'You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech … I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains'
-Sir Winston Churchill
Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque is commonly regarded as the most important painting by Sir Winston Churchill, with its story interwoven into the history of the twentieth century.
Churchill began painting in 1915, aged 40, at a well-documented low point in his career. His enthusiasm for his “paint box” was sustained throughout his life. He stopped painting only once when he was forced to harness all of his energies on the office of wartime Prime Minister. Yet, even in the midst of fighting against Nazi tyranny, he managed to devote a few hours to paint a single canvas, the present work, Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque. The painting captures one of his favourite views, a vista across the city of Marrakech as it rises towards the high peaks of the Atlas Mountains.
Churchill began travelling to Marrakech during the late 1930s, following a winter stay in 1935-36. Thereafter he wrote, 'Morocco was to me a revelation'. He seemed captivated by Marrakech in particular, writing, 'Here in these spacious palm groves rising from the desert the traveller can be sure of perennial sunshine … and can contemplate with ceaseless satisfaction the stately and snow-clad panorama of the Atlas Mountains. The sun is brilliant and warm but not scorching; the air crisp, bracing but without being chilly; the days bright, the nights cool and fresh'. He continued to paint in North Africa, particularly in Marrakech, whenever circumstances allowed. As David Coombs has stated, 'These Moroccan pictures are a reminder of his friendship with the painter Sir John Lavery, who had a house in Tangier'. In his essay Painting as a Pastime, Churchill acknowledges the influence of Henri Matisse, who was also charmed by the luminous North African light and who completed a number of important works during his time in Morocco.
It was during a crucial moment of the war in Europe that Churchill took time out after a vital summit. After the Anglo-American Casablanca Conference in January of 1943, Churchill persuaded the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to join him on a visit to one of his most favourite places. The conference had lasted 10 days and, as the President prepared to leave, Churchill insisted, 'You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech … I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains'.
It took five hours to drive the 150 miles to Marrakech. After their arrival Churchill and Roosevelt looked out from the top of the tower in the place where they stayed, the Villa Taylor, on the outskirts of the old city walls. One can only imagine what the two discussed as they surveyed the scene. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, who joined them, recorded in his diary, 'We stood gazing at the purple hills, where the light was changing every minute'. Once Roosevelt had departed, Churchill stayed a further day to spend some time 'painting from the tower the only painting I attempted during the War'. The canvas is painted from where both men had stood and viewed the scene the previous evening.
The painting is a panorama over Marrakech incorporating its most famous landmarks, the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque set against the rising peaks of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the far distance. The figures in the foreground animate the scene, as well as lend a sense of scale. The view is bathed in golden light falling on the ochre-coloured buildings. The city is suffused with pink and purple shadows tracking across the façade of the walls and rooftops, which recede into the greenery of palms directing the viewer's gaze upwards to the stately mountains beyond. The impressionistic brushwork was rapid and broken into separate dabs in order to render the fleeting daylight. The purple peaks are dusted with snow, contrasted against the receding blues of the sky. The painting adopts a palette of sandy pinks, azure greens and hazy blues.
Churchill considered the paintings produced in Marrakech 'a cut above anything I have ever done so far'. In light of their shared experience, Churchill gifted the painting to the US President 'as a memento of this short interlude in the crash of war'.
We are very grateful to Barry Phipps, Art Historian, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, for preparing this catalogue entry.
Norman G. Hickman, was a movie producer, author, financier and avid art collector. He served as an associate producer of the Churchill themed film The Finest Hours, in 1964, the same year he acquired Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, from the Nebraska collector George W. Woodward. He was well decorated for his service during the Second World War, as commander of a PT boat in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Great Britain and the Bronze Star by the United States.