A painting of Marrakesh in Morocco by famed British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, owned by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, shattered expectations by selling for 7 million pounds ($9.75 million) during a an auction in London on Monday.
Churchill, who was an avid artist, was inspired by the Moroccan city and painted the oil work “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” during a World War II visit in 1943. He gave the finished article to fellow wartime leader, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
Christie’s auction house called it “Churchill’s most important work”. “Apart from its distinguished provenance, it was the only landscape he made” during the war, he added.
The work ended up in the hands of actress Angelina Jolie, who recently put it up for sale. After frantic bidding, much of it done over the phone, the hammer finally fell to £7m, shattering pre-sale expectations of £1.5-2.5m.
Christie’s said in a tweet that the commission sale figure was £8.2 million. Two other of his paintings also went under the hammer, with the three works totaling £9.43million.
A career officer before entering politics, Churchill began painting relatively late, at the age of 40. His passion for the translucent light of Marrakech, far from the political storms and dull skies of London, dates back to the 1930s, when most of Morocco was a French protectorate.
He then made six visits to the North African country in 23 years. According to Patrick Sawer’s article published by the British daily The Telegraph, Churchill was so fascinated by Islam and Muslim culture that his relatives warned him not to convert.
“Here, in these vast palm groves rising from the desert, the traveler can be sure of an eternal sun… and can contemplate with unceasing satisfaction the majestic and snow-capped panorama of the Atlas Mountains”, he wrote in 1936 in the British newspaper Daily Mail. .
He will set up his easel on the balconies of the grandiose La Mamounia hotel or the city’s Villa Taylor, dear to the European jet set of the 1970s.
It was from the villa, after a historic January 1943 conference in Casablanca with Roosevelt and the Frenchman Charles de Gaulle, that he painted what was considered his finest work, from the minaret behind the ramparts of the old town, with mountains behind and tiny colorful figures in front.
“You can’t come all the way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh,” he reportedly told Roosevelt. “I must be with you when you see the sunset over the Atlas Mountains.” A newspaper photograph taken at the time shows the two wartime Allied leaders admiring the sunset.
After the American delegation left, Churchill stayed an extra day and painted the view of the Koutoubia Mosque framed by the mountains. He sent it to Roosevelt for his birthday.
“This is Churchillian diplomacy in its most personal and intense form,” said Nick Orchard, Head of British and Irish Modern Art at Christie. “This is no ordinary gift between leaders. This is soft power, and that’s what it’s all about.”
A second landscape by Churchill, “Scene in Marrakech”, painted during his first visit to Morocco in 1935, earlier sold for £1.5million. This was painted during a stay in Mamounia, where he marveled at the “truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange and olive trees”, in a letter to his wife Clémentine.
Churchill’s painting in St Paul’s Cathedral in London also sold for £880,000.