Scene on the River Meuse at Dinant is one of three related yet differing views painted by Winston Churchill in the wake of the Second World War. Churchill painted one of these in situ, while the others were completed in 1946-47 from his memories and photographs of the scene. Of Churchill’s three paintings of the Meuse at Dinant, the first, smaller one is owned by the National Trust and exhibited in his home at Chartwell, where it is often shown hanging on the wall of his studio. The other, on the same scale as Scene on the River Meuse at Dinant, was on long-term loan to Chartwell, lent by his daughter Mary, Lady Soames, who had accompanied him on the trip to Belgium; she died in 2014, and the painting was gifted to the nation on her death.
In September 1946, in the wake of the Second World War in which he had played so instrumental a role, Churchill went on a brief painting trip to Belgium at the invitation of the Prince Regent, Charles. While there, Churchill carried out several sorties with his easel, including the one to Dinant where, observed by a crowd of curious onlookers, Churchill painted his initial view of the Meuse. It obviously struck a chord with Churchill, as subsequent to his departure from Belgium he painted the present work and its sister picture. These latter works have the added benefit of showing the artist himself seated on the river bank at his easel, wearing a work coat and Homberg, perhaps reflecting his use of photographs as source material. The images may have been taken by Mary: photographs from that day show her carrying a camera (see www.patrimoinemosan.net).
By 1946, when Churchill began Scene on the River Meuse at Dinant, he was one of the most famous people on the globe, seen by many as the vanquisher of the Nazis. He had been the wartime Prime Minister who had led the United Kingdom and its then sprawling Empire from a state of siege to one of victory. After the Victory in Europe, Churchill was swept from power and suddenly found himself with time to dedicate to his great pastime - indeed, passion - painting. The holidays he enjoyed in the early post-war years saw him returning to painting with gusto after a long hiatus: during the War years, he had barely had time to pick up a brush, although he was often known to have brought painting materials with him.
Churchill’s joy at returning to painting is evident in the present work in the sheer vibrancy of the palette. The sky and river alike are painted in electric blues shot through with the dappled gold of the distant skyline, betraying Churchill’s love of colour. This had already been in evidence a quarter of a century earlier, when he had written his essay, ‘Painting as a Pastime’ for Strand magazine in 1921:
‘I must say I like bright colours... I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns. When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject’ (Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime, London, 2013, p. 64).
Churchill’s love of colour, so evident in Scene on the River Meuse at Dinant, had developed early in his artistic career, which itself had only begun when he was 40 years old. Just as he was rediscovering painting in the 1940s having been swept out of power, so he had initially stumbled upon it some thirty years earlier during the worst doldrums of his career. Pushed out of office following the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, Churchill felt infuriatingly helpless. He was spending time at Hoe Farm, the Surrey house he rented with his family, when he found his sister-in-law painting watercolours. He himself began dabbling cautiously using the children’s paints, swiftly graduating to oils. He described his awe of the blank canvas, which he hesitantly dabbed with blue to depict the sky until Hazel, the wife of his friend Sir John Lavery and herself an accomplished artist, arrived. She commandeered his brush and palette and showed him how it was done—vigorously—a lesson he would never forget.
Churchill subsequently learnt a great deal in the studio of Lavery himself and also enjoyed friendships and instruction from a number of prominent artists throughout his life, from Sir William Nicholson to Graham Sutherland, whose portrait of the former premier was famously destroyed by his wife. Churchill also learnt a great deal from Walter Sickert, including the advantages of using photography both as source material, through projection onto the canvas, and as an aide-mémoire, as appears to be the case in Scene on the River Meuse at Dinant.
Churchill’s role in helping to orchestrate the Allied victory during the Second World War had brought him fame and wide-spread recognition. His trip to Dinant in September 1946 followed an official visit the previous year in which he ‘had been rapturously received by the Belgian people in Brussels, Antwerp and Liège’ (Mary Soames, Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter, London, 1990, p. 155). Streets had even been named after him—including avenue Winston Churchill in Dinant, across the Meuse from where he painted in 1946. The invitation from Prince Charles to return to Belgium on a painting trip saw him also capture a view of the nuns among the trees in The Beguinage in Bruges, in which he also used photographs as source material. Mary Soames, who had formerly served as her father’s aide-de-camp, including at the Potsdam Conference the previous year, accompanied Churchill as his wife Clementine was unable to travel for health reasons. This led to widespread speculation of a romance between Mary and the Belgian Regent.
The Belgian press largely agreed not to cover Churchill’s private visit. A rare exception was a local weekly paper, Le Mosan, which closely documented Churchill’s trip to Dinant (an impressive account has been collated by amateur historians from the area at www.patrimoinemosan.net). Le Mosan illustrated photographs showing Churchill sitting at his easel by the Meuse, with a beer bottle and glass on the table next to him, painting the first painting related to the present work. The sight of the great statesman painting was apparently an immediate draw for a large crowd which was only held back by the police. Churchill would himself return to Dinant with his wife two years later.
Dinant was apt not only for its picturesque nature, so exemplified in Churchill’s paintings such as this one, but also for its role in history. It had for centuries been a key crossing point of the Meuse, and for that reason a frequent flashpoint in conflicts. This had led to its being the site of battles during the recent Allied invasion of Europe. During the Occupation, the Gestapo had even had a local headquarters in the hotel near which Churchill sat while he painted. And in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the name of Dinant had echoed around the English-speaking world after it had been the victim of a massacre of its civilians during part of the ‘Rape of Belgium’, the series of atrocities which eventually galvanised the United States of America into joining the war effort on the Allies’ side. Amongst the wounded of the Battle of Dinant was a young French officer, Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle, who himself would come to achieve some fame on the world stage.