The fact that 33 of Sir Winston Churchill’s more than 500 paintings are currently on exhibition in Atlanta has been enough to garner international attention for the city from leading international publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist.
But for Georgians, “The Art of Diplomacy – Winston Churchill and the Pursuit of Painting” not only reveals something of the person of the late British prime minister. It also weaves an untold narrative of their state’s interconnected history with his family, from the earliest days of its founding as a colony to the present.
That’s what excites Rodney Mims Cook Jr., founder of the National Monuments Foundation and the Millennium Gate Museum, a Georgia history museum where Mr. Churchill’s paintings now hang temporarily.
“This is so overlapping it’s astonishing, and it goes all the way back to our founder,” Mr. Cook said of the Churchill exhibit’s relevance to the state.
Students of diplomacy and history will find the exhibit fascinating on its own merit in the way it conveys the importance of painting to Mr. Churchill’s decision-making process. This is striking considering the far-reaching implications of his statecraft on the outcome of World War II and its impact on the modern world.
Mr. Churchill once said that painting helped him overcome bouts of depression that really hit home in 1915 after the British defeat at Gallipoli during World War I, an operation of which he was the architect.
“He was in a bad way that summer. This was the first time he had really experienced immense failure, and it was so personal,” said Duncan Sandys, Mr. Churchill’s great-grandson, who lives in Atlanta and helped organize the one-of-a-kind exhibition, which required participation from prominent owners and donors within and outside the family, all around the globe.
That’s when – at 40 years old – he began painting, which, in his own words, “came to my rescue during a very trying time.”
But even before he found this outlet, Mr. Churchill had already faced adversity. His mother was distant and his father extremely critical, writing shortly before his death that his son would amount to no more than a “social wastrel.” Later in life Mr Churchill and his wife, Clementine, lost one of their five children at 2 years old.
“He suffered many of the same issues that we all suffer at various points of our lives, and he found a way to get through things, and really painting was that constant,” Mr. Sandys said, suggesting that viewers of the exhibition would be challenged to look for a similar outlet in their own lives.
Painting also provided a way for Mr. Churchill to step away from the tough decisions at hand and clear his head, allowing him to come back with a calmer, more strategic mindset. In 1946, less than a year after the war with Japan ended, he painted just before famous speeches on the “Iron Curtain” in Fulton, Mo., and later in Zurich on “A United States of Europe.”
“Although he would’ve spent many weeks, probably many months formulating how he was going to impart that particular message, to me it’s very interesting that in those days leading up to those speeches, those major diplomatic moments, he was painting,” Mr. Sandys said.
That has caused the exhibition’s organizers to echo a famous art critic in posing the question of whether art “saved Western civilization.”
Bringing it Home
But Mr. Churchill, the historical figure, is aloof; and it’s when visitors learn that he visited Atlanta on multiple occasions, spoke at the Georgia Institute of Technology and had his own run-in with Prohibition that the colorful character really comes near for the average Georgian.
In a guestbook on loan to the exhibition from the Atlanta History Center, Mr. Churchill wrote, “Atlanta, risen like the phoenix from the ashes of war.” A scholar of the American Civil War, he had researched Atlanta for his four-volume series of books, “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” His pen touched that guestbook page about 80 years after Sherman’s torching of the Atlanta. Now, about the same amount of time has passed between World War II and the present day.
Mr. Cook, whose father was a Georgia representative and an Atlanta alderman, was able to learn some new things about his own home state while putting together the exhibition.
The first tie reaches back to Georgia’s founding. Some 200 years before Sir Winston’s visit to Georgia, John Churchill, who later became the First Duke of Marlborough, taught a young James Oglethorpe military tactics. Those lessons paved the way for young Oglethorpe’s first combat experience and his subsequent commission to found the colony of Georgia, in part to protect against Spanish expansion northward from Florida into the Carolinas, according to the exhibition.
One story Mr. Cook recounted of Mr. Churchill from the modern era seems to border on myth: While staying at the Biltmore during Prohibition, Mr. Churchill – an avid whiskey drinker and cigar smoker – got his hands on some illicit Georgia moonshine. His aides supposedly had it tested at a Georgia Tech chemistry lab to ensure its safety. By the time they returned, it was too late: His valet told them he had already imbibed.
The exhibition includes less colorful but more verifiable tales of his visit to Atlanta for a lecture tour and his family’s subsequent interactions with Georgia. Mr. Churchill spoke at an ROTC parade at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field. His daughter, Sarah Churchill, was married at Sea Island in 1949.
Mr. Sandys, whose grandmother Diana was Mr. Churchill’s oldest daughter, followed that example, marrying the former Mary Brown Brewer at Sea Island. They now live in Atlanta with their son, Julian.
Mr. Cook was connected to Mr. Sandys, incidentally, by Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, who had helped design and curate some of the period rooms at the Millennium Gate after having met Mr. Cook during his prior work with the Prince of Wales in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Sandys provides a local connection to the legacy of Mr. Churchill. But as the former city councilman and Lord Mayor of Westminster, the 41-year-old has sought to “plow his own furrow” even as he honors his ancestry.
He has become somewhat of a curator of his great-grandfather’s works, with which he has learned to appreciate in new ways as the years have passed. The “Château St-Georges-Motel” he recalls, was in the sitting room of his childhood home. After years of cigar smoke was removed, a completely new scene emerged.
Another, “The Tower of the Katoubia Mosque” – on loan from the private collection of actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – holds the most military significance. Mr. Churchill painted the scene in Marrakech just after a summit in 1943 in Casablanca with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to discuss the timing of D-Day. He had persuaded a reluctant FDR to join him at the mosque after their meeting to examine how the light hit the buildings and landscape. He later presented it as a gift to the American president, who had his own ties to Georgia – particularly his retreat in Warm Springs, dubbed the Little White House.
To honor the Churchill family’s connections to Georgia, the exhibition traveled to seven cities around the state before ending up in Atlanta. “We’ve had great crowds and support and enthusiasm,” Mr. Cook told Global Atlanta, noting that people from all over the United States have come to see the paintings.
The exhibition will stay at the Millennium Gate until January, culminating in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Mr.Churchill’s death.
Still haven’t visited the Millennium Gate? The British American Business Group will host “An Evening With Churchill” on Nov. 14. Learn more at http://babg.org/events/an-evening-with-churchill.
Also, the Winston Churchill Society of Georgia is having its annual dinner at the Millennium Gate Nov. 22. Learn more here.
For more about the exhibition, visit http://churchill-atlanta.com.