A painting of Dunkirk made in May 1940 by Winston Churchill's nephew was recently displayed in public after years in private hands. Huon Mallalieu takes a look at John Spencer-Churchill's extraordinary picture.
Since David and Judith Cohen retired in 2016 after more than three decades as the specialist dealers in the art of the World Wars, their place has been taken by Andrew Sim, a comparatively young art dealer with a nose for discoveries. In this, he is like his father, Michael Sim of Chislehurst, and finds by both have been featured by Country Life in the past. Andrew puts on occasional exhibitions or special displays at fairs, and one such show took place earlier this month at the revamped British Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery on the King’s Road in Chelsea.
For his exhibition, under the banner ‘Holding the Line’, Mr Sim found works by 23 artists, the majority of whom range from little known to very obscure – and all of whom are well worth discovering.
One of those names, however, was rather more familiar: John Spencer-Churchill. The artist (1909–92) is known because he was Sir Winston’s nephew, but as a painter, he is remembered, if at all, principally as a muralist.
His most important painting has been in a private collection since 1970, latterly at least in Scotland, where Mr Sim acquired it last year. It’s a unique image of an event in British history that helped define the wartime image of the artist’s famous relative: the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War. Churchill’s 40in by 64in Dunkirk from the Bray Dunes, May 29, 1940 is the only full painting of the ‘Lifting of the Armies’ by an artist who was there.
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Other artists have depicted the scene too, but none in quite the same way. Official wartime artists Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman made on-the-spot drawings, and Richard Eurich and Charles Cundall’s officially-commissioned paintings were built from eye-witness accounts. The latter are powerful and moving but give us, in effect, a Messerschmitt pilot’s-eye view of the beach. They lack Churchill’s immediacy and detail.
Churchill, as he noted, was sketching in the dunes, only slightly elevated above his fellows. To the left is the bandstand from which, that morning, General Alexander had tried to address the troops.
In the middle distance, the paddleship-turned-minesweeper Crested Eagle burns. Her bones still show today at low tide. French North African spahi cavalry trot along the shore — who else recorded them?
The calm, indeed relaxed, stance of the waiting soldiery accords with verbal accounts of their behaviour after the first days: ‘If ever I have to be bombed again, give me a sandy beach, for the bomb sinks in and it hurts very few when it bursts.’
Only the half-crouched soldier firing vainly at Stukas doesn’t quite convince; he was lifted from a famous photograph – a forgivable later borrowing, as Churchill took 10 years to complete the painting.
He returned to England that evening, ordered by General Alexander to ask his uncle for more little ships. He did so and much later gave Winston the painting.
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