Andrew Marr on how art saved Winston Churchill’s life

The broadcaster investigates how only a love of painting kept suicide at bay for Britain’s wartime leader 

Andrew Marr knows about the healing power of painting better than anyone. More than two years have passed since the BBC presenter suffered a stroke, during a vigorous bout of high-intensity exercise, and he credits pencil, paintbrush and easel with aiding his physical and mental recovery.

He’s therefore ideally placed to explain why he believes painting saved the life of Britain’s most famous politician: that Winston Churchill, who famously suffered from bouts of severe depression, would have killed himself had he not been able to seek solace in his paint palette.

Throughout his life Churchill was tormented by the mental anguish he called his “black dog”. And in the years before becoming Prime Minister and leading the country to victory in the Second World War, Churchill suffered a series of political setbacks, including criticism for the disastrous Gallipoli expedition, which led to his resignation from the cabinet in 1915, and his “wilderness years” in the 1930s when he was out of power.

“I think Churchill was semi-suicidal at the time of his decline and that painting saved him,” Marr says. “It brought him back to sanity. Even when you’re under pressure in other areas of your life, to paint even half-competently you can only think about colour, line and shape. You’re thinking in a completely different way, pouring your entire self into it. And that is what Churchill found, that his personal crises would fall away once he was painting. And I think painting saved his life, candidly, so that he was still around to lead the country in 1940.”

The immersive nature of painting has helped Marr to face difficulties and demons in his own life, too. “I don’t have the kind of depression that Churchill had,” he says. “But recovery from something like a stroke is always difficult, and you get ups and downs. The most I would say is that painting has helped me through the downs and produced more of the ups than there would otherwise have been, which to me is a very important part of life.

“I certainly find that if I’m feeling down or gloomy or harried, if I paint for a few hours I feel better. I find it very difficult, but the nature of the difficulty is in itself a kind of therapy. The fact that I’m concentrating so hard, and things aren’t working, but then there are serendipitous moments when it goes well, all of that is good for me, mentally.”

Aside from the emotional impact of such a traumatic event, Marr’s stroke also took a physical toll, leaving him with impaired mobility on his left side. He says that, in his recovery, art has been “not as important as physiotherapy, but more important than beer”. Nevertheless, he has been forced to change his painting style.

“I don’t want to exaggerate my disability, but a natural thing to do would be to hold a small canvas in my left hand and crouch over and draw very minutely with my right,” he says. “I can’t do that since my stroke because my left hand won’t hold the canvas firmly enough.

“I’m now painting more abstract paintings, too. I always used to paint outside, with a canvas, and paint what was in front of me. But I simply can’t do that any more. I can’t carry the stuff, I can’t put up the easel, and if I do get it up the wind blows it over and I’m stuffed. I have to find a place inside where the situation is controlled and calm [he has a small studio], but that means, of course, that I’m not painting what’s in front of me, I’m painting what’s in my head, and that’s a completely different kettle of fish.”

Marr has entered earlier paintings in exhibitions, but says he has been advised by art expert friends that his abstracts aren’t yet ready to be shown publicly. Churchill, who was initially too shy to exhibit under his own name, sought advice from major 20th-century British painters such as Walter Sickert and William Nicholson, and Marr reveals that he too has had tuition.

“I was friendly with David Hockney for a few years,” he says, “and if you ask him about specific painting problems he is incredibly generous. I remember asking him how he does that particularly cold white sky that is so characteristic of the British winter. And he explained exactly how to do it, the oil paints to buy, the brushes. He definitely improved my painting.”

Marr insists that he is not an artist, merely “someone who paints and draws”, but what about Churchill? The former prime minister’s most famous painting, The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell, his family home in Kent, sold for £1.8 million last year. Was it really any good?

“I think if his paintings weren’t by Churchill, they wouldn’t be collected,” says Marr. “If they’d been done by Sidney Nobody down the road, we’d think that some of them are a damn good piece of Sunday painting. He is certainly not unskilled, but he is a pretty good, second-rate impressionist – and that’s meant to be praise.”

Andrew Marr on Churchill is on Monday 17th August at 9.00pm on BBC4 


See Andrew Marr at the Radio Times Festival on Saturday 26th September at 1pm

The broadcaster and journalist will discuss his forthcoming poetry history of Britain, We British: The Poetry of a People.