x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A friendship forged in Moroccan art

In a London exhibit, the extraordinary story of an unlikely friendship between a British prime minister and a Berber tribesman is being told for the first time.

A museum employee poses next to a painting by former British prime minister Winston Churchill titled The Mosque at Marrakech at Leighton House Museum in west London as part of the exhibition Meetings in Marrakech: The Paintings of Winston Churchill and Hassan El Glaoui.
A museum employee poses next to a painting by former British prime minister Winston Churchill titled The Mosque at Marrakech at Leighton House Museum in west London as part of the exhibition Meetings in Marrakech: The Paintings of Winston Churchill and Hassan El Glaoui.

The paintings of the celebrated Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui sit in fine-art collections all over the world, but it was only thanks to a few words from an amateur painter who dabbled in oils as a hobby that he was allowed to study art at all. This wasn't a schoolteacher or an eccentric, artistically inclined aunt, but one of Britain's greatest statesmen: Sir Winston Churchill.

The extraordinary story of an unlikely friendship between a British prime minister and a Berber tribesman is being told for the first time in Meetings in Marrakech, an exhibition that opened at Leighton House, in Kensington, London, on Friday. In it, 24 paintings by Churchill and El Glaoui, all completed in Marrakech, hang alongside each other. Together, they form a tribute to the beauty of "the ochre city" and to the power of friendship and art to cross cultural barriers.

El Glaoui was born in 1923 into a noble Berber tribe of the High Atlas. His father, Thami El Glaoui, was the Pasha of Marrakech and exerted a powerful and fearsome influence over the politics of Morocco. (He was known colloquially as the "Black Panther".) The pasha entertained Churchill, who first visited in 1935, on several occasions. He was a flamboyant host: banquets, sometimes featuring more than 100 dancing girls, took place at Meknes, Fez, Telouet and Marrakech.

Despite their striking differences (photographs show the pasha in flowing Arab robes and a burnous standing next to Churchill in a cumbersome British uniform), the two men became firm friends, sharing a love of hedonism, politics and golf.

Churchill had taken up painting late, age 40, as a way of combating bouts of depression. Morocco was one of his favourite destinations to take his easel and oils, and he painted avidly while he was there. He adored its crisp winter climate, limpid light and romantic desert landscapes. It was, he wrote after his first visit, "a revelation".

In 1943, as the Second World War raged in Europe, the 69-year-old Churchill returned again to Marrakech to convalesce from pneumonia. The pasha called on his friend for advice over a troubling family matter: his eldest son wanted to pursue a career in painting — an unheard-of career choice for a boy of his social standing. After seeing some impressive sketches by Hassan, Churchill urged his reluctant friend to allow the young man to follow his desire. Hassan was dispatched to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. His talent and career flourished. By the 1970s he had achieved wide recognition in the Middle East, Europe and America — one of the first North African artists to do so.

Hassan, who is still painting from his home in Marrakech at the age of 88, acknowledges that, without the reassurance of Churchill, his despotic father probably would not have relented: "I am extremely grateful to [Churchill] for whatever influence he exercised on my father," he says. "Without him, I might not have been sent to Paris. I believe I would have pursued painting no matter what but, without the occasion to learn in Paris from great teachers, and to be around other artists, my style would have been different. The art world there was very inspiring for my career."

This show acknowledges that debt. It displays some of Hassan's famous equestrian paintings, but there are also charming, lesser-known works: quiet, quotidian scenes of Marrakech, such as horses resting by their carriages and studies of the palmeraie baking in the desert heat. The colours are muted and the style impressionistic, capturing the olive greens and powdery pinks of Marrakech.

And what of the work of the amateur, many of whom have never been exhibited before? "Churchill's paintings stand up surprisingly well next to the work of Hassan," says the show's curator, Daniel Robbins.

Hassan agrees: "Churchill often talked about the light of Marrakech in his letters to my father and how he was inspired by what he saw. Even though he was a Sunday artist and never studied painting, he knew how to use a brush. I recognise the Marrakech of my youth in his paintings."

One of the aims of the show, in fact, is to see how the painters' approaches to the city mirrored each other over time. Thus, some works sit particularly well together: Churchill's Walls of Marrakech and Hassan's Les Jardins de Marrakech are silent, rather melancholy scenes of empty roads, still, windless trees and seemingly uninhabitated houses.

The setting of the exhibition adds to its appeal. Leighton House, one of London's most underrated attractions, is the former home of the Victorian painter Lord Frederic Leighton. It was built in the late 1870s with a magnificent Arab hall lined with sumptuous gold mosaics and Damascene tiles, brought back from Leighton's visits to the Middle East.

Today, after years spent as a neglected, little-visited museum in the leafy environs of Holland Park, Leighton House has an ambitious arts programme that explores the cultural dialogue between East and West. Every year it hosts the Nour Festival, a celebration of film, art, food, literature and music from the Middle East. This new show, with its cross-cultural narrative, "fits perfectly within our ethos", says Robbins.

The idea was first broached by Touria El Glaoui, Hassan's daughter. "For as long as I can remember, I have heard the story of how Churchill helped convince the pasha to let my father study art seriously in Paris. Organising this event is like seeing a family 'myth' come true."

The project was enthusiastically embraced by Celia Sandys, Churchill's granddaughter, who has written the introduction to the catalogue. The friendship and artistic exchange between the two families continues.

The prime minister and the pasha would, one feels, have heartily approved.

  • Meetings in Marrakech, The Paintings of Hassan El Glaoui and Winston Churchill, runs at Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, London, until March 31; 020-7602 3316, www.leightonhouse.co.uk. The entrance fee is £5 (Dh28)

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