Patrons of the South Florida arts, this is your chance! With a single purchase you can not only support an earnest, striving Miami painter, but also rescue a key cultural artifact from the hands of European carpetbaggers! And all it will cost is a couple of million bucks, probably. That’s the buzz on an oil painting of the Venetian Causeway by Winston Churchill — yes, that Winston Churchill — that goes on the auction block in Great Britain next week.
Churchill, the pugnacious and witty prime minister who steered England through World War II, did the painting in 1946 during a six-week vacation in Miami Beach, his first since the war ended seven months earlier. The medium-sized landscape, about 30 inches wide and 25 high, features several red-rile-roofed houses and a clutch of spiky palm trees under an azure sky.
Churchill didn’t often try his hand at human figures, so the painting doesn’t include any face-eating zombies, jailed mayors or other local celebrities. Nonetheless, don’t expect any Brexit bargains when the British auction house Boningtons puts it on the block on July 27 in a sale that will accept bids over the internet.
“The last release of Churchill paintings, in 2014 by his daughter, included one for 1.5 milion pounds — that’s about $2 million — for one of them, the highest price ever paid for a Churchill,” says Luke Bodalbhai, head of the Boningtons fine-art department. “There were 10 paintings in that group, and I’ve heard on the grapevine that about 80 percent of them were purchased by Americans. And none of those were of American scenes.”
The Venetian Causeway painting is one of about 500 done by Churchill over the course of his life. He viewed painting as a way to relax. Bodalbhai won’t go so far as to call his work “good,” but he’ll go for “serious.”
“It’s well-painted, you can see evidence that he’s a serious painter,” Bodalbhai observes. “He wasn’t doing it just for fun.... And, anyway, when you get into auctions, you can’t judge prices solely by artistic merit.”
Churchill squeezed the painting in during a busy vacation that included a confrontation with a shark, an encounter with some over-friendly parrots, a quick visit to Cuba and the writing of the epic speech that would introduce much of the world to the phrase “Iron Curtain.”
And it was all climaxed by a high-stakes poker game in which President Truman, warning that national security was at stake, ordered all the American players to throw. “You could say Churchill had a lot going on during that trip,” says Paul Reid, coauthor of the biography Winston Churchill, Defender Of The Realm, 1940-1965.
Churchill, whose mother was American, visited the United States 16 times during his life, and his love for warm climates meant Florida was often part of the itinerary. But probably none of his trips was quite as exuberant as the 1946 vacation with his wife, Clementine.
A long, dreary war, in which London was bombed constantly and suffered a series of military catastrophes that would lead to the dissolution of the British empire, had just ended. And Churchill lost his job almost immediately afterward when restless voters turned out his Conservative party.
“Churchill was the eternal optimist, but with the fall of France, the long run of British military defeats in Europe and Asia, the German sinking of his most beloved battleships, the London blitz and the siege of Tobruk, in which the Germans kept British troops in North Africa tied down for six months, he’d had what you might call a six-year bad-hair day,” says Reid. “He really needed a break.”
He arrived in Miami Beach in January 1946, staying at the home of Canadian industrialist Frank W. Clarke. The next six weeks were a merry-go-round of fat cigars and unwatered gin, punctuated with an occasional trip to the Hialeah racetrack and semi-traumatic encounters with Florida fauna. During a visit to Parrot Island, Churchill was engulfed by obstreperous birds who were utterly unimpressed that he’d beaten back Hitler and Tojo. Yet that was nothing compared to the shark.
“Churchill certainly didn’t dress for the sun — in every photo you see of that vacation, even the one with the parrots, he’s wearing a gray linen suit with a bowler hat or a homburg,” says Reid. “But he did like to go in the water, and he did that a lot. He’d take off the suit and put on swimming trunks, or maybe nothing, because he loved to swim naked....
“All the diaries and letters you read from people who saw him in water said he looked like a little pink hippopotamus, with his Secret Service escort wading behind him. It’s kind of a funny image until the day a shark comes into view and starts swimming toward him. Everybody’s screaming, ‘Get out! Get out!’ Even the Secret Service heads for shore.
“But not Churchill. ‘It’s probably just a land shark,’ he said. [Exactly what Churchill meant is unclear; Saturday Night Live wouldn’t be invented for another three decades.] And, he added, ‘He won’t bother me because of my girth.’ And maybe he was right, because the shark circled around for a while and then went away.”
Churchill also slipped off to Cuba for a week, where his main activity may be surmised from the fact that the Hotel Nacional, where he stayed, has to this very day a Churchill Bar that stays open late into the night. And in his spare moments he worked on the speech he would deliver in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5.
In it, he made the first public declaration of something that officials around the world already privately knew: that the peace following World War II was already leaking away, to be replaced by a Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill said, apparently coining one of the most famous phrases of the 20th century. Actually, he had swiped it from a German military officer describing the Soviet encirclement of Berlin in the final days of World War II.
“He read 12 papers a day,” says Reid. And if he saw a phrase in a paper — or a cable or in the Bible or anything else — he’d appropiate it.”
That didn’t bother President Truman, who had invited Churchill to Missouri and loved the speech. They had made the trip on trains — Churchill loved American Pullman cars — and Truman much of the way had been torn between patriotism and diplomacy.
“Churchill liked to gamble and considered himself one of the world’s greatest card players,” says Reid. “So a big poker game developed. Before it started, Truman told all the Americans, ‘Look, our national pride is at stake, you have to beat him.’ But it turned out Churchill was actually a terrible player, and after a while he had lost 2,000 pounds, which was a lot of money at the time.
“He left to go to the bathroom, and the Americans were all laughing: ‘We’re going to win every penny he owns.’ And Truman said, ‘Boys, I know what I told you before, but Great Britain’s our biggest ally, and we don’t want to face the Russians alone. So you’ve got to lose it all back.’ They grumbled and they moaned, but when it came right down to it, they knew what they had to do: They lost.”