Thursday, April 12, 2007


In keeping with the rather eclectic nature of this blog, today I would like to share with you portions of Winston Churchill, An Informal Study of Greatness, a biography written by Robert Lewis Taylor (Doubleday, 1952). Written while Churchill was enjoying his later years out of office, this biography reveals not only the utter genius, eccentricities and unquenchable energy of Churchill, but also the enormous wit of the author, whose company I assume Churchill enjoyed.

I must confess that before I opened this book (obtained from the library of my late father-in-law post mortem), I had little knowledge of this great man. I was only vaguely aware of his reputation as an entertaining orator and leader of Britain during WWII. Having been edified, I must now begin to tackle Churchill's own body of writing -- which I do with much zeal.

As I read this book (chiefly while on an eliptical machine at the health club or on a commuter boat racing across Boston Harbor), I was prompted to laugh out loud almost incessantly -- often enough that I was asked many times what in the world could be so funny. Sometimes it was humor, others it was simply the wit of how something was conveyed.

So I dog-eared a a few passages later in the book that I thought particularly noteworthy, so that I could share them with you, my loyal reader(s).

During the 1920's, Churchill composed a weighty tome of work entitled The World Crisis, in essence an exhaustive study of World War I.

Taylor described how the British journals received the work, and made the following observation of the difference between British and American criticism:

The critical tone of these remarks was candid, but the English as a whole are conspicuously frank in their reviews. "It was one of those books which, once you have set down, is almost impossible to pick back up," said a writer not long ago, dealing with the work of a cherished friend. The give-and-take spirit is genial, rather unlike that in America, where critics have been shot down like dogs for challenging a fugitive comma. But England belongs to an older civilization, in which all the known insults have been bandied about so persistently that they have lost their sting. Moreover, the dueling blade has disappeared, and its modern substitute, the naked subpoena, is not much of a deterrent to unvarnished speech.

Churchill developed an immediate fondness for oil painting while first sitting for his portrait, painted by Sir John Lavery, an Irish painter who, unwillingly, introduced Churchill to the art form by obligingly enduring Churchill's constant assessments of the work-in-progress. Churchill soon had purchased all of the necessary supplied and described his first foray into the process of creation:

Having bought the colors, an easel, and a canvas, the next step was to begin. But what step to take! The palette gleamed with beads of colour; fair and white rose the canvas; the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air. My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto. But after all the sky on this occasion was unquestionably blue, and a pale blue at that. There could be no doubt that blue paint mixed with white should be put on the top part of the canvas. One really does not to have an artist's training to see that. It is a starting point open to all. So very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint on the palette with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the afronted snow-white shield. It ws a challenge, a deliberate challenge; but so subdued, so halting, indeed so cataleptic, that it deserved no response. At that moment the loud approaching sound of a motor-car was heard in the drive. From this chariot there stepped swiftly and lightly none other than the gifted wife of Sir John Lavery. "Painting! But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush - the big one." Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette - clean non longer - and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back. No evil fate avenged the jaunty violence. The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the laregest brush and fell upon my victim with berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.

Beautiful, isn't it?

Churchill went on to paint prolifically, and his works were displayed with prominence in galleries in France and England.

Historian, statesman, partisan, novelist, artist, orator extraordinaire. And consumer of scotch, champagne, brandy and cigars in copious quantities.

My kind of guy.

Plese let me know if this is the sort of thing you enjoy reading -- it would delight me to continue sharing.

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