Sir Winston Churchill among other accomplishments loved laying bricks in mortar and painting canvases with oils but unfortunately nobody has devised a way to ship his admirable brick walls around the world for enthusiasts to see.
His paintings, on the other hand, are on display in the Smithsonian Castle and when I went by to see them there was a jolly crew milling about gnawing on beef (eye of the round) washed down with orange juice, gin, etc. Later there was a buffet at the British Embassy ($300 a couple) to benefit the Royal Oak Foundation, a British charity.
Mary Churchill (Lady Soames), Churchill's daughter, managed to chat with everybody in the room, and said, when something came up about history (for Churchill was a historian) that once an American spoke of the Revolution, and Churchill said, "Oh, you mean the War Between Us and We."
Donald E. Smiley, a vice president of Exxon, which made the show possible, let it out that the Smithsonian secretary, S. Dillon Ripley II, was observing his 70th birthday, so there was a good bit of congratulatory traffic in that direction. Mary Ripley, his wife, is newly back from Connecticut where she has become rather a master mason herself, and when workmen had trouble with a small leaking ornamental waterfall in the garden, mixed up glop and fixed it all herself. As everyone knows, who has sloshed about with mortar of various sorts, this is the quickest route to human triumph.
A frequent visitor to Chartwell, the Churchills' house in Kent, Kay Halle spotted the big (and to be plain, rather somber) picture of wine bottles. When she first saw it at the house she asked Churchill if it wasn't an old Dutch master? He said, "Dutch? You mean my bottlescape?"
During the Hitler war, Churchill had no time for painting and only stole time for one in all those years, in North Africa. But even in the grimmest hours he kept up with small human details and often found a laugh. Once his secretary showed him a newspaper item, a man in his eighties, in bitter winter cold, was arrested in Hyde Park for making unwelcome advances to a nubile lady. "Makes you proud to be an Englishman, doesn't it?" Churchill said.
Halle is preparing a new edition of her out-of-print 1965 book on Churchill's wit, and now that so many years have passed is including some naughty examples. Well, that's today's climate for you.
Not many people know that when the bronze statue of Churchill in front of the British Embassy was in a clay model, Halle took a look at it and said the collar was too tight--Churchill never wore tight collars. Well, said the sculptor, if you know so much about it, get up there and fix it, so Halle climbed up and loosened it.
There is something irresistible in fragments you overhear in Washington, and you need not be astonished at, "There was nothing wrong with Jefferson's blues, but his yellows could be pretty bad." Before charging in to defend Jefferson's yellows, you do well to discover the man talking is Frederick Nichols, long a professor of architecture at the University of Virginia and a man who knows more about Jefferson's buildings, including his colors, than Jefferson did. And his comments were directed at Wilton Dillon, one of those Smithsonian wheels whose head is jammed with information nobody else has. Recently Dillon brought a Japanese authority on the gypsies of France to address a group, and if the subject of hedgehogs ever comes up, Dillon is one of the few people in Washington who knows French gypsies eat them.
The safest, though hardly the most fun, policy in Washington is to keep your mouth shut on all occasions, since there is almost certain to be some preeminent authority hanging around within earshot.
Janet Grayson said you really have to expect a few embarrassments along the way if you do not lead a Trappist life. A friend of hers gave a fellow a ride after some great Washington bash and thought he looked familiar. Turned out the rider worked for NBC, so the driver said, "I don't know guys down there, except Joe Blow is a close friend of mine," and the man said, "I'm Joe Blow."
Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen was observed staring at some of the 19th-century Gothic cluster columns of the Great Hall, which are supposed to look like Purbeck marble (as at Westminster and Lincoln, etc., and this may be the place to complain that Purbeck is one of 40 million words you can't find in such incomplete efforts as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which is stuffed with words like "cow" that you don't need to look up, and useless for words you don't know how to spell already). Jacobsen, to get on with him, was preparing to take his wife to the south of France yesterday, a country Churchill loved to paint. The point of mentioning Jacobsen's trip is merely to make everybody mad who is now back at the salt mines, vacation long past.
The Churchill paintings are handsomely displayed in a lovely little hall off the main one, and they had a guard to keep people from wandering in with drinks or blowing fumes, and he had a whole table full of trophies to prove the wisdom of stationing him there.
The pictures display a brilliant, some might say gaudy, palate, and while they have been praised by competent authorities, I like them better in black and white photographs than in the pulsating flesh, but then you know these unrestrained Englishmen.
In any case, I was probably not the only one there to see the pictures simply because I'd make a substantial detour to see anything closely connected with Churchill. To me the value of the stuff is that Churchill liked it. As one might go to see Dr. Schweitzer's pet pelicans, not as a bird person but because they were his.
The great prime minister's approach to painting (a view published in 1932) is by chance my own: " . . . an absorbing new amusement delightful to themselves (that is, the painters) and at any rate not violently harmful to man or beast."
As you leave, there in a glass case is the prime minister's old "siren suit," named not for its seductive cut, since it is somewhat like a green velvet pup tent with four annexes, but for its usefulness when an air raid siren went off. Churchill was not a spectacular dresser, but he did not run around in public like a jaybird, either, and the suit was a lifesaver often enough.
When the bombs were smashing London and the portly nicotine-bearing hero strode here and there with the whole damned island and the whole free world within his arms.