DUBAI: “Happy are the painters, for they are never alone.”
While many of us could mistake this famous quote for a comment by countless artists, you may be surprised to learn it was said by none other than Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose passion for painting recently made headlines around the world.
Earlier this week, a painting of Marrakesh by the famed World War Two politician, who died in 1965 at the age of 90, smashed expectations and sold for a staggering $11.5 million at auction in London.
“The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque,” which was owned by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, was painted by Churchill during a wartime visit in 1943.
And while securing the allies victory against Nazi Germany may have been all-consuming, Churchill found snippets of time to pursue his passion for art after realizing his love for painting at 40 years old.
He was first introduced to painting during a family holiday in 1915 after his sudden fall from grace over his role in the disastrous Dardanelles naval campaign against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Churchill, who served as the First Lord of the Admiralty during the campaign, hoped that this new skill would distract him from the ongoing strife engulfing Europe.
For the artist-cum-politician, who completed an impressive 500 artworks, painting was a hobby; he did to unwind and gifted most of his works to friends.
And while Churchill painted a varied array of landscapes, from quaint English country scenes to the immense cliffs near Marseilles in France, his depictions of Morocco feature among his most exotic paintings.
His passion for the translucent light of Marrakesh, far from the political storms and drab skies of London, dates back to the 1930s when most of Morocco was a French protectorate.
Churchill’s first painting of Morocco was completed in 1935. Titled “Scene in Marrakesh,” it is set to be auctioned by Christie’s later this year.
The work was painted while on a stay at Mamounia, where he marveled at the “truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives,” in a letter to his wife Clementine.
He went on to make six visits to the North African country over the course of 23 years.
“Here in these spacious palm groves rising from the desert the traveler can be sure of perennial sunshine... and can contemplate with ceaseless satisfaction the stately and snow-clad panorama of the Atlas Mountains,” he wrote in 1936 in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.
He would set up his easel on the balconies of the grandiose La Mamounia hotel or the city’s Villa Taylor, beloved by the European jet setters of the 1970s.
It was from the villa, after a historic January 1943 conference in Casablanca with wartime leader US president Franklin Roosevelt and France’s Charles de Gaulle, that he painted what came to be regarded as his finest work, of the minaret behind the ramparts of the Old City, with mountains behind and tiny colorful figures in the forefront.
“You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh,” he is reputed to have told Roosevelt. “I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”
After the US delegation had left, Churchill stayed on an extra day and painted the view of the Koutoubia Mosque framed by mountains — he then sent it to Roosevelt for his birthday.
What makes “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” so special is the fact that it was the only artwork he completed during World War II.
However, it should be noted that Morocco was not the only Arab country Churchill painted. In 1921, he painted the Pyramids at Giza when he visited Egypt as Secretary of State for the Colonies for the Cairo Conference.
What makes this week’s whopping sale even more interesting, however, is the star power lent by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, who owned the piece before putting it up for auction.
Jolie’s former husband Brad Pitt is known to be an art collector and during their 2014-16 marriage the pair bought some notable works, including pieces by Banksy and Neo Rauch.
The London-based auction house Christie’s told CNN that the Maleficent actress, 45, listed the artwork as property of the “Jolie Family Collection,” while US Weekly reported that it was a gift from Pitt to Jolie prior to their enagement.
The couple separated in 2016 and have spent years enmeshed in divorce proceedings, amid speculation about the division of their extensive art collection. They were declared divorced in 2019 after their lawyers asked for a bifurcated judgment, meaning that two married people can be declared single while other issues, including finances and child custody, remain.
While Churchill’s painting of Marrakesh may no longer adorn Jolie’s walls, the sun-drenched piece will no doubt be appreciated elsewhere — at $11.5 million, we certainly hope so.