Winston Churchill’s life is a particularly striking example of the law of undulation, this rolling English road, not only because his was a very long and very public life, but because its heights and depths were of extraordinary amplitude. A happy marriage with five children, but two predeceased him. A glittering early career, marred by the Dardanelles. Restoration to political prominence, but then the wilderness years. The triumph of his combat with Hitler, followed by summary expulsion from national office. And many other ups and downs besides.
But one of the things I admire about Churchill is that he didn’t just let these things happen to him. His life may have been a rollercoaster, but he was more than a mere passenger. He knew that the wise man learns from his reverses; he doesn’t simply defy them, but turns them to effect. Churchill responded to the low points in his life with the muscle of his will, yes, but also with the artistry of his soul.
I think we see a nice illustration of this in his passionate interest in painting. If you haven’t read Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime, do! It’s one of the best things he wrote. He took up painting during the First World War and I have the sense that painting for him was more than a diverting hobby, more than a release valve from the pressures of high office: it was also a way in which he could respond creatively to difficulty, transmuting it into something noble and beautiful. The white canvas didn’t simply offset the black dog. No, the white canvas became an opportunity for him to represent visually, in color and in contrast, a unified perception of diverse reality. He painted almost all his canvases in oils, and though he naturally inclined towards the brighter colors in his palette and felt, he said, “genuinely sorry for the poor browns,” he knew that all landscapes possess darkness as well as light; even a still life requires shadows. Sheer contrast—mere black next to mere white—depicts nothing of interest. There must be engagement between the two and a shattering of white light into the full chromatic spectrum. When Churchill first began to paint he found himself more engaged with reality, looking at things afresh, with new attentiveness, a greater intelligence, a richer integration. He wrote:
One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape . . . [that] one never noticed before. . . . So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight.
From genuine Churchill to faux Churchill: This is not the start; it is not even the conclusion of the start. But it is, perhaps, the start of the conclusion.
And what is my conclusion? Simply this: Class of 2015, rejoice in the strength of the hills; take courage in the depths of the earth.