CRAIG BROWN: Brush up your ideas, Rishi, like Churchill
Back in October 2020, Rishi Sunak was asked to clarify a statement he had made about the effect of the lockdown on the arts.
Was he really telling people working in the arts to get new jobs in a different sector?
‘That is a fresh and new opportunity for people,’ he replied. ‘That’s exactly what we should be doing.’
It now looks as though the boot might be on the other foot. In a day or two, the Chancellor himself may soon be forced to look for a fresh and new opportunity.
Rishi Sunak in 2020 implied people working in the arts may want to look for fresh opportunities – should he find himself jobless soon, he could do worse than a trip to the Tate
If so, might I suggest he pay a visit to Tate Britain, a pleasant, 20-minute walk from 11 Downing Street?
In a fortnight’s time, a major exhibition of the paintings of Walter Sickert will be opening at the Tate. It is often forgotten that Sickert taught an earlier Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, how to paint.
In 1899, Sickert met Churchill’s future wife, Clemmie, when she was holidaying in Dieppe.
He invited her to his house. While she waited for him to return from a walk, the fastidious Clemmie decided to tidy up.
Seeing the skeleton of a herring on a plate, she threw the herring out of the window and washed up the plate.
On his return, Sickert was furious. ‘Where’s my herring?’
‘I threw it away.’
‘You interfering wretch! I was going to paint it!’
But Sickert forgave Clemmie and their friendship endured. Two years later, he showed her round Paris, and introduced her to Camille Pissarro.
Over lunch a deux, she asked Sickert who was the greatest living painter. He looked astonished.
‘I am, of course,’ he replied.
Walter Sickert taught an earlier Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, how to paint
Twenty-six years later, Clemmie was the wife of the Chancellor, and Sickert paid her a visit at 11 Downing Street.
As a result of this visit, Sickert formed a friendship with Winston Churchill, who was already an amateur painter.
Churchill was keen to improve, and Sickert was happy to teach him. Both were showmen.
In the words of Sickert’s biographer, Matthew Sturgis: ‘They much enjoyed each other’s company, and peals of laughter would descend from the upstairs studio room at Number 11.’
The Churchills often asked the Sickerts down to Chartwell, their home in Kent, where Sickert, an ebullient character, would entertain them with music-hall songs after dinner.
During the day, Churchill painted in the garden, under the instruction of Sickert.
After one of these tutorials, Churchill wrote to Clemmie: ‘I am really thrilled by the field he is opening to me. I see my way to paint far better pictures than I ever thought possible before. He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter.’
In return, Churchill tried to give the notoriously spendthrift Sickert lessons in financial management, but with little success: he had no head for figures.
Painting soon became Churchill’s most constant source of pleasure, an escape from the pressures of office.
‘With his brushes and paint, he forgot everything, like a child does who has been given a box of paints,’ recalled a friend.
On losing the general election in 1945, he packed his paints and brushes and set off for Lake Como, producing 15 paintings within a month. ‘I paint all day and have banished care and disillusionment to the shades,’ he said.
Two years later, Churchill submitted two landscapes for possible inclusion in the Royal Academy summer exhibition.
He used a pseudonym — David Winter — because he didn’t want the judges to be influenced by his name. Only after the paintings had been accepted did he reveal his true identity.
Churchill used the pseudonym David Winter when submitting his first portraits, as he didn’t want audiences to judge them based on his already famous name
Churchill’s love of painting stayed with him for the rest of his life, and possibly beyond. ‘If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live. I couldn’t bear the strain of things,’ he told the director of the Tate, John Rothenstein.
He called it ‘bottled sunshine’, adding: ‘When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting.’
At his deathbed, his daughter Sarah saw his hand move ‘as if grasping for the heavenly paintbrush that might yet await him’.
Might our current Chancellor follow in Churchill’s footsteps? On his website he says: ‘In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, cricket, football and movies.’
Fair enough, but none of these hobbies would earn him a living. He is said to be good with figures, so if he remembers that a landscape by Winston Churchill sold for £8.3 million at auction last year, then perhaps that would act as a spur.
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