Winter Blahs Got You Down? Try the Churchill Remedy

Winston Churchill had his own low points but found that hobbies such as painting and polo brought color back into his life.
Winter Blahs Got You Down? Try the Churchill Remedy
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) giving his famous wartime V-sign at Dover in 1951. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jeff Minick

When brought low by a case of the wintertime doldrums, the temptation is to ride them out, waiting for the mood to pass, or, worst-case scenario, the arrival of spring. That strategy works more often than not, but hunkering down with a comforter and a screen on the sofa also means raising the white flag to misery. When it’s mid-January and your backyard is a tundra of ice and wind, those April flowers can look a long way off.

Time perhaps for a session or two with Dr. Winston. Churchill, that is.

The Black Dog

Since his death in 1965, Winston Churchill’s biographers and armchair psychologists have spilled a lake of ink arguing about that great man’s mental state. A few have declared him manic-depressive, which is the most far-fetched of these analyses. Others say he suffered from periodic bouts of profound melancholia. Many, such as his daughter Mary Soames, believed that his low periods were normal, especially given his personal and public trials.

What should concern those of us who come down with our own case of the gloom-and-dooms is not the ultimately futile attempts to fix a label to Churchill’s bouts of dejection but instead to look at how he handled them.

First, we should know that he was perfectly aware of this depression, which he labeled his “black dog.” He likely adopted this expression, used by nannies to describe a child’s negative mood, from his own nanny, his beloved Mrs. Everest, or from his schoolmates. In 1911, he wrote to his wife, Clementine, regarding depression and a German doctor: “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—It is such a relief. All the colours came back into the picture.”
The “black dog” did return, again and again, in Winston’s life. Strangely enough, it was colors and pictures that often chased it away.

Brushing Away the Blues

In 1915, the 40-year-old Churchill seemed at the end of his political life. His failed Dardanelles Campaign in Turkey that year had led to disgrace and his forced resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. While in the English countryside, his sister-in-law encouraged him to try his hand at painting, perhaps as a relief from stress. So there he stood before a blank canvas, with one blue daub of paint for sky.
Then famed beauty and American artist Hazel Lavery arrived on the scene.

“Painting!” she exclaimed. “But what are you hesitating about?”

She seized a brush and splashed “large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas.”

Inspired by that, Churchill later wrote: “I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.”

And so was born one of the most famous amateur painters of the 20th century. Over the next 48 years, Churchill produced more than 500 paintings. He displayed them several times to the public under a pseudonym, gave them to charities and esteemed friends, and remained humble about this achievement.

He focused on landscapes composed with oils, writing: “Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out.”

Much later, his great-grandson, Duncan Sandys, said, “He did it for fun; he didn’t take his paintings very seriously.”
A museum employee looks at a painting by Churchill, “Walls at Marrakech,” (L) at Leighton House Museum in London on Jan. 19, 2012. (CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)
A museum employee looks at a painting by Churchill, “Walls at Marrakech,” (L) at Leighton House Museum in London on Jan. 19, 2012. (CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps, just as importantly, Churchill had found a way to fend off his “black dog.” Throughout wars, political troubles, and personal difficulties, a canvas and a box of paints often brought escape from the bleak moods these circumstances produced.

Other diversions also brought keys that unlocked this jail of depression. He became a skilled amateur mason, building walls and cottages. From his latter teenage years to the age of 52, he played polo. One unhealthy diversion, gambling, cost him a fortune over his lifetime and might have been better avoided. He also wrote, but we forget that for years Churchill earned his living as a journalist and an author of books. Writing for him was more work, rather than a hobby.

But it was painting that acted as his primary medicine against despair. Any one of those canvases, or all of them for that matter, so often luminous with sunshine, may represent another bone thrown to the “black dog” to keep him at bay.

Emulating Churchill

Churchill provides a model for escaping our bouts with the blues and perhaps even when we’re battling more serious depression.

First, we must recognize our bleak mood as debilitating and want to shed it. Churchill was clearly aware, as the cited letter to his wife indicates, of his depressions and the dangers they posed. He was also aware of the value of change as a preventative and a cure for exhaustion and low spirits.

In his book “Painting as a Pastime,” he wrote: “Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat.”

And, like Churchill, we can find in a pastime the change that will take us away from darkness and into light. His book and his example inspired others to try their hand at a brush. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, for example, both credited Churchill as their inspiration for painting.

But in “Painting as a Pastime,” Churchill encouraged his readers to pursue their own hobbies, even two or three of them, to discover these benefits. Here, we should seek above all these activities that bring joy. Learning a foreign language, woodcarving and whittling, needlepoint, cooking, singing or playing a musical instrument, fishing: The list is long, and taking pleasure in the activity should dictate our choices.
Anyone familiar with Winston Churchill also knows that inside that statesman there lived an adolescent boy who was always popping out, the sort who loves to set off fireworks, shoot a bow and arrow, and race around the backyard making war on the bad guys. In the middle of World War II, Prime Minister Churchill came across a soldier putting together an electric train set for Churchill’s grandson. Once the train was up and running, Churchill noticed another available engine. He instructed the soldier to add that one to the track, got down on his knees, grinned, and said, “Now, let’s have a crash!”

Pick a pastime that you love, give yourself to it, let that kid inside you have some fun, and you’ve got the Churchill formula for knocking your blues for a loop.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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