This delightful and unusually spirited Churchill painting is especially interesting in several ways. It is painted on canvas-board, a convenient and relatively small support that Churchill used when working quickly and spontaneously. Then, it is fully signed “W Churchill” which is very rare and confirms the artist’s special regard for Mr. E. Merrick Tyler, his adviser at Lloyds to whom he gave the painting.
A letter from Churchill’s Private Secretary Violet Pearman to Mr Merrick Tyler, dated 4th January 1933, states: ‘I have dispatched today... a picture which Mr Churchill painted himself and which he promised to give you some time ago. He hopes the picture reaches you safely and that you like it’.
At the time that Churchill made this gift he was compellingly busy. In December the previous year he had railed in a House of Commons speech against the Government’s and indeed the nation’s preferences for disarmament: ‘The removal of the just grievances of the vanquished ought to precede the disarmament of the victors. To bring about anything like equality of armaments... while those grievances remain unredressed, would be almost to appoint the day for another European war’.
That speech is a sober example of Churchill’s singular efforts when he was out of office, his ‘Wilderness Years’, to warn and cajole all would listen, or read, in the many articles he published at home and abroad, of the dangers that he so acutely foresaw. Ironically, it was also in January 1933 that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Somehow, in the midst of all this serious political activity, Churchill was working on a monumental biography of his great ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, of which the first volume (eventually there were to be four) was published in October 1933. Since his youth Churchill had been an inveterate traveller and determined as always to see and understand everything for himself he had, while writing his life of Marlborough, surveyed and visited the European battlefields associated with the Duke.
By contrast perhaps, this little painting of a café at St Jean de Luz suggests a time of personal happiness. As so often, we’re all indebted to Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer for clearly dating this painting: ‘it was probably painted’ he stated, in September 1923 ‘when Churchill spent some time in the region of Bayonne’. At the end of the previous year, the Government of which he was a member had fallen after a General Election that also saw Churchill lose his parliamentary seat - after 22 consecutive years as a member of the House of Commons.
However, Churchill was emboldened not only by his previous successes as a Minister but by personal fulfilment as a husband and father - whom he needed to support. Immediately therefore he set his hand to completing the first volumes of his war memoirs The World Crisis (eventually published in 5 volumes and six parts between 1923 and 1931) for which he had secured a very lucrative contract. Churchill took his family to stay for four months in 1923 at a villa near Cannes where, as well as writing, he turned his mind and hand to painting, including a series of very dashingly painted impressionist seascapes.
It is these freely handled works made earlier in the year that find an echo in Churchill’s painting of the Café at St. Jean de Luz. Not far from the estate at Mimizan of his friend the Duke of Westminster, it is an old French town facing the Atlantic on the south western edge of the Bay of Biscay below the Pyrenees. Its sheltered aspect made it a great favourite for sea bathers – a sport that Churchill relished and enjoyed for much of his life.
We are very grateful to David Coombs for preparing this catalogue entry.