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Churchill in Art and Words

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Churchill at his desk in the Map Room in World War 2. Churchill at his desk in the Map Room in World War 2.

Three recent books have explored various aspects of the literary and artistic life of Winston Churchill. Together they provide a fascinating glimpse into how he lived, how he wrote, and what he said.

Anyone planning to read all three, especially those not overly familiar with Churchill, should start with Barry Singer’s book, Churchill Style. This book is a labour of love- Singer is the proprietor of the only standing bookshop in the world (Chartwell in New York City) devoted to the works of Churchill.

Vignettes throughout his life are given by Singer. Each chapter, for example, might have sections as small as a paragraph on Autos and Homes (what did he buy, and for how much?), Dining (what did he like to eat, and what were his dinner conversations?), Friendship (his dearest acquaintances), Pastimes (painting and travel), Cigars (what kind did he like and where did he get them from?), Imbibing (how much did he really drink, and what did he prefer?).

These and many other personal issues are interwoven with a narrative that briefly describes his life story. The book is beautifully illustrated, with pictures ranging from the mundane (crested pewter table mats used at his home Chartwell) to the profound (Churchill pictured with Kings and Presidents). One of the most fun is a 1944 shot of Churchill showing off a suit he designed. The admirer of the suit is none other than General (later President) Eisenhower. Singer’s book is a delight.

Much more serious is Peter Clarke’s book, Mr. Churchill’s Profession. Complete with 47 pages of notes, bibliography and index, Clarke explores in detail the many books Churchill wrote. His renown as the leader of wartime Britain and savior of the Western World overshadows the fact he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Near the outset, Clarke goes into too much detail about the political life of Churchill's father- the subject of an early biography by Winston- but his book is a superb overview of Churchill's literary output.

Here we find not only what was in his books, but what got deleted before publication. “Churchill’s sense of history was strongly providential, but in a secular sense. He had prepared a stirring encomium on the England of Edward the Confessor,” writes Clarke, but “in the absence of any plausible supporting evidence” this fine claim had to be deleted in proof. This is what the public did not read:

“This whole body of moral, social and political usages constitutes the root inheritance of the English-speaking peoples, and is exemplified through all the recurring crises of history, and find their most resolute and definite expression at the present day.”

Clarke’s book does concentrate on Churchill’s History of The English Speaking Peoples, which Clarke characterizes as a “sentimental vision.” How he wrote it and who helped him write it, his sometimes stormy relations with his publishers, and how much he was getting paid, are all detailed. The advances Churchill received for his books made him one of the most highly-paid authors of the first half of the twentieth century. Adjusting for inflation from the 1930s, he was making more than $1million a year just from writing. “Churchill was thus in a different league” from anyone else, writes Clarke.

What certainly set him apart from, and above, anyone in the 20th century were his speeches. These are the subject of Sir Martin Gilbert’s book, Churchill: The Power of Words. Actually a compendium of 200 literary excerpts and speeches from the 1870s to 1959, this selection was made by the ultimate Churchill expert- Gilbert authored six volumes of Churchill’s official biography. In 2009 he was appointed a Privy Councillor.

The august Gilbert gives a single-paragraph introduction to each selection. Gilbert relates that when Churchill was informed of Roosevelt’s death in 1945, he said to the head of the Map Room (where war strategy was plotted), “I am very much weakened in every way by his loss.” Then he goes on to give what Churchill said in public in the House of Commons. It ended with these lines: “In President Roosevelt, there died the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.” As a one-volume collection of writings and speeches, this book is an essential addition to any collector of books about the World Wars and Churchill himself.

While the contents of these three books overlap, each is a valuable contribution to our understanding of a man whose depths of purpose and creativity are never-ending.

Mr. Churchill’s Profession (347 pages) is $30 from Bloomsbury Press. Website: www.bloomsburypress.com

Churchill: The Power of Words (485 pages) is $30 from DaCapo Press. Website: www.dacapopress.com

Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill (240 pages) is $24.95 from Abrams Image. Website:www.abramsbooks.com

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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