Bush’s Joy Ride

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The New York Sun

The public display this week of the first paintings by President Bush sent us to the little glass front book case in which we keep our most-treasured volumes. There we fetched a short book by another war-time leader who became obsessed with painting, Winston Churchill. He actually wrote a short primer, called “Painting as a Pastime.” It opens with a little disquisition in respect of “the avoidance of worry.” He writes of joinery, chemistry, book-binding, and even brick-laying. But it was painting, he writes, that, during a low spot in his life, “came to my rescue.”

Churchill warns the newcomer that real artists attain their abilities by “long, hard, persevering apprenticeship.” He was talking about something less ambitious. “We cannot aspire to masterpieces,” he writes. “We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint box.” If that advice seems made for the artist known as “W.,” feature this. Churchill confesses that he turned to painting in circumstances that one can imagine were similar to those that beset President Bush on his return to Texas.

This happened to Churchill in 1915, when, at the end of May, he was out as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was still in the cabinet but without authority, so that he “knew everything and could do nothing.” Writes Churchill: “The change from the intense executive activities of each day’s work at the Admiralty to the narrowly measured duties of a counselor left me gasping.” He compares himself to a “sea beast fished up from the depths.” While he was “inflamed to action,” Churchill writes, he was “forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy, placed cruelly in a front-row seat.”

Until one day he picked up a child’s paint box and then went out and bought a full set of oils, brushes, and canvas. Churchill writes about how painting changed the way he sees — and fit right in with his temperament. “In all battles two things are usually required of the Commander-in-Chief: to make a good plan for his army and, secondly, to keep a strong reserve,” he writes. “Both these are also obligatory upon the painter.” Churchill writes of falling in with a group of painters in southern France. “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colors,” he says at one point. “I rejoice with the brilliant ones.”

Churchill may have been famously agnostic, but in “Painting as a Pastime,” he’s not ambiguous about his plans for eternity. “When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.” He predicts he would require a “gayer palette than I get here below.” His palette’s dullest colors, he ventures, would be “orange and vermillion” and “beyond them will be a whole range of wonderful new colors which will delight the celestial eye.”

Churchill hasn’t yet — at least insofar as we’re aware — been put on canvas by President Bush. But ’43 has startled the world with his portraits of such figures as Prime Minister Blair and President Putin. There’s no rush. We wish him a long and joyful passage as a painter. It is, though, fun to think that whenever he does get to Heaven, he could well end up unfolding his easel on the same cloud as the founder of what might be called the Chartwell School and take their joyride in a paint box to new heights.

The New York Sun

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