Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

Odd poem: French Verse on painting, by Winston Churchill

La peinture á l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beaucoup plus beau
Que la peinture á l’eau.

The translation: “Oil painting / Is certainly hard, / But it’s much lovelier / Than watercolour.” For reasons unknown, Winston Churchill came up with what is almost a Clerihew in style, but in French, as a comment in his little 1948 book ‘Painting as a Pastime‘.

Churchill first took up painting in 1915 at age 40 when he was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty. His fall was a result of the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli attacks on Turkey that he had organised.

He took up painting for distraction, but it became increasingly a part of his life. He didn’t have hopes of making money from his “daubs”, and didn’t consider he had mastered the art. As he wrote in that slim book, “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.” Early on he submitted and exhibited under pseudonyms as a way of assessing his abilities without the influence of his name. In 1921 he exhibited at Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin and sold six paintings for £30 each. In 1947 he submitted paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name David Winter, and was successful with two of them.

He continued to paint for over 40 years, landscapes when the weather was obliging, still lifes when stuck indoors. Wherever he travelled–Morocco and Egypt, France and Italy, Jamaica, Canada and the US–his easel, brushes and paints went with him and were put to use. He produced at least 500 paintings, giving many away and not keeping records of them. You can see several of his paintings here if you scroll to the bottom.

‘Photo: Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue river in 1948, photographer unknown

Odd poem: ‘The Influenza’ by Winston Churchill, age 15

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
        Or measure the untold amount
        Of ills that it has done?
        From China’s bright celestial land
        E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
        It journeyed with the sun.

I omit the next nine stanzas, as the influenza makes its way to Britain. The poem ends:

        For though it ravaged far and wide
        Both village, town and countryside,
        Its power to kill was o’er;
        And with the favouring winds of Spring
        (Blest is the time of which I sing)
        It left our native shore.

        God shield our Empire from the might
        Of war or famine, plague or blight
        And all the power of Hell,
        And keep it ever in the hands
        Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
        Who fought and conquered well.

Written in 1890 when he was a lazy 15-year-old Harrow schoolboy who did badly at everything except English, Winston Churchill partially redeemed himself with this prizewinning poem on the global influenza epidemic (which may have been a Coronavirus) of his day. This “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” killed about a million people worldwide.

The photograph shows Churchill in his school clothes at age 14.

So there you have him: a teenage Churchill, with excellent control of English and an early exposition of his oratory, bombast, nationalism, imperialism, and enjoyment of warfare. And fifty years later he did brilliantly for Britain in the Second World War (but thank goodness for Clement Attlee picking up the pieces afterwards).

Review: Lord Macaulay, “Lays of Ancient Rome”

horatius

Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ are remarkable in several ways. The well-known ‘Horatius’ (aka ‘Horatius at the Bridge’) is glorious, memorable, stirring, heroic, in lovely rolling ballad-type stanzas:

Then up spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”

Great stuff! It seems in keeping that Winston Churchill (love him or loathe him) would have learnt all 70 stanzas as a schoolboy, inspiring himself to develop courage (and oratory).

But the second remarkable thing is how bad the rest of the material in the volume is. The poetry is uninteresting, and the pure heroism of ‘Horatius’ is replaced either by gods winning the human battle, or by a girl being ‘saved’ from being despoiled by a tyrant by her father killing her when the three are together in the Forum (and not attempting to kill the tyrant), or by the poems deteriorating into blathery fragments.

Macaulay was wordy from an early age. The story is told of him that, uninterested in toys, he was reading avidly by the age of three and he already talked like a book. When hot coffee was accidentally spilled on his legs and a kindly woman asked “Is Diddums all right?” he replied, “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.”

The third way in which this volume is remarkable is in the main Preface and in the shorter prefaces to each of the poems, especially ‘Horatius’. Here Macaulay lectures in detail on a perceived universal process of ballad creation in preliterate societies (and on the value of verse for memorisation), ballads’ subsequent devaluation when higher standards of literacy come in, and finally their total loss or partial recovery. He recounts the differences between two ballads of the Battle of Otterburn which have quite different outcomes for the protagonists, even though both ballads were probably written by people who were alive at the time of the battle.

And in a throw-away paragraph he inadvertently highlights the changes in education and culture that have taken place in the past 150 years: “The early history of Rome is indeed far more poetical than anything else in Latin literature. The loves of the Vestal and the God of War, the cradle laid among the reeds of Tiber, the fig-tree, the she-wolf, the shepherd’s cabin” (to these five he adds a further 23 examples, ending with) “the combat between Valerius Corvus and the gigantic Gaul, are among the many instances which will at once suggest themselves to every reader.”

As if! Well, that was then, this is now. But ‘Horatius’ itself has a timeless quality to it. Although if you are trying to invoke heroism by reading it to a 10-year-old which I strongly recommend, you should pre-read it and comfortably skip some of the unnecessary early verses.