Obituary: John Spencer Churchill
Thursday 09 July 1992
JOHN SPENCER CHURCHILL was an artist and sculptor, painter of murals, portraits and frescoes, a bon viveur, and a celebrated figure in Chelsea in the 1950s. But above all he was a Churchill, who lived not only under the daunting influence of his father, but also of his Uncle Winston.
Johnny took great pride in his Churchill connections. He was even prone to encourage the mischievous suggestion that he might be Uncle Winston's son, but there was no truth in that. Writing of his father Jack in later life, when he had achieved success with his art, he observed: 'If my father were alive today my painting would still be termed: playing the ass in the gutter.' His father could never understand why he preferred the artist's struggle to what 'an easy life' in the City, where the signing of a few documents could have kept him happily in port and cigars. Indeed Johnny felt a particular rapport with his cousin Randolph, noting that their fathers never allowed them to feel they were other than children.
I always felt a strong sympathy with Johnny Churchill, though I only met him on a handful of occasions. My family, however, had known him all their lives. In his early days, after coming down from an undistinguished period at Pembroke College, Oxford, he joined Vickers da Costa, my grandfather's firm in the Stock Exchange, where his father Jack Churchill was a partner. It was not to Johnny's taste at all. His Jerome cousin, Clare Sheridan, the sculptor, urged him to pursue a career in art and, when Chips Channon commissioned him to do a fresco in his dining-room for pounds 100, he sought an interview with Cecil Vickers, thought by many to be a stern though kind man. Johnny explained that he wished to leave and become an artist, but that he was scared of confronting his father. My grandfather said: 'I will support you. But you must be honest with yourself and if - only if - you fail, come to me here in this office and I will take you back.'
Johnny left the City at the end of 1931, painted Chips's mural (which the subsequent owner of the flat instantly obliterated) and only returned to Vickers da Costa in 1955 when my father, the then senior partner, invited him to decorate the boardroom in their offices in King William Street.
My family (by no means unanimous in their views as to who they like) are united in retaining a soft spot for Johnny Churchill. He was warm and friendly, charming without being too ostensibly so, and, above all, he had heart. When I met him in 1979, I found him quite different from what I expected - gentle, friendly, sober. That October he invited me to his exhibition in Chelsea Manor Gardens. My diary records that the pictures had charm but could have been hung a little more professionally. A nice surgeon's widow, his then girlfriend, was doing her zealous best to sell them. It was a typical fringe Churchill occasion - Randolph's ex-wife June announcing that she had been libelled in the Evelyn Waugh letters, and Sarah Churchill (Lady Audley) dressed in a weary blue trouser-suit and white bowler hat, accompanied by a somewhat questionable man with a wound on his face. She told me she was writing her memoirs and for a sound reason: 'It was Mary's idea really. Randolph wrote his version, she's done hers, now I'm going to do mine. Writers are going to write more, so we'd better get our word in first.'
Of the three children of Jack Churchill, Johnny was the odd one out, fun-loving, mischievous and irresponsible. His brother Peregrine, a successful engineer, is a more serious character, who has been a consistent help to all Churchills advising them about their money, their papers and their literary endeavours; likewise his sister Clarissa (the Countess of Avon), described by him as 'one of the few women in this world with a first-class brain'. Their mother, Lady Gwendoline, known as 'Goonie', was aloof and beautiful and a Roman Catholic. The family lived in London, mainly in the Cromwell Road, though much of Johnny's youth was spent visiting Blenheim and Chartwell.
Art was always his first interest, and at school he was not noted for academic achievement, though he was a keen acrobatic diver, and enjoyed pulling off acrobatic stunts when he had an audience. At Harrow he was a keen worker in the art school, specialising in watercolours, and at Oxford he adorned his rooms with murals. In 1929 he accompanied his father, Uncle Winston and Randolph on their celebrated trip to Canada and the US, taking great pleasure in meeting all the Hollywood stars (save the elusive Garbo) under the auspices of William Randolph Hearst.
Early in his painting career, Tilly Losch, the Viennese dancer who also painted - usually images of herself - gave Johnny the sound advice that he should aim to leave his pictures almost unfinished. His connections helped him obtain commissions and he was soon undertaking work for Lady Islington and the Maharanee of Cooch Behar. He also adorned Aubrey Herbert's villa at Portofino and relished his work on the battles of the Duke of Marlborough at Chartwell in 1935. Later he decorated a temple at Blenheim for the 10th Duke of Marlborough and painted views of London in Simpson's of Piccadilly. He turned his hand to sculpture and was inclined to dash off a sketch of a friend he might be visiting, which he might then present as a gift or sell, according to the fluctuating state of his pocket.
At the end of May 1940 Johnny, then a Corps Camouflage Officer, was despatched to Dunkirk and on his return was able to tell his uncle personally of the urgent need for small boats to assist in rescuing the troops there. After the war he founded the now thriving interior-decorating business George Spencer.
If his career was erratic, so too was his private life. He married four times and was often engaged in the quest for romance. In 1955, when he was living at Adam and Eve Mews, he went out to complain about the noise being made by his neighbour's servants and found himself arrested. He was accused of being drunk and disorderly, though as he pointed out he had only imbibed three drinks since 3pm. He fought the case with the help of his cousin Randolph. He explained: 'Now the Churchills have one terrible characteristic: if they think they are in the wrong about a matter they deal with it, forget it and move on, but if they are in the right they fight like lions to prove themselves.' In the end, after considerable attendant publicity, he was fined five shillings with 10 guineas costs. He was fined a further five shillings for using insulting language. He admitted that he had called the servant a 'poof'.
Johnny Churchill's memoirs, Crowded Canvas, published in 1961, were considered quite advanced - even outrageous - in their content. He did not hesitate to write about the sadism of the senior boys at Harrow, of his own peccadilloes, or his feelings towards his family. Lord Birkenhead, another old friend, clearly enjoyed writing his review of the memoirs, describing Johnny as 'some amiable dog taking a country ramble with no particular object in view, sniffing down the byways of his path, and pausing for an occasional roll in the dirt'.
Johnny now lies in Bladon Churchyard, in sight of Blenheim Palace. If news of his antics were not the most popular at Downing Street in the Eden era, and if he was not the most eagerly awaited unexpected caller at the British Embassy in Paris in the Soames era, it is good to think that he rejoins the Churchills in death.
Concluding his memoirs, he wrote: 'The 1st Duke of Marlborough was 52 when he fought the Battle of Blenheim. My uncle was 64 when he attained his greatest role. I still have time for the uplands of greater achievement.' But, though his life was rich with enjoyment, it was finally unfulfilled.
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