‘When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting’ (W. Churchill, quoted in D. Coombs and M.S. Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill. His Life and His Paintings, Lyme Regis, 2011, p. 86).
Rhodes is one of the largest Greek islands, historically famous for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is known as The Island of the Knights after the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, who conquered the island in the 14th Century and rebuilt the city of Rhodes in their medieval style. Due to its incredible beauty, the island has been a source of inspiration for many artists over the years. Sir Winston Churchill was one of them, who found the city of Rhodes picturesque, captivated by its striking combination of eastern and western features.
Winston Churchill began to paint at the age of forty in the middle of a great political disaster, the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, where the British Empire, along with France and Russia, fought the Ottoman Empire with a catastrophic result. From that moment, he developed a real passion for painting, which he described as a complete form of relaxation. Churchill stated: ‘Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so before you die’ (W. Churchill, quoted in C. Eade, Churchill by His Contemporaries, London, 1953, p. 19).
The Battlements at Rhodes was painted during a period of eight years, from 1930-1938. A time which marks one of the most pivotal and turbulent in Western history. The decade of the thirties held several important events: Hitler’s forces occupied the zone of the Rhineland in early 1936; Italy annexed Abyssinia in May 1936; the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936; and in 1937 the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth took place. Two years after the present work, in 1940, Churchill was appointed Prime Minister, and during the War ceased painting, except for one canvas he produced in Marrakesh in 1943 and presented to President Roosevelt. He did not take up his brushes again until the end of the conflict in 1945.
In the Autumn of 1934, Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine went on a cruise with Lord Moyne through the Eastern Mediterranean. On the course of the trip, Churchill produced a handful of works that captured the beauty of his surrounds, portraying Greek temples, sunny seascapes and city views. Battlements at Rhodes, which may well have been painted in Churchill’s studio after his return to England, as was often his practice, is one of the finest of this body of work. Capturing the Old City of Rhodes from the fortifications that surround it, Churchill experimented with perspective using the battlements to cut up the composition. Here they dominate the left-hand side of the work and dramatically surge forward into the viewer’s domain creating a sense of drama and theatre. It is perhaps little surprise that as a military strategist, he was interested in the architecture of the battlements.
Here we can see a mixture of different influences from the French Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and friends and mentors, such as Sir John Lavery (fig. 1) Sir William Nicholson, Paul Maze, André Dunoyer de Segonzac and John Singer Sargent. But above all, Churchill admired the work of W.R. Sickert, whose name even appears in the title of one of his pictures, Painting Lesson from Mr Sickert, 1928. Sickert, who was a member of the Camden Town Group, taught him the technique of camaieu painting. However, the present work displays none of Sickert’s traditionally muted palette.
Battlements at Rhodes is a wonderful example of Churchill’s skill as a painter, utilising fluid brushstrokes and a myriad of bright tone, which he juxtaposes in perfect harmony, to capture the warmth of the Mediterranean light. Here Churchill explores the effect of light and shadow, in perfect accord, relishing in the range of striking blue of the sky and sea, the mottled greys and browns of the battlements and mountains, the rich greens of the vegetation, and vibrant touches of red of the rooftops. Churchill expressed his joy of such bright colours: ‘I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.’ (Winston Churchill, quoted in D. Coombs and M.S. Churchill, op. cit., p. 86).