After my mother passed away peacefully in hospice last month, I unpacked a box containing her old brushes and an easel. And out of the box also tumbled a monograph that may have explained her surprising devotion to this hobby. It is a copy of "Painting as a Pastime," by Winston S. Churchill. I have known Churchill as an inspiring warrior and political mover, famously known for his dictum "Action this day."
It turns out that the famous wartime Prime Minister was not only a fanatical workaholic, but he was also a devoted painter. And the book that literally fell into my hands last month extolled painting as a powerful restorative.
That is, he was describing painting not just as a way to capture beauty in the world. There was a bit of that. But more to the point, he was recommending it as a way to free the mind of cares.
As it happens, I had been reading Ashley Jackson's excellent biography of Churchill just as the painting volume came into my hands. Jackson takes care to provide a picture of Churchill as a statesman who has other interests: "Chartwell [Churchill's estate], painting, writing, farming, building, holidaying--all of these things were...important features of a many layered and richly textured life," says Jackson.
In fact, if the painting book had not appeared, I would have thought writing was Churchill's favorite hobby. "I feel devoutly thankful that to have been born fond of writing," he wrote. Well, as it happens since all the farming and holiday-ing took money, and buckets of it, Churchill wrote in great swaths--he completed about 43 books and countless articles--and in large measure for income. It was the job that kept him in cigars and brandy. So there must have been something other than that for relaxation.
When Churchill was relieved as head of the British navy in 1915, he was maddened by his inability to affect the conduct of World War I. "I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it," as he put it.
It was at this time, when he considered himself forced to remain a spectator to the tragedy, that he happened upon what he called "the children's paint-box," which was a set of watercolors. He had so much fun experimenting with it one Sunday that the next day he ordered what he called "a complete outfit for painting in oils."
First of all, painting opened his eyes. "The whole world is open with its treasures. The simplest objects have their beauty...Every land, every parish, has its own tale to tell."
Second, always a wide traveler, he became eager to go to distant places and to see their color and their light. Not as a mere visitor, mind you: "The vain racket of the tourist gives place to the the calm enjoyment of the philosopher...even if you cannot portray it [the scene] as you see it, you feel it, you know it, and you admire it for ever."
And lastly, there is the effect on the spirit. I can almost hear Churchill's voice as he says: "the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts."
"To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand." Which would he recommend? "best of all and easiest to procure are sketching and painting in all their forms."
In a way he anticipates the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work on 'flow" so informs our view of the mind today. Here is Churchill getting lost in his painting until one of his other great interests asserts itself:
"I know of nothing, which, without exhausting the body more entirely absorbs the mind...time stands respectfully aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door."
His final advice: "Buy a paint box and have a try."