Artwork owned by Winston Churchill that depicts Dunkirk evacuation is restored to former glory
It was in his first weeks as Prime Minister that Winston Churchill uttered what remain his most famous words.
Following the miraculous evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in May and June 1940, Churchill declared that ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ amid fears that Nazi Germany was set to launch an invasion.
Now, following extensive conservation and hours of repair, a painting owned by Churchill that depicts the famous rescue of troops from Dunkirk has gone on public display for the first time at his former home, Chartwell in Kent.
The oil on canvas painting by wartime artist Ernest Townsend shows some of the 330,000 soldiers evacuated safely from France following Nazi Germany’s invasion. It was gifted by the artist’s son to Churchill in 1947.
Whilst Churchill was sent thousands of gifts after he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, he could only accept a select few. Townsend’s painting was one of those that he said he would be ‘honoured to accept’.
The painting, which is 4feet and 7inches wide, was originally delivered to Churchill – himself a keen painter – at his London home but was then moved to Chartwell.
It sustained a four-inch tear in its canvas over the years and the varnish covering it had yellowed. It was restored after 100 hours of cleaning and repair.
To repair the tear, conservators used sutures and borrowed the technique honed by medics to sew up wounds.
Whilst it is not yet known where the painting was initially hung, researchers do know that it was in Churchill’s studio in the garden of his home when he died in 1965.
Following extensive conservation and hours of repair, a painting owned by Winston Churchill that depicts the famous rescue of troops from Dunkirk in 1940 has has gone on public display for the first time at his former home, Chartwell in Kent. Above: Before and after the restoration, in which conservators used sutures to repair a tear in the painting
To repair the tear the painting, conservators carefully humidified the area to relax the threads of the canvas, whilst protecting the painting with Gore-Tex to make sure no water came into direct contact with it.
The torn edge was then neatly aligned and temporarily held in place with the same kind of tape used for sports injuries.
National Trust conservator Sophie Reddington added: ‘The threads were re-woven with a surgical needle and then secured with adhesive – in a similar way to how wounds are treated with sutures.
‘I was introduced to the technique a few years ago and am delighted by its success as a temporary fixing method.’
The frame of the painting is known to be much older than the work itself and is believed to date from the 18th century.
In what may have been a sign of the war-imposed shortage of materials, the frame was cut down in size so it could be used, rather than the painter making use of a brand new frame.
Chartwell’s curator Katherine Carter said: ‘Churchill’s ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech has gone down in history among the greatest wartime orations.
Whilst Churchill was sent thousands of gifts after he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, he could only accept a select few. Above: Churchill at Chartwell in 1945
Evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, Northern France. Troops are seen awaiting orders after arriving in England following the evacuation
It sustained a four-inch tear in its canvas over the years and the varnish covering it had yellowed. It was restored after 100 hours of cleaning and repair. To repair the tear, conservators used sutures and borrowed the technique honed by medics to sew up wounds
Conservator Sophie Reddington is seen working on the back of the Dunkirk painting during its restoration, which took 100 hours. The painting is now on display on the landing at Chartwell
To repair the tear the painting, conservators carefully humidified the area to relax the threads of the canvas, whilst protecting the painting with Gore-Tex to make sure no water came into direct contact with it. Above: Conservator Sophie Reddington at work on the painting
‘So, we are delighted that we have been able to conserve and finally display such an important symbol of his legacy at his former home.
‘It must have been poignant for him to be given this beautifully painted reminder of such a significant event of the Second World War, just at the time he was writing about Dunkirk for his history of the war a few years later.
‘In partnership with the curatorial team at the Derby Museums Trust we were able to unearth the correspondences between Churchill and Ernest Townsend’s son and understand a little more behind the gift.
‘The painting is now being displayed as part of a renewed focus on the story we tell at Chartwell of Churchill and his role as a wartime leader.’
The painting conservation was carried out at the National Trust’s Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole in Kent.
Ms Reddington added said it is always ‘hugely satisfying’ removing old varnish from paintings.
‘Often paintings have lost their original colours and dimensional appearance. Removing aged varnish layers is like bringing a painting back to life and this painting looks transformed with its colours fresh and vibrant again,’ she said.
The painting depicts British troops during the Dunkirk evacuation. In the foreground is a soldier using a crutch as he is helped by a comrade, whilst a man in red striped pyjamas is seen behind
The area of the tear in the painting is seen during its restoration. Conservators borrowed a technique from medics for their feat
The painting of Dunkirk is one of a number of ‘war art’ paintings in the collection at Chartwell that were once owned by Churchill and his wife Clementine.
Following its restoration, the Dunkirk painting is now hanging on Chartwell’s staircase landing, alongside the work ‘Some of the Few’ by Roy Nockolds, which depicts Hawker Hurricanes flying during the Battle of Britain.
Churchill gave what is his most famous speech in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940.
At the time, he needed to convince both ordinary Britons and sceptical figures such as his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that Britain should fight on in the war following the Dunkirk evacuation.
Workers are seen carrying the restored painting inside Chartwell shortly before it was hung on the landing of the home
Curator Katherine Carter is seen looking at the majestic painting as it hangs in its new position inside Chartwell, where Churchill lived with his wife and children
The escape from northern France was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4.
The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from Dunkirk. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned
Afterwards, Churchill, who had become PM in May 1940 after a decade in the political wilderness, was under intense pressure from his war cabinet to sign a peace deal with Adolf Hitler.
He said in his speech: ‘We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.’
Evacuation of Dunkirk: How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in ‘miracle of deliverance’ after the German Blitzkreig saw Nazi forces sweep into France
The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.
It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940 after Nazi Blitzkreig – ‘Lightning War’ – saw German forces sweep through Europe.
The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.
Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.
The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land.
But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.
Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.
It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned
They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.
Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain.
On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’
Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves.
They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action.
When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.
Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.
As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore.
Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.
The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.
Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,000 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.
The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.
But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, the evacuation itself was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.
In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’