The Lion Caged

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Therefore his incessant activity is often spurred by a determination to outrun the gloom and lassitude of melancholia, or, as he privately calls it, “the black dog on my back.” Most depressives cannot mask their misery. Churchill can, and by driving himself he will succeed, until the last decade of his life, in holding his affliction at bay. According to Anthony Storr, the distinguished British psychiatrist, the exceptional depressive who also becomes a great achiever—a Lincoln, a Goethe, a Bismarck, a Luther, a Tolstoy—responds to the onset of a sinking spell by forcing himself into activity, denying himself rest or relaxation, and accomplishing more than most men are capable of, “just because he cannot afford to stop.” Later, after Dunkirk, Storr will conclude that Churchill’s lifelong “battle with his own despair” endowed him with a power to persuade all England that “despair can be overcome.”

“All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

Since his physician has banned brick laying, he heads for his studio, telling a servant to fetch his brushes, easel; and palette. He intends to paint “one of my beloved cats” or to re-create on canvas a still life from photographs taken from their latest visit to Cannes or Marrakech. “If it weren’t for painting,” he tells a friend, “I couldn’t live. I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”

Winston designed the studio. Inside, it is startlingly small, fourteen feet square, but it is very lofty, providing maximum light. In constructing it, he put wooden slats along the interior walls; incompleted canvases went there. Eventually the slats will become shelves, supporting some five hundred finished paintings. He rarely paints people, and no violence, but the full body of his work provides a view of his travels: the Acropolis, Stromboli, the canals of Amsterdam, Scandinavian fjords, Pompeii, the Asuan Dam, the Tomb of Cheops, Rome, Rotterdam, Passchendaele, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Menen, Waterloo, Scapa Flow, Ulster, Balmoral, Devonshire, and Kent. Cathedrals fascinate him. So do ruins; he had to be dragged away from Pompeii. And he finds waterfalls irresistible. He spent days at his easel by the roaring Jordan. On his finished canvas you have an illusion of moving water; you can almost catch the sound of it.

His painting methods are purely Churchillian. Confronted by a virgin canvas, he moves rapidly and decisively, giving the scene a swift appraisal and then slapping on the oils, reacting instinctively to a single theme: a villa, a temple, sailboats at low tide. Detective Thompson of the Yard, after hours of watching him at his easel, writes: “I would think that the man’s inner spirit is superbly calm and that he paints from it—never from the mind or intellect.” Thomas Bodkin, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, thinks successful professional painters might learn a lot from Winston: “He does not try to say two things at the same time....The dominant motive is never obscured by irrelevancies.” After a careful examination of Winston’s canvases, Sir John Rothenstein, director of the Täte Gallery and one of England’s most eminent art critics, judged them to be “of real merit which bear a direct and intimate relationship to his outlook on life. In these pictures there comes bubbling irrepressibly up his sheer enjoyment of the simple beauties of nature.”

If he has chosen not to paint this afternoon, he may summon a “Miss” and enter the study to make a start on the day’s work, an article for an American magazine, perhaps, or a piece for Fleet Street. Sometimes, while reading in his bedchamber, he will listen to BBC music, provided it is his kind of music—Pinafore, Penzance, and The Mikado—or to French military marches.