Winston Churchill—A Painter on the Côte d’Azur



By Cheryl Anderson



Winston Churchill found life on the French Riviera so appealing that he availed himself of the invitations of several owners of villas which dotted the coastline.”  Nancy Smith

The Pergola, Villa Sylvia, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat,1921.

The Little Harbour, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, 1921.

Winston Churchill was very well connected, and himself, always a welcome guest.  He lived a privileged life, but not without personal loss, financial and political setbacks, health scares he survived, his painting hobby allowed him to quiet the “black dog”.  Extraordinary accomplishments—a remarkable life indeed.

On the Riviera, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. In the distance, Cap-d’Ail and Monaco. Churchill saw Villa Rosemary (the central motif) in January, 1922 from the opposite villa, Villa Lou Mas.

The year, 1915, Churchill’s friend, Max Aiken, becoming Lord Beaverbrook, was worried about Winston and his obvious depression invited him to Cherkley Leatherhead.  Aiken commented; “I was disturbed because he was an obvious victim of depression and forebodings that distressed him.  In consequence I asked him to spend a day with me at Cherkly, Leatherhead, in the hope that I could distract his mind…I had noticed that he had placed on the car an easel and a box of colours…The house was empty at the time.  But Churchill’s easel was soon out and planted on the terrace, where we looked out on the view that had fascinated so many politicians…It was obvious that it {painting} absorbed his mind.  He could not talk while he painted and did not want to talk.  I was glad to see him so engaged in such a calm amusement.”

The Harbour at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, January, 1921.

Daybreak at Cassis, September, 1920.

Lord Beaverbrook would often host Churchill at his home, La Capponcina, situated above the coastal path in Cap-d’Ail.  It was one of Churchill’s favorite locations on the Côte d’Azur.  Churchill was made Maire Honoraire de Cap-d’Ail by the Commune of Cap-d’Ail in 1952 for his friendship with France during WWII. He captured the rocky coast on canvas and over the years painted a series of the Parasol pines that “overhang” the coast—images de cartes postales très français.  I can imagine him sitting there painting with the soothing sound of the waves lapping below.  I’ve spent hours over the years quietly sitting listening to the gentle or crashing waves on the French coast—for me having a meal near the water’s edge with the hypnotic sound of the waves is heavenly. 

St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, 1930s.

Churchill, in what is deemed a rare candid photo, January, 1927, walking down the harbour steps in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. At the time he was The Chancellor of the Exchequer.  His Assistant Private Secretary, 3rd Earl of Kimberley, John Wodehouse, is seen behind him.  Photo from Winston Churchill Painting on the French Riviera, Paul Rafferty.

St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, 1945. On the harbour.

In 1916, the daughter of Prime Minister Asquith, Violet Bonham Carter and Churchill were guests of Claude Lowther at Herstmonceux in Sussex.  There she observed Churchill in the garden painting.  She related what once she saw; “As he painted, his tensions relaxed, his frustration evaporated…I was suddenly aware that this was the only occupation that I had ever seen him practice in silence…rapt in intense appraisal, observation, assessment of the scene meant to capture and transfer to his canvas.” 

Close-up of the wisteria in The Pergola, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Olfactory sensation must have been divine.

While in Paris, in 1915, he met Charles Montag, landscape painter of Swiss origin.  Montag took Churchill to the galleries where he was introduced to the Impressionists.  The style of the Impressionists’ school is obvious in his work.  Enjoying each other’s company, Churchill and Montag went on many painting outings— remained friends until Montag’s death in 1956.

Villa Sylvia, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

Churchill painting at Villa Sylvia, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

Villa Rosemary, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

The Churchills bought Lullenden, a house in Sussex, in 1917 where they and their children would be safe from Zeppelin raids.  Painting would keep him occupied.  He would later have to sell it because of financial difficulties—sold to his friend Sir Ian Hamilton.  They moved to Sussex Square in London. A mews building in the back was converted into a studio.  In Jean Hamilton’s diaries she wrote; “Winston painted dull pictures all day and was very happy.” Coombs mentions that it included one of the Orangery.  Her observation of Churchill was while he was painting at a large weekend party at Panshanger, guest of Ettie and Willie Desborough.  

A Storm over Cannes, 1925.

View over Cannes.

Churchill painting at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, late 1920s.  Rafferty states that he was painting the Voille d’Or Hotel and Restaurant.

Sailing boat in Antibes harbour.  It was given to Mr. Antonio Giraudier, “a rich Cuban who kept him (Churchill) supplied with cigars and brandy.”,  Coombs.

Churchill painted and hunted wild boar in Mimizan, Landes, south of Bordeaux, for a holiday in 1920, where his great friend since the Boer War, the Duke of Westminster, had a house on the coast—this was but one of many trips to the Duke’s house. That same year, he took Clementine to Mimizan, and then to Amalfi and Cassis in the South of France to paint. Two paintings associated with Cassis are The Lighthouse, Cassis, c. 1920 and View Over Cassis Port, early 1920s.  Churchill’s art teacher, Madge Oliver,  in 1910 moved into a house in Cassis named Pierrefroide.  He would paint up on the rooftop terrace with the iconic view of the port and lighthouse.

The Lighthouse, Cassis.

View Over Cassis Port.

Mimizan,  Landes painting was given to the First World War Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who became Viscount Tenby.

John Lavery and Churchill would be guests at Mimizan during the years where they painted the same subject. These paintings were hung at the Duke of Westminster’s Lochmore Lodge in Sutherland.  The painting, Mimizan, Landes, was given to the First World War Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

A view of Mimizan.

Woods at Mimizan.

Trees at Mimizan.

Mimizan Lake

Lavery commenting on the two of them painting the same subject in his autobiography; “We have stood at the same motif, and in spite of my trained eye and knowledge of possible difficulties, he, with characteristic fearlessness and freedom from convention, has time and again shown me how to do things.  Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship I believe he would have been a great master with the brush.” 

Churchill with Coco Chanel at Mimizan–two audacious people born in the 19th century that greatly impacted the 20th century.

Mimizan Plage, Painted in the afternoon in the Spring of 1920, the earliest of the Mimizan paintings.  David Coombs.

Churchill observed how Lavery interpreted the light and varied colors of the Mediterranean onto the canvas. In, Painting as a Pastime, Churchill writes; “Nature presents itself through the agency off these points of light, each of which sets up the vibrations peculiar to its colour. the brilliancy of a picture must therefore depend partly upon the frequency with which these points are found on any given area of the canvas, and partly on their just relation to one another.” 

A View at Mimizan, dated 1920.

Churchill and Lavery traveled to St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1921, staying at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Ail for one month.  Two lovely paintings from 1921 are The Pergola, at Villa Sylvia and The Little Harbour. It has been put forward that it was on this trip with Lavery, Churchill’s love of the Rivera and keen passion to paint on the Côte d’Azur was firmly and permanently established.  

Harbour, Cannes, 1933

St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, what a perfectly wonderful place to paint on the Côte d’Azuz. My favorite hidden beach is here, whereas you look to the right the Cap is dotted with some of the most magnificent villas in all of the Côte d’Azur—treasures of France.  La Villa Santo Sospel is right up the hill where you’ll find a Cocteau Surprise on the walls.  Just to sit by the small port on a sunny day, is time well spent.That year, 1921, had been sad and difficult for Churchill as his mother and two months later his daughter, Marigold, passed away.  Clementine and Winston went to Dunbarton Castle in Scotland as guests of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland where they recovered from their loss and he painted.

Boats in Cannes Harbour, 1937

Boat in Cannes Harbour,  1933

Churchill bought Chartwell Manor, in 1922—reconstruction was completed in 1924.  For the next two years, besides draining the lake making a dam for a swimming pool, he built brick walls around the garden—bricklaying was another one of his hobbies. He was of the opinion that one should have two or more hobbies.  His time was spent visiting friends and family on weekends and holidays abroad—France especially.

Churchill painting at Cannes Harbour–always protected by security, 1937.

It’s been noted that, on January 1, 1922, Churchill stayed in the Villa Lou Mas belonging to the Countess of Essex.  From that vantage point, Rafferty says he probably painted, On the Riviera, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, (the Villa Rosmary is the motif of the painting)—in the distance is Cap-d’Ail and Monaco.

Churchill, along with Edward Marsh and Charles Montag, during a visit to Mimizan, also made their way to Biarritz and painted at St-Jean-de-Luz.  At the end of that year, 1922, he and Clementine rented Villa Rêve dOr in Cannes and took the family.  They stayed for six months during the winter months.  Out of the gloom they went into the winter sunshine on the Côte d’Azur.

A dramatic view of the Atlantic near Biarritz.

La Bonne Auberge was one of Churchill’s favorite restaurants in Antibes.  He loved the food, the atmosphere, and especially oignons cébette dipped in salt.  He would send his driver to the owner’s house where they grew the vegetables for the restaurant to get a box of them and in return, he would gift the owner a box of cigars, “a currency he often employed.”, states Paul Rafferty. The restaurant was known for drawing in celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplin, and Gary Cooper.

A harbour scene with pointu bateau, Cap-d’Antibes, 1947.

A study of pointu bateau, 1933.

Winston Churchill was mesmerized and enchanted by the Côte d’Azur, il adorait la Côte d’Azur, the sun, the colours, and the endless subject matter.  Subject matter that very often included stunning views of the sea with reflections on the water.  He longed to capture what he saw on canvas.  In so doing, creating a collection of souvenirs from his trips that took him all over the world—from pointu bateau to the Pyramids. I can tell a story behind every painting I have done of my moments on the Côte d’Azur—as I am sure Churchill could have done when walking around his gallery or studio.

Churchill painting–what he loved to do. He wore a Stetson hat it’s said from 1930 forward.

The colour blue was a favorite of Churchill, cobalts, French, ultramarine, Prussian, and then what he called, “British true blue—that cerulean, a heavenly colour we all admire so much.”  Paul Rafferty comments that aides sometimes squeezed 15 colors on his palette—of course, not all blue.

Pointe Bacon, Cap-d’Antibes, 1933.

Rocky Seascape, Cap-d’Ail, 1949.

Newspaper clipping associated with, Rocky Seascape, of Churchill on the coastal path.  Notice the T-square on the wall. Rafferty suggests he probably used it, “to make the straight and horizontal horizon of the sea.”

Crowds would gather around, not too close, I would think when he was painting en plein air.  Rafferty, and other authors, quote a Frenchman as he passed by; “with a few more lessons you will be quite good.”  This sentiment, as we know, if only he had had more time to paint, has been expressed by others.  John Lavery said; “Mr. Churchill has been called a pupil of mine, which is highly flattering, for I know few amateur weilders of the brush with a keener sense of light and colour, or surer grasps of essentials.”  John and Hazel Lavery were neighbors of the Churchills in London.  Winston would often work in Lavery’s studio in London.

The Coast near Cap d’Ail, 1949.  A photo shows Churchill in front of the archway you can see at the end of the pathway.

Churchill on the path painting, The Coast near Cap-d’Ail.

Churchill did not travel light.  His entourage included a driver, valets, Scotland-Yard detective(s), bodyguards, a Gendarme or two, and often multiple secretaries— always taking writing paraphernalia and of course all things necessary for painting.  It would not have been difficult to notice him on these painting occasions— that at times included a “draught excluder” screen, sun parasols, easel, all sorts of painting gear, (in one picture at-square sits on the wall), and refreshments.   He took his easel, paints, and brushes everywhere he went, including official visits.  Painting was what he did in order to carry on.

…And the, “Locals gather to watch the great statesman painting.”  Paul Rafferty.

Plage de la Garoupe, Cap-d’Antibes, 1935. As Coombs says; “characteristically for Churchill, the figures are not too successful.”

As related by Paul Rafferty: Winston’s, “Alligator cigar case that was the responsibility of Sgt Murray.  Only once Murray forgot it, much to Churchill’s chagrin.  Though not strictly painting equipment, all of his paraphernalia was very important to Sir Wintston: the cigars—ideally Romeo Julietos—and matches, and his ‘lemonade’.”

Churchill at Le Sentier du Littoral, Cap-d’Ail, 1948.

Churchill with Lord Beaverbrook photographed in the garden of La Capponcina, Cap-d’Ail.

Sea and Pine Trees at Cap-d’Ail. 1955.

In David Coombs’ book, there is a chronology of years with paragraphs labeled, Background and Painting have done that year—much was always going on in his life, and the world, yet he was able to focus and create beautiful pictures.  I’ve looked at many photos in the Coombs and Rafferty books of his work, and it is truly a remarkable portfolio. Learning about what was going on in the world at the time he was painting, puts in perspective how important it was for Churchill to have a diversion and how important were the friends and family that supported him along the way making villas and houses available to him where there was privacy.  I have only touched the surface and have chosen but a few stories that match the areas where he painted. Exploring Churchill as a painter is fascinating. and the history set down by Paul Rafferty and David Coombs with pictures of Churchill’s works makes it that more interesting.  Almost every picture has a tidbit of information attached.

Cap d’Ail through the years. The interesting title of the top left painting caught my eye.

Over the years, Churchill made repeated visits to towns all along the French Riviera—to those certain places he most enjoyed.  It’s interesting to see the visits put to canvas, each a little different, each with myriad colours, and scenes artfully interpreted.

Churchill painting at La Capponcina in 1955.  It looks to me to be, Sea and Pine Trees that he is working on. Notice his guard in the lower right corner–always close by.

Churchill at La Capponcina with Maire Gramaglia and family after being made Maire Honoraire de Cap-d’Ail by the Commune of Cap-d’Ail, recognizing his friendship with France during World War Two. 1952.

Lullenden Manor, East Sussex, Churchill residence 1917-1920.

“The Churchills lived very happily at Lullenden until financial difficulties forced its sale in 1920.”

Churchill was drawn to painting the always changing calm or a stormy sea, trees, gardens, the lake at Mimizan, boats in the Cannes Harbour, reflections on water, the rocks of the Pointe Bacon and pointu bateau in Cap-d’Antibes. Friends provided villas with wonderful views where he was welcome to stay and once painted while standing under a wisteria-covered pergola. What a guest he must have been—imagine the conversations that ensued.

Protected by a “draught excluder screen”.

The importance of Churchill’s discovery of painting cannot be underestimated and how it saved him. This quote from his writings in Coombs’ book, which had never been published before now, sums up his disquiet.

“WSC sitting with Willy Sax, his Swiss colourman at La Capponcina, Sir Winston wearing…(a) Stetson. He wore this hat while painting from 1930.”  Paul Rafferty

“I do not know how I should have got through those horrible months form May till November, when I resigned from the Administration, had it not been for this great new interest which sprang up in my mind and kept my fingers busy and my eye alert.”


À bientôt 


Quotes and Pictures:

Painting as a Pastime, by The Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, published in1965 by Cornerstone Library, New York.

Winston Churchill-Painting on the French Riviera, by Paul Rafferty, published by Unicorn.

Churchill on the Riviera, by Nancy Smith, published by Biblio Publishing.

Sir Winston Churchill’s Life Through his Paintings, by David Coombs with Minnie Churchill, published by Gardners Books, 2003.

The Riviera Set, by Mary S. Lovell, published by Pegasus Books Ltd.  2018.