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  • Listed as “missing” in David Coombs’ most recent comprehensive publication on the paintings of Sir Winston Churchill, The Moat, Breccles is an extraordinary emblem of the celebrated friendship between the elder statesman and Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Painted in the summer of 1921, The Moat, Breccles was held with Churchill over the subsequent four decades until he chose to gift the work to Onassis in the early 1960s as a mark of the intimate friendship they developed over eight cruises on Onassis’ superyacht between 1958 and 1963. Churchill’s painting hung in the saloon of the Christina, alongside works by El Greco, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, and Johannes Vermeer. In addition, Onassis celebrated his friendship with Churchill with a bust of the elder statesman and autographed the complete set of his works, all personally signed.

     

    Aristotle Onassis and Winston Churchill seated in an empty pool
    Aristotle Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill seated in an empty pool

    In 1932, Onassis had launched what would become the largest independent shipping line in the world at that time, and the Christina became a cornerstone of Onassis’ reputation. Arguably the most famous yacht in the world, it was a symbol of glamorous lifestyle of the post-war era. The yacht’s manifest read as a who’s who of 1950s and 1960s titans of business and entertainment. Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Malcom Forbes (who owned a painting by Churchill), J. Paul Getty, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., all rubbed elbows while enjoying all the hospitality the Christina had to offer. Indeed, it was on the Christina that John and Jackie Kennedy first met Churchill in 1957. 

     "Onassis’ yacht was extremely luxurious…The salon had gold and silver ashtrays in the form of sea shells and the salon centre piece was one of Sir Winston’s landscapes." 
    —Roy Howells  

     

    On the occasion of Churchill’s 90th birthday in 1964, Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards to whom Churchill gifted a painting in 1954, was keen to produce a television special on the former Prime Minister and settled on “Painting as Pastime,” commissioning Jack Le Vien who had previously produced two documentaries based on his war memoirs to make The Other World of Winston Churchill. Churchill’s private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, wrote to Onassis asking if he would allow Le Vien to film the present painting on the Christina. The resulting footage is the last time that The Moat, Breccles was seen in public—until today.

      

    A Serendipitous Friendship

     

    On January 16, 1956, Churchill and Onassis were introduced by Churchill’s son, Randolph, at the home of Emery and Wendy Reves in La Pausa, France, where the elder statesman was a regular guest. Onassis soon extended an invitation for Churchill to dine on the Christina in early February. The former Prime Minister enthused to his wife Clementine of the event: “We dined with the Onassis on their yacht two nights ago. He is an extraordinary man. He wanted to lend us the yacht to go to Ceylon! It is the most beautiful structure I have seen afloat.”i Churchill took up Onassis on his invitation a total of eight times between 1958 and 1963, often cruising throughout the Mediterranean and Caribbean.  

     

    [left] Winston Churchill and Aristotle Onassis arriving on the Christina. Image: Bettmann / Getty Images
    Sir Winston Churchill and Aristotle Onassis arriving on the Christina. Image: Bettmann / Getty Images

     

    The hospitality and companionship offered on the Christina by Onassis was a welcome respite for Churchill who was approaching 90 years of age. “He liked to sit on deck. He would come on deck at about noon. He would have a dry martini and spoonfuls of caviar. We would be a long time over lunch—cigar, brandy, coffee. Then he would sit in the sun. Before dinner he would rest.”ii

    Onassis: “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”
    Churchill: “A Tiger. And You, Ari, what animal would you choose to be?”
    Onassis: “Your canary, Toby”

    Although Churchill was known for his reluctance to give away his paintings early on, noting to his aunt Leonie Leslie that “they are too bad to sell and too dear to me to give,” from the 1950s onwards, he judiciously parted with a number of works.iii His gift of The Moat, Breccles to Onassis was one of a number of works he gifted to a distinguished coterie of 20th century icons and institutions including Tate, The Royal Academy, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman, and Former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath. In May 1960, he gifted Queen Elizabeth II for her personal collection The Palladian Bridge at Wilton, a scene near Salisbury where he had spent time between the wars. The Queen personally wrote to Churchill, “Philip and I are so thrilled to have one of your pictures for our gallery…you have captured the feeling and pleasure of being there so well that all can feel it too.”iv Of this period, Churchill’s secretary Grace Hamblin noted, “Sir Winston didn’t care to give his pictures away. But after the war he gave away quite a lot… as acknowledgement of something that had been done for him…They were mostly to particular friends.”v

     

    The Makings of a Painter

       

    Sir Winston Churchill painting outdoors. Image: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo

    “When I left the Admiralty at the end of May, 1915, I still remained a member of the Cabinet and the War Council. In this position I knew everything and could do nothing. The change from the intense executive activities of each day’s work at the Admiralty to the narrowly measured duties of counsellor left me gasping. Like a sea-beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure. I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it; I had vehement convictions and small power to give effect to them. I had to watch the unhappy casting-away of great opportunities, and the feeble execution of plans which I had launched and in which I heartily believed. I had long hours of utterly unwonted leisure in which to contemplate the frightful unfolding of the War. At a moment when every fibre of my being was inflamed to action, I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, placed cruelly in a front seat. And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue…” 
    —Sir Winston Churchill, “Painting as Pastime,” The Strand Magazine, 1921

     

    At the age of 40, Churchill turned to painting in earnest at a time of great professional crisis. Historically, the year 1915 is almost unanimously considered as a low point in his career after the disastrous allied invasion of Gallipoli. Clementine characterized this period to her husband’s biographer Sir Martin Glibert as a moment when “I thought he would die of grief.” Mary Soames explained, “Painting opened up to him a complete new world of colour, of light and shade, of proportion and perspective. But even more, this compelling occupation, I came to understand, nourished deep wells.”vi

     

    Paul Cézanne, Bridge over the Marne at Creteil, 1888-1895. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Image: Scala / Art Resource, NY
    Paul Cézanne, Bridge over the Marne at Creteil, 1888-1895. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Image: Scala / Art Resource, NY

    1921: A Wonderful and Terrible Year

     

    As told by Sir Martin Gilbert in his multi-volume biography of Churchill, the year 1921 saw the politician take the helm of British politics once again at the same time that he experienced immense personal loss. Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Churchill to Colonial Secretary with responsibility for Iraq and Palestine in addition to playing an instrumental role in Irish politics. That summer, his mother passed away, followed not two months later in August by his youngest daughter, Marigold. Writing to Lord Crewe, Churchill exclaimed, “We have suffered a very heavy and painful loss…that this little life should have been extinguished just when it was so beautiful and so happy—just when it was beginning.”vii

     

    It was against this period of paradoxical joy and grief that The Moat, Breccles was conceived that same August. Coombs remarked that Churchill’s paintings “form a kind of visual diary of people and places that were important to him.”viii Located in Norfolk, Breccles was home to Venetia Montagu, the cousin of Churchill's wife Clementine. The Moat, Breccles is a particularly full example of the wooded glens that attracted Churchill’s painterly eye during this period.

     

     

    At the same time, his burgeoning painterly practice was gaining international recognition. He exhibited a selection of works at the prestigious Galerie Druet under the pseudonym Charles Morin. He was also approached The Strand Magazine to write two articles about his painting for which he would be compensated £1,000 for two articles with pictures reproduced in color. The Moat, Breccles was one of 19 paintings Churchill chose to be featured in the articles entitled “Painting as Pastime” and was included in the first article published in December 1921. In it, he remarked on his painterly practice, “Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”ix

     

    i Sir Winston Churchill, La Pausa, 8 February 1956, Spencer-Churchill papers.
    ii Lady Sargant (formerly Nonie Montague Browne) in conversation with Martin Gilbert, 21 July 1987 in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Never Despair 1945-1965, vol. VIII, Boston, 1988, p. 1298.
    iii David Coombs and Minnie Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, London, 2004, p. 245.
    iv Queen Elizabeth II, 11 May 1960, Squerryes Lodge Archive.
    v David Coombs and Minnie Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, London, 2004, p. 197.
    vi Mary Soames, “Foreword” in David Coombs and Minnie Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, London, 2004, p. 9.
    vii Sir Winston Churchill, 3 September 1921, Crewe papers.
    viii David Coombs and Minnie Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, London, 2004, p. 12.
    ix Sir Winston Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime,” The Strand Magazine, December 1921.

    • Provenance

      The Artist
      Aristotle Onassis (gifted by the artist circa 1961)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      Sir Winston L.S. Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime,” The Strand Magazine, December 1921, p. 537 (illustrated)
      Sir Anthony Montague Browne (private secretary of Sir Winston L.S. Churchill), “Letter to Aristotle Onassis,” July 3, 1964
      The Other World of Winston Churchill, produced by Jack Le Vien, 1964 (the present work featured in the Christina, 38:20-38:27 min.)
      Roy Howells, Churchill’s Last Years, New York, 1966, p. 28
      Roy Howells, quoted in Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume III: Never Despair, 1945-1965, Boston, 1988, p. 1277
      David Coombs, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, Philadelphia, 2004, no. C 537, fig. 517, p. 256 (illustrated, p. 243)

Out At Sea: A Lost Painting by Sir Winston Churchill Property from the Onassis Family Collection

6

The Moat, Breccles

signed with the artist’s monogram “WSC” lower right
oil on canvas
29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in. (76 x 63.3 cm)
Painted circa August 1921.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,845,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021