Paul Hilliard’s admiration for Winston Churchill began in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, with America mired in the Great Depression and Churchill, Britain's prime minister, standing seemingly alone in defense of the Free World.
Hilliard knew this, he said Thursday, because he delivered a paper route on the edge of his Wisconsin town and read the news avidly.
“I was in the minority in that period. I had access to the news. We didn’t have a radio nor did we take a newspaper ourselves. But I had 30 to 40 newspaper customers to whom I delivered the paper every day, and I had access to the news,” he said.
“Until we got into the war, most of the news was bad. I just remember some of the caricatures of him. For two years, he was carrying the free world on his back. I remember cartoons where he looked like a bulldog. I saw him as a heroic figure. …
“Our politicians come and go. Churchill is a permanent figure.”
That enduring affection for the worldly statesman, launched in his boyhood, endures today for Hilliard, now 94. Hilliard was honored at a gala event at the Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Thursday night. He was given the choice of a featured artist whose work would be displayed at the museum beginning that night. He chose Churchill.
As far as his interest in Churchill’s art, Hilliard said, that didn’t come until after the war. Lesser known about Churchill, who was a legendary statesman and who won a Nobel Prize in literature for his prose and oratory, was that he was an avid painter, a pastime he started at 40 during World War I.
“I don’t know anything about art,” Hilliard, whose contributions to the art museum in Lafayette made its existence possible, said candidly. “Art to me is whether you like it or not. It’s an expression of man’s visions, his dreams, his creativity. It is man’s imagination at work.”
Churchill, he added, “was an impressionist, who painted landscapes and seascapes. He traveled to southern France and Marrakech to paint.”
In fact, said Timothy Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill was an excellent amateur painter whose significant work could be shown in leading galleries. He completed more than 560 paintings.
Those at the gala saw the exhibit that will open Friday. There are eight paintings, three bronze pieces and a lithograph — the last owned by Hilliard himself. He has owned the piece for 35 years.
The Churchill exhibit will show during the 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II, arguably Britain’s and Churchill’s finest hour. Hilliard fought in that war, but in the Pacific, not the European theater. His choice of Churchill for the exhibit, he said, was not connected to the anniversary.
But Hilliard, who chairs the board for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, said he is well aware of the looming anniversary. In 2019, he visited Normandy, France for the 75th anniversary of that epic battle, where the Allies gained a foothold in northern France and began their drive toward Berlin.
The exhibit, he said, will show an important side of Churchill, a reflective side concerning his pastime that helped him escape the pressures of his weighty official duties. It’s a slight peek into the life of a 20th century giant.
“He’s sort of like Lincoln or Washington. He grows over time,” Hilliard said. “He gets bigger and bigger. There’s a lot of history still being written, lots of facts coming out. A closet opens and more information come out about him. But Winston Churchill survives it all.”