On the 30 November 1874 Winston Churchill was born. About a year ago, my dad lent me a fascinating little book called Painting as a Pastime by Winston S. Churchill, in which Churchill talks about his experience of essentially using art as a form of therapy.

Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale. Some advise exercise, and others, repose. Some cousel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety. No doubt all these may play their part according to the individual temperament. But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change.

Change is the master key. A man car wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulder; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.

Churchill-Life-Magazine 7 Jan 1946Churchill goes on to suggest that it is necessary to cultivate hobbies in order to divert the mind away from obsessive anxieties which cannot pass until the mind is suitably absorbed in something else. However, he insists that these hobbies ‘must all be real’ – that is to say, something that you really enjoy and can lose yourself in. What these hobbies are will depend on how much they differ from the tasks, presumably work-related, that are causing stress – a tired manual labourer might not greatly benefit from playing sports at the weekend for example. Interestingly, Churchill comments that even if you are lucky enough to enjoy the work that you do, ‘it may well be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds’. I know many people who work for themselves who hardly take a break from working or thinking about their businesses, so I can get behind this last statement.

One very useful ‘diversion’ is reading, but it causes mixed emotions for Churchill.

As you browse about, taking down book after book from the shelves and contemplating the vast, infinitely varied store of knowledge and wisdom which the human race has accumulated and preserved, price, even in its most innocent forms, is chased form the heart by feelings of awe not untinged with sadness. As one surveys the mighty array of sages, saints, historians, scientists, poets and philosophers whose treasures one will never be able to admire – still less enjoy – the brief tenure of our existence here dominates the mind and spirit… But from this melancholy there also comes a calm. The bitter sweets of a pious despair melt into an agreeable sense of compulsory resignation from which we turn with renewed zest to the lighter varieties of life

I imagine most of my friends would get behind the notion that reading takes us beyond ourselves, has the effect of putting life into perspective and since there exists much more than we could ever contemplate reading, is an infinite source of diversion and wisdom. However, I have certainly personally found that at times in my life even reading aroused too many mixed emotions to feel truly calming. Moreover, I spent a lot less of my spare time reading when at university for the reason that Churchill eventually outlines…

But reading and book-love in all their forms suffer from one serious defect: they are too nearly akin to the ordinary daily round of the brain-worker to give that element of change and contrast essential to real relief. To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand… Best of all and easiest to procure are sketching and painting in all their forms…

Churchill goes on to talk about his experiences of painting, his likes and his inspirations in the rest of this short text, despite having never wielded a brush or pencil until the age of forty.

Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time… Painting is a companion with whom one may hope to walk a great part of life’s journey… Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.

(c) Churchill Heritage Limited / Anthea Morton Saner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation (c) Churchill Heritage Limited / Anthea Morton Saner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation (c) Churchill Heritage Limited / Anthea Morton Saner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Churchill Heritage Limited / Anthea Morton Saner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Find out more…

The BBC have a website which is attempting to collect together the entire of the UK’s national collection of oil paintings, including information about the stories behind and where they can be found. Consequently, you can see 190 paintings by Winston Churchill on the Your Paintings website, or alternatively you can visit his family home at Chartwell in Kent, cared for by the National Trust, where many of his paintings can be seen in Churchill’s studio.


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