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Art and Images in Psychiatry
November 2005

The Mediterranean at Genoa

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(11):1181. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.11.1181

He is so unhappy & that makes him very difficult. He hates his food (hardly any meat). . . . I can’t see any future. But papa is going to Italy. . . . —Clementine Churchill to their daughter Mary, August 26, 19451(p804)

In July 1945, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) ran for the first time for the office for prime minister of Great Britain in a national election. In wartime, he had assumed this position when Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) resigned. Churchill, a renowned and inspirational wartime leader, lost the election; it was a landslide victory for the Labor party. Although deeply disappointed, he publicly accepted the verdict of the electorate with grace. The votes had been cast on July 5, but there was a 3-week interval before the votes were fully counted; Churchill learned that he had lost on July 26 during the Big Three (Truman, Churchill, Stalin) Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945) in Berlin, Germany. During that interval, Truman notified Churchill about successful tests of the atomic bomb in New Mexico. Churchill agreed with Truman to the plan to drop the atomic bomb on Japan if the Japanese refused to surrender.2(p90,99,100)It was Churchill’s last involvement in a major wartime decision.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), English. Cover: The Mediterranean at Genoa, 1945, C.425. Oil on canvas, 18 × 22 in. Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Ltd, London, on behalf of The Churchill Heritage. © 2005 The Churchill Heritage Ltd. Image provided by Marsh and Malone (http://www.marshandmalone.com), London, England.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), English. Cover: The Mediterranean at Genoa, 1945, C.425. Oil on canvas, 18 × 22 in. Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Ltd, London, on behalf of The Churchill Heritage. © 2005 The Churchill Heritage Ltd. Image provided by Marsh and Malone (http://www.marshandmalone.com), London, England.

Privately, following the loss of the election, Churchill entered his “black dog days,” his term for his periodic depressions. In 1915, he experienced a similar state of mind when removed from office (Lord of the Admiralty) after being held responsible for the disastrous Allied defeat in the Dardanelles campaign (Gallipoli) that he had championed in World War I. Churchill wrote, “When I left the Admiralty at the end of May, 1915, I still remained a member of the War Council. In this position I knew everything and could do nothing. . . . I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, placed cruelly in a front seat.”3(p16)

Churchill had overcome many obstacles. His parents married on April 15, 1874, and he was born 7½ months later on November 30. He had a lusty cry and a tuft of red hair. No birth weight was recorded. Churchill was a solitary, rebellious child, often in poor health. He was nurtured by his nanny, Elizabeth Anne Everest, and nourished on family stories of the heroism of his ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, who led the forces that defeated the French in the 18th century. His father, Lord Randolph, whom he idealized, disparaged him. His beautiful mother, Jennie Jerome, an American, spent little time with him during his childhood. At age 7 years, he was sent away to St George’s school, where he was harshly treated. The misery ended after 2 years with a school transfer, but his time there was never forgotten.

Churchill was sensitive and small in stature with limited natural endowments, but his iron will, daring, imagination, and intuition sustained him. With limited affection from his parents, he sought attention from others. As a young man, he wrote to his mother that he had only ambition to cling to.4 There was a history of mood disorder in his grandfather and in his father, who died with a diagnosis of dementia paralytica (tertiary syphilis) at age 45 years when Churchill was 20 years old. Moreover, Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, quoted Churchill’s description of his black depression. Churchill did not like standing near the edge of a train platform when a train was passing through. “A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”5(p179)

In 1915, Churchill learned that painting could keep the black dog at bay. He wrote, “To have reached the age of forty without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil, to have regarded with mature eye the painting of pictures of any kind as a mystery . . . then suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new and intense form of interest and action with paints and palettes and canvases is an astonishing and enriching experience.”3(p13)The Muse of Painting came to his rescue.3

After the election defeat in 1945, he turned again to painting.2,6,7 On September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese Imperial government formally surrendered aboard the battleship the USS Missouri, Churchill set off for Lake Como, Italy, to a villa that had been made available to him for holiday. He wrote to Clementine on September 5 shortly after his arrival, “It has done me no end of good to come out here and resume my painting. The Japanese war being finished and complete peace and victory achieved, I feel a sense of relief that grows steadily, others having to face the hideous problems of the aftermath. . . . ”2(p138)

Buoyed by the experience at Lake Como, Churchill extended his stay and moved on September 19 to the Italian Riviera. There he stayed at the Villa Pirelli. His host, Colonel Wathen, described his visit: “Mr Churchill said he was going to bathe. . . . The cavalcade [to the sea] was headed by Mr Churchill wearing his California hat, a silk dressing gown, and bedroom slippers, and smoking a cigar. . . . He thoroughly enjoyed himself, frisking about like a porpoise. Getting him out was a bit of a problem, owing to the swell and the rocks; we managed, by me pushing from the water and [Major] Ogier pulling from the land.”2(p151)

Describing the setting, Churchill wrote to Clementine: “On the rocky bluff overlooking the sea it was near the bathing place where I got a beautiful clear water of the palest green to try to paint. I worked hard for two days at the illusion of transparency and you shall judge when you see the results how far I have succeeded,”2(p152)(cover painting). Churchill returned to England during the first week in October after a full 5-week holiday, now mentally and physically refreshed.

Churchill advised that “To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand . . . best of all and easiest to procure are sketching and painting in all their forms. Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day. . . . I do not presume to explain how to paint, but only how to get enjoyment. Do not turn the superior eye of critical passivity upon these efforts. Buy a paint box and have a try.”3(p11-13)

Jenkins  R Churchill: A Biography.  New York, NY Penguin Putnam, Inc2002;
Gilbert  M Winston S. Churchill Volume VIII: Never Despair, 1945-1965.  London, England Heinemann1988;
Churchill  WS Painting as a Pastime.  Delray, Fla Levenger Press2002;
Storr  A Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind.  New York, NY Ballantine Books1990;
Moran  C Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1945.  Boston, Mass Houghton Miffin Co1966;
Soames  M Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter.  London, England William Collins & Sons1990;
Coombs  DChurchill  M Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings.  Philadelphia, Pa Running Book Press Publishers2003;