“Churchill’s political and literary achievements are of such magnitude that one is tempted to resort to portray him as Caesar who also has the gift of Cicero’s pen. Never before has one of history’s leading figures been so close to us by virtue of such an outstanding combination.”
Winston Churchill exhibited, from early days, the many-sided traits that reflect a Renaissance man. A man of many talents, he was a soldier, journalist, author, politician, painter, bricklayer and inspiring orator.
Churchill’s formal education was primarily at Harrow School (1888-92) where he showed his athletic ability by swimming competitively and winning the British Public Schools fencing championship when he was seventeen years of age. Thereafter, following three terms at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (1893-95), and drawn by a sense of adventure, he travelled to Cuba, where as an eye-witness of Spanish military action against Cuban insurgents, he first combined careers as soldier and journalist. He pursued his combined avocations on the North-West Frontier of India in 1897 where he displayed his horsemanship as the leading scorer for the 4th Hussars, the winning team in the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament.
In Sudan in 1897 and again in South Africa in 1899, Churchill combined soldiering with the work of a war correspondent. His journalistic writings were the basis of his first volumes of history. They also launched his political career. His dramatic escape after capture in the Boer War brought the young hero public adulation and soon after a seat in the House of Commons. When the twenty-five year old Churchill won his first parliamentary election, his prodigious literary output had already risen to five books – as many, he later reflected, as Moses.
Depressed by his departure from the Admiralty in 1915, he was rescued by the Muse of Painting. Thereafter, Churchill painted everywhere he went. As late as his 85th year, he completed two canvases on what was to be his last visit to Marrakech in Morocco. Sir John Lavery, a Royal Academician and one of his teachers, said of Churchill, “I know few amateur wielders of the brush with a keener sense of light and colour, or a surer grasp of essentials. … Had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship I believe he would have been a great master with the brush.”
Churchill was also an energetic bricklayer, as the garden walls and the cottage playhouse he built for his daughter Mary at Chartwell, the family seat in Kent, attest.
Churchill lived history. As the only person in the western democracies to hold Cabinet-level office in the two great conflicts of the twentieth century, he brought to the writing of history a unique perspective, accentuated by a brilliant and fertile pen. Following his more youthful colonial histories and his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, his six-volume The World Crisis recounted the saga of the First World War. After the publication of his autobiographical volume, My Early Life, which covered his first 34 years, he embarked on the four-volume biography of his legendary ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, as well as important collections of essays and speeches and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.
In 1939 Churchill completed the first draft of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples; however, the Second World War and the highest political responsibilities intervened. At the conclusion of the war, Churchill naturally prepared its historical record. Millions of copies of his six-volume The Second World War were sold. His work on the intertwined histories of the British and American peoples, his own paternal and maternal roots, was finally published in four volumes between 1956 and 1958.
Churchill’s literary output totalled 55 volumes in his lifetime. In recognition of his monumental achievement, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. The citation read, in part, “Churchill’s political and literary achievements are of such magnitude that one is tempted to resort to portray him as a Caesar who also has the gift of Cicero’s pen. Never before has one of history’s leading figures been so close to us by virtue of such an outstanding combination.”
While Winston Churchill will rightly be forever remembered for his inspirational leadership and contribution to the triumph of the Allies in the Second World War, he was far more than that, a true Renaissance man.