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Churchillian Wonder

How Winston Churchill fought Depression with Art

Churchill’s Black Dog

Into the first months of the First World War, a million men lay dead, wounded, or missing.  Any hope of the Allied Powers (France, England, and Russia) or the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) gaining a quick victory was over.  A brutal reality lingered on the western front like the poisoned gas to come.  This would be a long and bloody war.


To hold the ground they had gained (or defended), both sides dug into the earth, building an uninterrupted network of trench lines from the north coast of Belgium to the Swiss border.  Over farms, through forests, and around towns, thousands of miles of reinforcing and connecting trench lines tore a 475-mile gash through the heart of western Europe.  


Due to these fortified trenches, neither army could outmaneuver or penetrate the other.  So instead, they just pulverized themselves with artillery, machine guns, and suicidal frontal attacks.  Millions would die in the process.    


As the deadlock held through 1915, Senior political and military leadership on both sides racked their brains, asking “how can we break this deadlock?  How can we penetrate the enemy’s impregnable trench lines, envelope their armies, and capture their capitals?” 


One answer came from Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty.  His name was Winston Churchill.


40 years old and already an imperial superstar who had served in Parliament, authored best-selling books, and fought in four colonial wars across Asia and Africa, Churchill was still 25 years from his finest hour against Adolf Hitler, but already a big shot in Britain.  His reputation for being brash, ballsy, and the ultimate attention-seeker was firmly in place. So when many on the allied side saw the war’s stalemate with frustration, Churchill saw opportunity.


Working with other Allied leaders, he favored a bold plan to drive the German Army out of France and Belgium.  But instead of attacking them head on, he favored opening an entirely new front to the war in Turkey.


The plan involved landing Allied soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula along the Dardanelles Strait in the Aegean Sea – a waterway 3 miles wide separating Europe in Western Turkey from Asia in Eastern Turkey.  By launching a massive amphibious landing on the peninsula, the Allies hoped to knock the Turks [i.e. the Ottoman Empire] out of the war and take Istanbul.  


By seizing the Ottoman capital, the Allies could not only eliminate a German ally, but invigorate and resupply their own Russian ally to the point that Germany would have to allocate more men and resources from the western front to the east.  This reallocation, the allies hoped, would enable them to finally bust through a weakened German position on the western front and end the war.


From the beginning, the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster.  The Allied Army -- mainly British, Australian and New Zealanders – never moved beyond the Peninsula.  And just like the Western Front, the defenders’ trench lines didn’t budge.  One suicidal attack led to the next, until mercifully in January 1916 the Allies called it quits and withdrew from the Peninsula entirely. 


Following the Gallipoli’s failure, British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was forced to fight for his political life and forge an alliance with the Conservative Party (or Tories).  To do so, he needed a fall-guy.  And because shit rolls downhill in politics, Churchill took the fall.  Despite his tearful pleas to remain First Lord of the Admiralty, Asquith sacked him anyway.  


Alone in the wilderness with a shattered reputation, “it was the lowest time in Churchill’s life,” writes his biographer Paul Johnson.  To go from imperial celebrity to imperial pariah must have been devastating for Churchill, a man who derived his identity from war, politics, and all too often, the opinions of others.


Around this time, British artist William Orpen painted a portrait of Churchill.  Johnson insists it’s the best portrait ever done on the man.  Tinged with somber tones, Orpen painted a man in the darkness.  Seeing it for the first time, Churchill wrote, “It is not the picture of a man.  It is the picture of man’s soul.” 


1916 Portrait by William Orpen, who referred to Churchill at the time as a "man of misery."

My general impression of Churchill has always been that of a jolly and fun-loving guy.  He drank, he quipped, he wrote, and occasionally after drinking, he danced.  Thanks to his charisma and sharp wit, Winston Churchill seemed like the last man in the empire to suffer from depression.  But suffer he did.  The more I read about Churchill, the more I realize that he had a dark side.  All his life, especially during the down years (and there were many following the Gallipoli), depression would sneak up on him and linger like a shadow for days or weeks.  Churchill even had a name for his shadowy depression.  He called it his “black dog.”

As anyone who has ever suffered from quiet desperation or full-blown depression knows, having nothing to do when the black dog visits you is a very bad thing indeed.  Following his sacking after the Gallipoli, Churchill had nothing to do.  And his deepening depression prevented him from starting any action as well.  Looking back on these dark days, Churchill’s wife said, “I thought he would die of grief.”


But Churchill didn’t die.  He would live to be ninety and become arguably the most celebrated and accomplished man of the 20th Century.  So how did he do it? How did he overcome his depression and bounce back? 


Ironically, the same creative medium that captured Churchill in darkness (Orpen’s portrait) would also be the medium that saved him.


"I Would Like to Do That"


“By pure chance,” Johnson writes, the dejected and out-of-work Churchill stumbled upon his sister-in-law painting a watercolor in her garden.  “I would like to do that,” he said.  So she lent him her paints, brushes, and some empty canvases -- and Winston began to paint.


As he brushed his imagination onto each canvas, his shoulders and breath began to lighten.  Continuing his creative pursuit over the weeks and months that followed, his wife would often see him painting in the garden. And there he'd be for hours... the easel’s three legs level into the dirt as the plump and ruddy Brit, wearing an overcoat and his signature upturned Homburg hat, would gaze onto the canvas while chewing a cigar and gliding his brush strokes like a conductor waving his wand.


From the very beginning, Winston's paintings showed a man searching for the sublime.  He painted the seasons -- glinting gardens, snow-covered peaks, fallen leaves, and hidden groves.  He painted windy seascapes and the serenity of ponds, lakes, and rivers at dusk.  And he painted the ordinary beauties of life, such as a bowl of fruit or a vase of purple orchids. 

These works, of which he’d produce more than five hundred in his lifetime, show a man painting the feeling he wants to have.  By channeling the natural wonders of the world though his soul and onto the canvas, Winston earned internal feelings of wonder that helped him recover from his depression. For it wasn't the finished product that mattered most to Winston, it was the act of painting itself that gave him the peace he needed.  

Finally, his biographer Paul Johnson writes, Winston had found “refuge from his troubles.”  He had found a way to keep his black dog at bay.




Fifty-five years in Parliament, thirty-one years as a minister, and nine years as Prime Minister; plus, fifteen battles as a soldier, ten million words as an author, and, according to Johnson, twenty thousand bottles of Champagne as a drinker, Winston lived one hell of a life.  Yet that full life had many ups and more than a few terrible downs.  When the black dog visited Winston during his public humiliations, many setbacks, and inexplicable feelings of gloom, Churchill knew what to do.  Alone in his garden, as the sun warmed him from the morning frost, he would paint.


“I love the bright colors,” he once said of painting, and “feel sorry for the dull browns.”  Thanks to seeking refuge in the creative arts and the wonder it gave him, Winston never succumbed to being just another dull brown.  Instead, he lived his life in color, which always includes the dark and the light. 

Photo by Bettman/Contributor, via Getty Images




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