One of Winston Churchill’s first acts as a private citizen after his resignation as prime minister in April 1955 was to give The Bridge at Aix-en-Provence to a man named Willy Sax.
The painting, which depicts the elegant Trois-Sautets bridge over the River Arc, is one of the politician and painter’s most technically accomplished works — and the fact that he gave it to Sax is testament to the strength of their friendship.
A paint manufacturer from Dietikon in Switzerland, Sax formed a firm bond with Churchill when they first met, in September 1946. ‘It was a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives,’ says Nicholas Orchard, head of Modern British and Irish Art at Christie’s.
Winston Churchill, hero of the Swiss people
After the Second World War, Churchill was invited to Switzerland for a painting holiday and received a rapturous welcome. As the historian Werner Vogt wrote, ‘For the Swiss people Churchill became a hero in 1940, and when he visited the city of Zurich on 19 September 1946, tens of thousands of people were cheering along the streets.
‘The Swiss people’s gratitude was limitless. They made his drive through the city a triumphal parade. Never before and never after Churchill have the Swiss paid tribute to a great man like this.’
At the University of Zurich, Churchill would make one of his most important post-war speeches, ‘Let Europe Arise’, but he also had another item on his agenda.
‘Oil paint was the common ground on which these two men built their deep relationship’ — specialist Nicholas Orchard
‘For a while, Churchill had been using oil paints produced by Sax-Farben, a family-run business based near Zurich,’ says Orchard. ‘He was so impressed with them that he wanted to meet the head of the company while there.’
He arranged to see Willy Sax at the Dolder Grand hotel. The pair got on so well that Churchill delayed his return trip in order to visit his new friend again, this time at the Sax-Farben factory.
From that point on, the pair grew closer and closer, and their friendship — well documented in letters and photographs — was the subject of a 2016 book, Champagner mit Churchill (Champagne with Churchill), by Philipp Gut.
‘Oil paint was the common ground on which these two men built their deep relationship,’ adds Orchard.
Sax’s contribution to Churchill’s artistic practice extended beyond the mere supply of materials. Their shared passion resulted in a handful of products made specifically for Churchill.
Churchill’s search for the colour of the sky
The wartime leader liked to work on large canvases en plein air and preferred to paint quickly, using oils direct from the tube if possible, but he hadn’t been able to find a paint that came close to the colour he wanted for the sky. Sax created ‘Churchill Blue’ for that purpose.
‘The two also went on numerous painting trips together,’ says Orchard, ‘and Sax introduced Churchill to many of his artist friends, including the painter Cuno Amiet. Churchill was always very receptive to advice from the artists he met, but it went both ways.’
As Sax once remarked, ‘I know many professional painters who were able to learn from him.’
In 1948, Sax and the Swiss artist Charles Montag visited Churchill in the south of France, where he painted The Bridge at Aix-en-Provence.
Sax was a keen sports fisherman, and Churchill added a personal touch to the painting, using a few carefully placed brushstrokes on the left of the composition to suggest a figure fishing.
Cézanne and the Trois-Sautets bridge
The setting would have been especially appealing to Churchill, not only because he loved painting water, but also because it had previously been depicted by one of the most important artists of the modern era, Paul Cézanne.
‘In the last year of his life, Cézanne produced two watercolours of the Trois-Sautets bridge: Bathers Under a Bridge, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Bridge of Trois-Sautets, in the Cincinnati Art Museum,’ says Orchard. ‘Churchill was a great admirer of the Post-Impressionist’s work.’
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When Churchill became prime minister again in 1951, Sax found himself acting as a political mediator. He became a kind of relay station — a private ambassador for friendly exchanges between the UK and Switzerland. A direct line from Dietikon to Downing Street cemented this informal role.
He was also a frequent guest at Chartwell, Churchill’s country home, and it is said that the leader often kept important guests waiting, preferring to spend time with his friend Sax.
After Sax’s death, the painting passed to his descendants, in whose possession it has remained since.