The Australian Prime Minister and his Churchill Painting

A personal gift from Winston Churchill

In a recent article in The Telegraph, it was mentioned that a Winston Churchill painting hangs in the office of the Australian Prime Minister. This was a surprise to me as I hadn’t heard any mention of this previously. So was curious to find out more detail on how the painting–if there really was such a painting–came to be displayed in the office of the PM.

I checked with a few Churchill experts and a Churchillian from Texas kindly informed me know that there is quite lengthy description of the painting and it’s provenance in John Ramsden’s book, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945 where he recounts how Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies came to acquire the Churchill painting.

On page 470 his book Ramsden writes:

Menzies had not only been shown the studio at Chartwell in 1948 but in 1955 acquired a Churchill painting of his own, a privilege reserved for more intimate friends and major world leaders. This was indeed one of Churchill’s very best paintings, Sailing Boats in Harbour at Antibes, and one with which Churchill had actually been unwilling to part when Menzies chose it off the wall of his study at Chartwell. His objection, that it was one of his best pictures, was neatly countered by Christopher Soames’ tactful observation that he could hardly give the Australian Prime Minister one of his worst, and Menzies bore it triumphantly away. On his return to Canberra (‘I have always wanted one of Sir Winston’s pictures. The gift has been one of the greatest delights of my visit to London…’), the painting was hung for the public to see in the Kings Hall of the Parliament House, and then offered for exhibition in other galleries. It was later acquired by the Australian Government, and at the end of the century, appropriately enough, the painting was in the (new) Parliament House, hanging on the wall of Prime Minister John Winston Howard’s office.

Man of the Century goes on to say that in 1957 Robert Menzies discovered that there was going to be an exhibition of Churchill’s paintings in North America under the patronage of a famous general of the Second World War Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was then president of the United States. Menzies wrote to Churchill directly and was determined to get Australia and New Zealand included as part of the upcoming travelling exhibition, which was to take place the following year in 1958. Menzies offered sponsorship by the Commonwealth government and was successful in persuading Churchill to include all of Australia’s capital cities on the tour. The painting that was acquired by Robert Menzies was added to the travelling exhibition and was also used as the cover of the Australian exhibition catalogue.

In August 1958 the exhibition opened at Parliament House in Canberra. From there the exhibition went on to Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth, before travelling on to New Zealand. As it turned out people in North America, Australia and New Zealand got to see the collection of pictures even before anyone in London. The exhibition was wildly popular in Australia and actually required extending the opening hours in several locations due to his popularity with the viewing public.

In December of 2014, the highest price ever paid for a Churchill painting was achieved at the Daughter of History sale at Sotheby’s in London. The buyer paid £1,752,500 for The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell.

Churchill wrote to Menzies after reading the forward Menzies wrote for the Australian catalogue. Churchill wanted to thank the Prime Minister for, ‘The very kind things you say… and… the characteristically graceful way in which you say them.’

Sailing Boats in Harbour at Antibes still hangs today in the office of the current Prime Minister.

[Editors Note: The painting in the image above is Boat in Cannes Harbour which somewhat resembles the one Menzies acquired.]