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Portrait of the artist: critics cast doubt on Boris Johnson holiday snap

The PM, caught unawares, pursuing his Churchillian hobby. Some wonder whether the image is too convenient

Boris Johnson with a painting of a ladybird he produced during a school visit
Boris Johnson with a painting of a ladybird he produced during a school visit. He has long been said to dabble in art. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson with a painting of a ladybird he produced during a school visit. He has long been said to dabble in art. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/AFP/Getty Images
Nadia Khomami
Arts and culture correspondent

Last modified on Thu 14 Oct 2021 05.10 BST

It’s a busy time for the prime minister, as he faces multiple crises including rocketing energy prices, container ships turned away from British ports and a standoff with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.

But Boris Johnson still found time to emulate his hero Winston Churchill by fitting in a spot of painting while holidaying in Marbella.

He was caught unawares, or so it seems, in a long-lens photograph, standing behind an easel, painting an unknown subject at his holiday villa.

Daily Mirror front page.
Daily Mirror front page. Photograph: Daily Mirror

Whether he’s yet up to Churchill’s standards – a painting by the former wartime leader recently sold for a record £7m – the prime minister has long been known to dabble in the craft, which those who know him best say he inherited from his mother.

During the Tory leadership campaign in 2019, Johnson said he wound down by painting buses on old wooden crates, and added “passengers enjoying themselves” on his model Routemasters.

His professed love for painting sparked widespread interest at the time, with critics and ministers wondering whether he had made the whole thing up, perhaps to distract from internet searches of the infamous Brexit bus.

But Guto Harri, Johnson’s communications director when he was mayor of London, told Newsnight he knew his old boss was “a talented painter”.

“I know that he used to genuinely paint little egg boxes,” Harri said, as viewers were reminded that a pen-and-ink doodle of a bus by Johnson had raised £1,000 for a children’s cancer charity.

Meanwhile, Celia Montague, an artist who painted a portrait of Johnson, revealed how the then London mayor had turned the easel on her.

“I have seen Boris in the very act of creation,” she wrote in the Daily Mail. “I know he loves painting and, as a professional portrait and landscape painter, I can confirm that he is more skilled than you might think.”

Montague recalled how Johnson “looked as though he positively ached to be doing what I thought I was about to do”, so she asked if he wanted a go.

“I’ve seen slower starts at the Grand National … standing well back from the canvas, he set his jaw in Churchillian manner and lunged at it like a swordsman.”

Johnson has declared his love of painting on a number of occasions. In 2011, he claimed: “I like to relax by painting on cheese boxes … Now it might sound cretinous – and I’m not a very good painter – but I enjoy it and find it therapeutic. The last thing I painted was a picture of one of my family in front of the Colosseum.”

According to the Johnson biographer Tom Bower, the prime minister got the painting bug from his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl. “His mother encouraged his painting as a very young boy,” Bower said. “Marooned with [her] at the family’s farm in Exmoor when he was three years old, Johnson enjoyed painting buses with his mother’s colours.”

Johnson Wahl, who died in September, was talented and forged a career as an artist, with her paintings described as revealing “a deep understanding of the complex human condition, and an empathy for struggle”.

Johnson Wahl, who struggled with mental illness for much of her adult life, painted 78 paintings when she was a patient at the Maudsley. An exhibition of the paintings at the psychiatric hospital in 1973 sold out, as did others in Brussels in 1970 and at the Gavin Graham gallery in London in 2004. Her still lifes, portraits and paintings of skyscrapers have been exhibited widely, and sold for £1,000 to £5,000.

Johnson Wahl told the Radio Times in 2015 that her son Boris was a “very good painter”. “He is interested in the leadership of the Conservative party, but he could equally well retire and become a painter,” she said.

But while many were quick to compare the photograph of Johnson to Churchill, Bower and another Johnson biographer, Sonia Purnell, believed the photograph from Spain was clearly staged.

“It’s meant to be a distraction from the shitshow and it’s obviously working,” Purnell said. “Again. Like the painting buses thing and so many other decoys. He’s done the odd bit of painting over the years but nothing much.

“Most would find it impossible to find the time with a toddler, let alone supposedly being the one meant to be dealing with the climate crisis, Northern Ireland, that damning report on his handling of Covid, food shortages, and a stalling economy. How come that picture just happened to get out?”

Churchill, a keen artist, had a studio at Chartwell, but claimed to have only painted one picture while serving as prime minister during the second world war – of the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, painted from the balcony of the Villa Taylor in 1943 while on an excursion with the US president Franklin D Roosevelt.