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“If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live”

Churchill’s Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque (1943)

Winston Churchill “never set out to become an accomplished artist”, says Milton Esterow in The New York Times. He only took up the hobby as a 40-year-old, needing a “respite from depression” after resigning as civilian head of the Royal Navy. He was quickly hooked. “If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live,” he once confessed to a friend. “I couldn’t bear the strain of things.” In the 1920s, Churchill sent five paintings to Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin, with four fetching modest sums. In 1926, he entered a London art competition under the name David Winter and won first prize.

Churchill initially described his work as “too bad to sell and too dear for me to give” – though he eventually gave away more than 100 works to family, colleagues and foreign dignitaries. His depiction of Marrakesh, Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque (1943), was a present to President Roosevelt, inspired by the sunset the pair solemnly watched at the Casablanca Conference after deciding to pursue the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers. Another work, The Moat, Breccles, was given to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis as a mark of friendship, who hung it on his yacht alongside pieces by El Greco and Gauguin. Those two works, considered no more than “little daubs” by Churchill, fetched a healthy $11.5m and $1.85m respectively when auctioned last year.