Winston S. Churchill arrived late--but with his usual clamorous eloquence -- to the art of painting.

It was for therapy that the British statesman and orator turned to the palette at age 40, following his abrupt exit from the Admiralty as a principal scapegoat for the bloody catastrophe of Gallipoli in 1915. Of his newfound hobby, which he pursued with cheerful competence until several years before his death at 90 in 1964, he once declared: "I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind."

Of course, this was a mind not lightly absorbed.

Forty-eight of Churchill's works (or workings-out) of art have been borrowed from private collections and placed on view at the Smithsonian Institution's Castle for its "Winston S. Churchill: Painting as a Pastime" exhibit this month and next. Not a single painting here is bad. Not a single painting is stunning, either, but that was not Churchill's intent.

His aim was to have fun -- and painting was a spirit-freeing means "for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale," as he put it in his brief, bully little book, "Painting as a Pastime," from which the exhibit draws its title.

You will go to the Castle, then, not to marvel at Churchill's prowess with the brush but to see for yourself what sort of self-improvement the man preached, and how he practiced it. Take it from his book -- painting has much to recommend it: "Inexpensive independence, a mobile and perennial pleasure apparatus, new mental food and exercise, the old harmonies and symmetries in an entirely different language, an added interest to every common scene, an occupation for every idle hour . . ." You get the idea that Sir Winston Churchill may have enjoyed his oils. Quite.

You also get the idea that Churchill was fond of color. His writing and oratory certainly reflected this; his paintings -- full of oranges, fuchsias, corals, deep greens and blues -- confirm it. Particularly evocative is his "Goldfish Pond at Chartwell," in which the subjects are curving flashes of orange in a lush green wash. Also see the bleached, yellow-and-coral starkness of "Mosque at Marrakech."

Churchill, enchanted and influenced by the French post-Impressionists' treatment of light and their fragmented sense of color, knew enough to check his ambition, however, and go for adventure -- and inexpensive adventure at that. He counseled those who would begin painting late in life, as he did: "We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in paint-box. And for this, audacity is the only ticket." WINSTON S. CHURCHILL: PAINTING AS A PASTIME -- At the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, through November 2. 357-2700.