Q: The arts remind us what we are fighting for—not
Please verify a Churchill story/quotation from the Second World War. A Member of Parliament questioned budgeting for the Arts while Britain was fighting for life. Churchill supposedly responded that they could justify this spending “to remind us what we are fighting for.” —K.L., Chicago.
A: Right sentiments, wrong words
This alleged quotation ran quite some time ago in the Village Voice and is all over the Internet. Churchill’s 20 million published words do not contain it, and is it not in the 60 million words about him in biographies and memoirs, the digital canon maintained by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project.
Later it was recited by actor Kevin Spacey to broadcaster Chris Matthews. (The video actually corrected the misquote with a textual overlay.) I had an interesting exchange with Mr. Spacey who was pleased to learn the actual facts.
Addressing the Royal Academy in 1938, Churchill expressed a strong affinity for the Arts. He was referring to painting and sculpture, but it is not hard to believe he would have applied these thoughts to the Arts in general:
The Arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them…. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.(1)
“We are going to beat them.”
Sir Winston’s daughter, the late, much missed Lady Soames, liked to quote two comments by her father about the Arts. This came early in the Second World War. It is not quite what the Village Voice reported, but in a way apropos. Churchill’s attitude at that time is clear from two statements:
The Foreign Office had put forward a suggestion to prepare to evacuate the Royal Family, and also the Government, to “some part of the Overseas Empire, where the war would continue to be waged.” When [Desmond] Morton passed on this request to Churchill, the Prime Minister took strong exception. No, he said: “I believe we shall make them rue the day they try to invade our island.”(2)
At this same moment, the Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, suggested that the paintings in the National Gallery should be sent from London to Canada. Churchill was adamantly against this. “No,” he minuted, “bury them in caves and cellars. None must go. We are going to beat them.”(3)
(1) Winston S. Churchill, “Tradition and Novelty in Art,” Royal Academy Banquet, Burlington House, London, 30 April 1938, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI: 5947-48.
(2) Prime Minister’s minute of 30 May 1940 (Premier papers 7/2) in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941, (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2011), 449.
(3) John Colville diary, 1 June 1940 (Colville Papers), in Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents, vol. 15, Never Surrender, May 1940-December 1940 (Hillsdale College Press, 2011, 221.