Safeguarding the Arts: Churchill Quotes and Misquotes

Safeguarding the Arts: Churchill Quotes and Misquotes

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.”

WSC to Ken­neth Clark: “We are going to beat them.” (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.

Further reading

Would the Roy­al Fam­i­ly and Churchill Evac­u­ate if the Ger­mans Invad­ed?”

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