London subjects by Churchill are very rare, it is believed that he painted only two other London subjects. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most iconic images of London and Britain, and the fact that Churchill chose this subject over all others in London is testament to the importance of the building to both him and the country. It is prescient that he should have chosen such a subject to paint, when its significance 15 years later became so important that during the Blitz Churchill insisted 'St Paul’s must be saved at all costs'. Indeed the Cathedral was to have further significance for Churchill when, following his death, on 30 January 1965, he was given a State Funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral – a significant honour normally only reserved for the monarch, which had to be approved by both Queen Elizabeth II and Parliament.
Painted circa 1927, St Paul’s Churchyard depicts the memorial of St Peter’s Cross in St Paul's Churchyard, which was destroyed by the Roundheads in 1643, during the First English Civil War. The spot was marked by a monument erected between 1908 and 1910, consisting of a Doric column of Portland stone designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, with a statue of St Paul by Sir Bertram Mackennal. Churchill painted an informal scene with a group of women and children walking towards the exit of the churchyard on a sunny and hazy day. The weather allowing him to create strong contrasts in the painting, and use shadow, foliage and the entrance gates to frame the painting and draw the viewer’s eye into the composition. The style of painting owes much to the influence of Walter Sickert, who met and befriended Churchill, through his wife Clementine, in 1927. He taught Churchill about painting, including the use of photographs as aids towards painting and grids to transfer proportions accurately onto a canvas. He additionally showed Churchill how to prepare canvases using an under-painting of several layers called camaïeu, usually of two colours. These influences are clear in St Paul’s Churchyard.
In 1927 Churchill was invited to spend time at Balmoral with King George V and Queen Mary, and it was whilst there that he painted St Paul’s Churchyard, working from a photograph, and using the techniques taught to him by Sickert. The painting was donated by Churchill, at the King’s request, to Queen Mary’s charity auction held at Balmoral Castle in aid of Crathie Parish Hall Fund and local charities, on 10 September 1927. St Paul’s Churchyard was auctioned for 115 guineas to Mr. S. Bond, and was then handed to Mr. Bond by Queen Mary. It has remained in the family ever since. This is the first time the painting has been seen in public since it was purchased.
An article in the press at the time on the charity auction, which is attached to the reverse of the painting reads: ‘Sir Frederick Ponsonby auctioned a painting by Mr. Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer who had been Minister in attendance at Balmoral Castle for several days. The painting depicted the Cross in front of St Paul’s Churchyard with the Cathedral in the background. Sir Frederick Ponsonby called attention to the fact that the picture was unique in respect that it was the only one that had been done by a Chancellor of the Exchequer at the request of a Sovereign and he suggested, amid laughter, that the idea might be carried further by his Majesty inviting leading members of the Royal Academy to paint paintings to be sold on behalf of the national Exchequer. Bidding for Mr. Churchill’s painting started at £10, and after keen competition it was sold for 115 guineas to Mr. S. Bond, a Sheffield steel magnate who has a house at Brackley, Ballater, and is a shooting tenant this season of Mr. …Forest.’