresistible to him and he longed to capture them on canvas. The Pol Roger, fine food and Casinos were also to be indulged in.

I visited Cassis, Lourmarin, Pont-du-Gard, Cap de Antibes and many other locations on my journey to follow in his footsteps. Discovering where Churchill painted the red rocks between Theoule and St Raphael was a special find, It’s really not that easy to find a specific rock among a coastline full of red rocks!

Painting the south of France

Churchill painted a possible 600 paintings in total during his lifetime, at least 150 of them were of the South of France. He only painted one canvas during the Second World War, in Marrakech, which he gifted to President Roosevelt.

Considering his relatively limited time and output as a painter, one has to judge his work with this in mind. To me, he excelled as an amateur painter. The more I looked at the canvases and the locations, the more I came to respect him as an artist. He painted large canvases on site, in the elements. He would finish them off at his studio in Chartwell because of his busy schedule. If it was possible to return to the same location to continue or complete a canvas, he would.

Churchill painted fast, a one and a half hour session could see the canvas covered. He was bold,  attacked the canvas and did not shy away from a subject, colour or challenge. He adored colour and squeezed all the colours of the rainbow onto his palette. Some of his works tended to have somewhat garish colouring. His wife Clementine would encourage him to “cool your palette a la Nicholson” (Sir William Nicholson, friend and artist mentor).

Lady Churchill would also try to grab a canvas off his easel when she thought it was done, much to the chagrin of Winston. He had a tendency to overwork a canvas and kill the freshness he’d captured on location.

Following in Churchill’s paint brush strokes

I live in Mougins where Churchill visited the Guinness family in the 1930’s and painted the chapel next door, Notre Dame de Vie. In 1960 Pablo Picasso bought the house having also visited the Guinness family and falling in love with the Mas. This would be Picasso’s home and studio until his death in 1973.

Pont-du-Gard is remarkably carpeted by Churchill’s brush, glowing as it does in the last light. In fact this was a common thread with the canvases as they tended to be painted in the afternoon light, probably after his lunch.

I used laminated reproductions around the size of a large post card to find the exact spot on location. This was imperative for me as I wished to line all the elements up with the canvas. Many times it would be identical, quite incredible considering the development along the coast.

One of the highlights of the book occurred during my research when I managed to discover a small photograph at Chartwell, showing Churchill in a dark robe at Chateau de l’Horizon holding a painting of St Paul de Vence. This proved to reverse a decision made on national tv, the BBC’s Fake or Fortune programme, and the painting is today in the Churchill collection.

Churchill was a fine painter

Even though Churchill considered these paintings ‘my daubs’, he was very serious and studious about his work. I came to the conclusion that for him, this was a passion above all others and a way of escape from his busy life, and a means of relaxation that no other hobby could offer. He would be absorbed while painting, time would pass quickly and his mind was focused only on his subject. Despite his love of good food and wine, he even had to be badgered and coaxed from his easel to go to lunch or dinner. A true artist…

Paul Rafferty’s book Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera, published by Unicorn is available from Amazon and all good book shops. The author is hoping to produce a documentary of the project and has plans to produce a companion book of Churchills paintings of Great Britain, the Stately Homes and landscape he so loved.

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