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Winston Churchill: Statesman, Sunday painter and talent scout

Story highlights

  • Exhibition of paintings by Winston Churchill and Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui opens in London
  • Churchill credited with allowing El Glaoui, son of the Pasha of Marrakech, to pursue dream of painting
  • Marrakech was important to Churchill; his only painting from Wold War II is of the city
  • Though he was an amateur artist, paintings by Churchill can now command up to $1 million at auction

He steered Great Britain through the perils of World War II and is recognized as one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century.

But away from the world of politics, Winston Churchill was also an avid painter, drawn to scenes of stately homes in the UK, picturesque fields in France and vibrant Moroccan landscapes.

Though he always saw himself as an amateur, he was quick to spot talent in others.

Now, for the first time, paintings of Marrakech in Morocco by Churchill are being shown alongside those of Moroccan artist Hassan el Glaoui, who throughout his life credited Churchill with convincing his father -- the Pasha of Marrakech -- to let him pursue his dream of becoming a painter.

"The Pasha of Marrakesh was quite a fearful character and had great influence politically and great wealth, and the idea that his son was going to be a painter clearly wouldn't have come naturally to him," said Daniel Robbins, curator of the exhibition "Meetings in Marrakech" at Leighton House Museum in London.

In 1943, the Pasha showed the visiting Churchill some paintings by his son and asked for his opinion.

Churchill approved and the young Hassan was subsequently allowed to train as a painter in Paris.

"There weren't many people that the Pasha would listen to but if Churchill said it was alright to be painter, he could accommodate that desire," said Robbins.

Hassan El Glaoui's career took off and he has since exhibited his work in Europe and the US, as well as in Morocco.

At a sale at Christie's auction house in Paris in 2007, a painting by El Glaoui sold for 42,000 Euros ($54,000).

Though El Glaoui was never able to meet and thank Churchill, the exhibition at Leighton House Museum -- which was first proposed by the artist's daughter -- is a belated meeting between the two painters.

Churchill's granddaughter Celia Sandys, who helped organize the show, had been unaware of the role her father played in El Glaoui's artistic career, but said that she was "enchanted to hear it."

After all, Churchill had great affection for Morocco, she said, and his only painting during World War II was a view of Marrakech, which he painted following the Casablanca Conference in 1943.

After the conference, Churchill insisted that President Franklin D. Roosevelt make the trip to Marrakech to see the view from a tower on the edge of the city.

After Roosevelt left, Churchill painted the same scene and later presented it to him as a gift.

"Painting was very important indeed [to Churchill], it was what you would nowadays call a stress-buster," said Sandys. "It was the thing he loved to do more than anything."

Paintings by Churchill now command high figures -- a painting of his home, Chartwell, sold for £1 million ($1.5 million) at an auction at Sotheby's auction house in London in 2007 -- but when he first picked up a brush he was 40 years old and at a low point in his life.

It was in 1915, during World War I, according to Robbins, and Churchill had just resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty following the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles.

"Someone suggested that he take up painting and he had a go with his children's watercolors," Robbins said.

"The he tried in oils and he just became hooked on painting and it became his principle form of relaxing," he continued.

Robbins admitted that it can be difficult to separate the paintings from the man who created them.

But he said, "It's striking just from hanging the exhibition how well his paintings stand up."

"[The work] does deserve to be taken seriously and not solely because it's the product of this great statesman," he continued.