“Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”
– Winston Churchill
SAVANNAH has long been known as an Anglophile’s paradise. Along with Charleston, we’re probably the American town most like an English one.
But a new exhibit at the Jepson makes the connection all the more clear.
Winston Churchill—iconic prime minister famous for leading Great Britain through the darkest days of WWII—came from a family with deep influence on Georgia.
“Part of the premise of this show is that unbeknownst to most folks, there’s a 300 year history between the Churchill family and the state of Georgia,” says Telfair Museums Executive Director Lisa Grove on their new show, “The Art of Diplomacy: Winston Churchill and the Pursuit of Painting.”
“It goes all the way back to Oglethorpe,” Grove says.
James Edward Oglethorpe, Georgia’s founder, was a groundbreaking politician back in England, something of a liberal by the standards of the time.
But he was first and foremost a soldier. And his military mentor was John Churchill, known better to history as the first Duke of Marlborough and one of the most brilliant generals of his age.
Winston himself would visit Atlanta in 1932 and Savannah in 1946, en route to the speech in Miami where he famously coined the phrase “Iron Curtain.”
(And hey, Savannah’s even got a Churchill’s Pub!)
Long before Nazi Germany threatened invasion of Great Britain at the height of Hitler’s power, Churchill—himself a war hero and aspiring politician—had taken up painting as a hobby and a form of personal therapy.
“When I first learned about the show, I thought, well that sounds interesting, but are his paintings any good?” muses Grove.
“I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw the work. They would have great historic value even if they weren’t attractive, but they are lovely, Impressionist style paintings,” she says. “Churchill was inspired by the great French Impressionists of the generation immediately preceding his own.”
The Telfair Museums is the final stop of the exhibit, limited only to viewing in Georgia due to another important connection to the Churchill family.
Duncan Sandys—pronounced “sands” —Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, lives in Atlanta, and was instrumental in bringing these works to the Peach State.
“Duncan had a great young political career in England, and then had the great fortune to meet a girl in Macon and marry her. And as we know, Georgia girls like to come home,” Grove laughs.
In talks with Rodney Cook—founder of the National Monuments Foundation and also an Atlanta resident—and Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society, the idea came about to convince private owners of some of Churchill’s paintings to take the works down from their walls and let them go on a tour the likes of which will probably never be seen again.
“This is a literally once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Grove. “Once this show is done, these works will go back onto dining room walls in England.”
Ten of Churchill’s paintings are featured, including the only one he painted during World War II: “The Tower of Katoubia Mosque.”
The exhibition catalogue explains:
“In January of 1943, Churchill secretly met with President Franklin Roosevelt in Casablanca, Morocco to decide the timing of D-Day, the invasion of France... He invited Roosevelt to cement the agreement—which Churchill knew demanded a close personal friendship—over a trip to Marrakech to watch the sun set against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. The next day, Churchill painted the daytime view from the same spot, later giving the painting to Roosevelt.”
President Roosevelt hung the painting in his home in Hyde Park, New York. In 2011 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought the painting.
Never before has the couple loaned it for display.
“Even if you’re not an art person, you can enjoy the show from the history standpoint. This really connects Churchill’s love of painting as not just a hobby, but something that played a central role in his personal and professional life,” Grove says.
You can even see some of Churchill’s own painting tools.
“We have his palette and the actual easel he used. They still have paint smears on them.”