An unpublished letter to Winston Churchill written in 1949 reveals how an American friend gave him a Monet painting of Charing Cross Bridge, which shows the Houses of Parliament in the foggy background. Churchill’s ownership of the Thames painting is unrecorded in the Monet catalogue raisonné by Wildenstein, which incorrectly gives its current owner as a French private collector (cat. W1540).
Charing Cross Bridge of 1902 was a present from Emery Reves, who was Churchill’s literary agent. Writing from Claridge’s Hotel on 23 December 1949, he began by saying: “This is a true story. Knowing that Monet is your favourite painter I have been searching for one of his good paintings for many months.”
Reves explained that he had finally tracked down the right picture, of Charing Cross Bridge, which he had bought from its Parisian owner. He had discussed the work with Tate director John Rothenstein, who described it as a masterpiece. Reves recounted their conversation: “I wanted to be sure and asked him: ‘Would you hang it in the Tate Gallery?’ to which he most emphatically answered that he would be more than happy to do so.”
Reves then added to Churchill: “Encouraged by the thought that if you do not like it you can always give it to the Tate, I arranged for the painting to be brought over this morning. Please accept it as a very small token of my gratitude for your friendship, which has been for so many years my greatest pride. That this comes between your 75th birthday [30 November] and Christmas is not purely coincidental.”
Reves ended his letter (now in the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge) with a reference to the Monet scene and Churchill’s political position: “My very best wishes for a happy 1950 during which I hope you will dissipate the fog that shrouds Westminster.”
Churchill had lost his position as prime minister in 1945 to Labour leader Clement Attlee, who would soon just hold onto power in the general election of 23 February 1950. Churchill later became prime minister again in 1951.
Reves was invited for lunch at Chartwell, Churchill’s country home in Kent, on Boxing Day 1949, presumably to thank him for the Monet. Churchill was then Leader of the Opposition, and this may have made it slightly easier to accept such a valuable gift.
Churchill kept the painting, and does not appear to have discussed donating it to the Tate (which still lacks a London Monet). As an amateur artist, Churchill was a great admirer of Monet’s landscapes, once describing how they “float in sparkling air”.
Charing Cross Bridge was hung in the drawing room at Chartwell. The house is owned by the National Trust and the contents passed to it after the death of Churchill in 1965. Although the Monet is on public view in the drawing room, it can only be viewed obliquely from behind a rope, and has never been lent to exhibitions. The picture remains relatively unknown, even among Monet scholars.
Emery Reves died in 1981, and four years later his widow Wendy donated their own art collection of 1,400 works to the Dallas Museum of Art (the fine Impressionists include a Monet of the Pont Neuf in Paris). Wendy Reves died on 13 March 2007.