The Colours of Marrakech

Jeanne Maze Churchill is a painter living and working in south-west France. She was born in London and grew up in the UK. Her paternal grandfather was the French post-impressionist painter Paul Maze (1887-1979).
What is your oldest memory about painting?

My very first memory of painting is the smell – the smell of all the papers and paints that were in my grand-father’s studio. Visually, the first thing I remember is the size of blobs of color. I remember thinking as a child that blobs of color were wonderful. I liked ladies in spotted dresses. So in painting, it was mainly the color. Because the color made me go into another world. I was very little then, before school.

Jeanne, how much of an influence was your grandfather on you becoming an artist?

As a child, painting was like a secret to me. I didn’t expect people to understand. But because I saw people accepting my grand-father as a painter, I thought “Well, if I start painting openly, not being quite so secretive, it will be accepted.” But I did feel happier painting. But my grand-father’s work was perfectly normal to me, so I said “Ok, that’s something I can do without getting into trouble.” I didn’t learn painting, I rather liked it. I think it’s like somebody who’s going to be a chef: they spend time with their mother in the kitchen, then they have it in their brain and blood for life. It’s not something you decide, it just happens. Everybody has something, something they enjoy and feel is natural.

At some point did you consciously think “Ok, I’ll take on painting” or did it just spring out of you?

I felt I had been automatically helped by a grand-father who painted. I didn’t question whether or not I was a painter. I knew painting was part of my life, but I didn’t put the tee-shirt on, saying “I’m a painter”. I already was, I didn’t need to buy the tee-shirt. What I needed to do was find out what sort of a painter I was and what kind of things I wanted to say through painting. And that was really the difficult thing for me. How do you start choosing, how do you express what you’re seeing, and how do you fight your way through all the questions you ask youself when you begin to paint? This is not written in a book, and you can’t copy – that’s “a disease” that my grand-father warned me against. He said “Copying is a disease you should avoid at all cost.”

Was painting a matter that you would discuss with your grand-father?

We did speak about it. Because he would take me into the studio with him and talk to me about painting as if I was an adult. He would unreservedly express things and I would listen to him. I really listened to what he was saying, because it made sense to me. And I thought he enjoyed it, because he was talking to somebody who absorbed what he was saying, without question. I really learnt through what he was telling me. He wasn’t lecturing – he was explaining maybe the reason for painting something, why he had seen something or how he was attracted to a subject – topics of conversation which were instructive, without being a lesson. They were wonderful conversations. He had a fantastic way of speaking, because being French he had a very strong accent and a very rounded diction. You were drawn into his voice and language, as well as by the way he was explaining something. It was very mesmerizing for a child. And I really worshipped what he said, because he wasn’t trying to make a point, he was just honestly telling me things.

Was painting a way of life for you?

Painting was a part of my life. It became an important part of it, because I was always somebody who was visual, looking at things. I registered things very strongly, visually. I didn’t think of it as work though. It was not until I left school and began to take commissions that I began to think of it this way. But I was not setting out to use it as a way of earning a living, I was just experimenting how far I could go. I didn’t know what sort of a painter I might become.

Some say you have to copy at first, copy the great masters for a start and an education…

At the beginning you’re copying everything. A vase of flowers, anything. And then as you begin you learn your own capabilities, you begin to represent what you see, as opposed to copying. That’s the difference between somebody who’s learning to draw and paint and somebody who knows how to do it and wants to express something.

Did Paul Maze live long enough to say to Jeanne Maze “You are a painter”?

He did. It happened in my nearly decorated bedroom very privately. I had painted one of the walls with chinoiseries. I’d just started it, I’d done a third and was very nervous about it, hoping I was not going to make a fool of myself, because my father would be cross if we needed to redecorate my room again. So my grand-father looked at it and said nothing for about two minutes – I was rather afraid and embarrassed and getting all hot in the palms of my hands. And then he said “You will be a painter, but you have a lot to discover.” I remember the sense of relief, but also of gratitude. It was the first time that somebody admitted I was a painter and not just someone who was slightly talented at drawing. I felt that I had passed a certain boundary which I hadn’t passed before. I remember that moment very strongly, I remember thinking “Now I have permission really to try, and if I fail at least I will have tried.”

Apart from this family intimacy with painting, did you go to an art school?

Yes, I went to Bryam Shaw Art school in London, to do a foundation course. My grand-father was furious! He was so disappointed, he said “You would learn more spending a day in the studio of a painter that you admire than a year at an art school.” But I went anyway – and realized he was right in a way. I could see what interested me and what didn’t. I did learn etching which was very interesting. When I left art school, I went straight into a job gilding picture frames. F. A. Pollak’s was a wonderful establishment in St-James’ in London. I was an apprentice gilder for 18 months and learnt a lot about framing, gilding, the trade. And then I knew I couldn’t go on doing this, I had to paint. I handed in my notice and I began copying Chinese porcelain and wallpaper in the museums and galleries. Then I started to do Chinese murals in people’s houses for commissions in London. That’s really how I began to take learn how to work with paint to make money.

Would you make a difference between this job to earn money and your art, or is it part of the same learning process?

It was linked in a way. Mr F. A. Pollak was a Polish refugee, who escaped to London with two packing cases filled with frames. The early frames he made were from the wood of the cases. He didn’t have the money to buy new wood. He set up this company and over the years became one of the best known, the most respected picture framers in London. It was an honor to work there. And I did learn a lot. It was important to learn how to see a picture in a frame, to understand how galleries try to show pictures. These things are dated, fashions change, but it helps understand what people try to do with the frame, how it balances the mood of a picture. So it was a very important thing to have done.

How important was the Chinese inspiration to you?

When the Chinese painted, it was only in watercolor or ink. So, the pigment was sent on to the paper with the water medium. Thus you can play with the amount and strength of color. They have fantastic talent for showing colors and the use of the brush. They catch a sense of life and nature with it. You get a feeling of respect of nature through their work. Animals are depicted in all the right ways. They’ve got an amazing repertoire of plants and animals that repeat. You don’t get bored of looking at the same bug on the teapot, or the same piece of wallpaper by your bed, because it’s done with a certain amount of respect, but also joie de vivre. I loved all that, I loved the clarity of just a single line, with the color over it all, the pink tummy of an apple-green grasshopper… And when they worked just with ink and brush strokes, they would have this marvelous balance on the paper. It’s very clever. It looks as though it has been put on willy-nilly but in fact, the thought and talent and details of what they’re doing is all there, very careful – probably taking years to learn and five minutes to do. So I did enjoy all that and I spent 20 years in London doing chinoiseries. When I began to paint properly, in the sense that I started doing canvasses and using oil instead of gouache there would still be touches of Chinese every now or then.

Was the love of animals and attention to details not already there in your childhood?

Yes, I was very fortunate as a child because I had a lot of cousins, aunts and uncles who had houses in the country. My father was born in the north of Scotland. Argyllshire is very wild – lots of Highland cattle, salmon, deer… My other aunts and uncles lived in England, in houses that were stocked with horses and ponies, dogs and cats, goats. Animals were always part of life. I was much more peaceful inwardly when I was in the country. I found the town rather frightening, noisy, with lots of things that I didn’t attract me particularly. In the country I was much more free to roam, discover and prod around like a child does. When I began painting animals, I didn’t think I could ever do them justice. My schoolbooks are dotted with sketches of horses and rabbits.

How did you meet your husband, Robert Churchill?

I didn’t meet Robert until Paul had a 90th-birthday exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery in London. My parents gave a large dinner at their house after it. I went to the exhibition and when we came back there was Robert, who had come to accompany his mother. He was at Cambridge University at the time. I remember his mother had toothache, so they nearly didn’t come. I talked to him after dinner. He had just bought a small flat in London. He invited me to paint his so-called dining-room, which was minute. When I walked into the flat, it was full of my grand-father’s paintings, which Paul had given him. That’s when I realized how close they were through Robert’s father Ivor (Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, 1898-1956). And that was the beginning of our relationship, because Robert commissioned me to paint. Of course I never got paid, because I got married instead! We sort of hovered around together for two years before the wedding. The ceremony took place in Southwark Cathedral and everybody walked across London Bridge to the reception.

Was this love of arts was shared by Robert’s family?

Consuelo adored the arts. She was painted by some great masters like John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini and Paul César Helleu. As a young boy Ivor appears in Boldini’s painting alongside with his mother, it’s now in the Metropolitan. Helleu did a enormous painting of Consuelo in pastel, when she was about 18. It’s very sensitive, beautiful and touching. She introduced the painters that she knew to her son Ivor, helping him making his own collection. They swapped paintings and talked and wrote to each other about painting. I think once you become involved in art you go deeper and deeper impassioned. (In 1936 Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill generously offered a painting by Cézanne to Musée Marcel Arnaud, which later became Musée Granet, in Aix-en-Provence.) The enormity of energy involved in the paintings makes you feel drawn. Consuelo and Ivor were in a position to encourage, which they did, very well, intelligently. They were very good patrons, including towards my grand-father!

What would be the different periods of your own progress as a painter?

After art school, then picture framing gilding, then the chinoiseries, which went on for a while. I had become quite comfortable. I was working a lot, people enjoyed what I was doing, there was money coming in, so I was happy. Then my husband told me “If you want to be taken seriously as a painter you must paint and stop doing your chinoiseries.” That was a very big step, a huge step! It frightened me very much, I had to go back to scratch. After years of being quite well thought of and praised, I suddenly became somebody who didn’t really know how to use oil paint. So, I rented a small part of a studio belonging to a picture restorer who was friend of mine. She was able to show me the subtleties of oil painting. I learnt with her over a 2-year period. Bit by bit I got more adapt, trying to feel at home with oil. It was very different because I takes so much longer and is much more expensive to use, so I was afraid having to invest a lot of money on the basics before I could even show anything. Then we moved to the country and I began painting animals and country things. I gave exhibitions of chickens, ducks and geese. Then I began to travel.

Which countries struck you most?

I had been to Toronto in Canada before. Then I went to Cuba, which was extraordinary, because it showed me light. That’s when really the curtain drew back. I saw these extraordinary colors everywhere. It was as if boat-loads of paint had been delivered and they just painted houses and walls and cars in wonderful colors, with the sun shining on. It opened my eyes to the fact that you could really paint color and it would be true. After years of England with that sort of semi-sun, this really strong light was revelation. It was the first time I’d really seen what you could do with color. Then I went on to Morocco and Sri Lanka, and saw color there too. The juxtaposition of light and shades became really important to me. I started to experiment with pigments and colors, using them in a way which I would have never done living in England.

Do you mean the colors will always come first in your work? Like for an instance with your Moroccan carpets series?

If you take the color as an idea and try to make a carpet with that color, it doesn’t really work. You have to see it and then say “Oh my, isn’t that wonderful? I wonder if I can make that work on paper.” Then you begin to try it. It’s an odd thing, because sometimes something that attracts you doesn’t work, and sometimes something you’re not sure about will come out just right – that’s the magic moment! I can never say at the beginning whether it’s going to be something that I will love afterwards. But I give it a shot – and probably spend far too long doing one thing, and realizing at the end it’s not good. Or doing something on the crest of a wave, and realizing it’s terrific. But I don’t feel I’ve done it myself, it just happens that way. It’s a very odd balance, because you’re not really in control of what’s going to happen in the end. If you set out to control the picture too closely, then it’s perfect, just right – but there’s no spark, it tends to lack life, or humor, or nature. It’s what I would call a “dead picture”. Everybody says “Oh, how wonderfully painted!” But it won’t have that little drop of magic.

Maybe it’s the difference you make between a photograph and a painting?

Yes. A photograph is a wonderful thing. Some photographs are even extraordinary, but it’s a photograph – it is a minute, absolute time, that’s caught. A painting is a reflection of a vision in somebody’s mind, then put onto paper or canvas. So it goes through somebody’s mind before it’s put on the canvas. A photographer is using a machine which will then reproduce what he wants it to catch. But it hasn’t gone through his mind, his body. So there’s a big difference. My grand-father was a very good photographer, but he didn’t take them instead of pictures. They were photographs and were wonderful as such. Pictures are something completely different, they’re part of somebody, they are a human beings’ reproduction of something visual. I don’t think that a photograph will ever replace a picture, or vice-versa.

So now you live in the Cognac area of France. As in painting,  is cognac-producing a matter of balance?

It’s a wonderful mixture of human knowledge passed down to blood lines. You have people who have been tasting the eau-de-vie for 9 or 10 generations. They’re learning from each other and passing the knowledge down, almost by telepathy. I’m privileged to be able to play a little part in it with our own vines. The painting is the same in the sense that it’s all to do with human beings producing something out of natural things: pigments are all from the earth, the plants, the stones and rocks. And the grapes are from the vines which are growing out of this earth, soil, rocks, stones and sand. It’s all linked. Whatever you look at in this world tends to come from nature somehow. It’s always there at the root of it all. It’s a magical combination…but I have to fight for time with one or the other.

Which direction is your painting taking now?

I think after years of changing subjects, trying to find a path that I can develop in a motorway, I have found it with the color, light and shades in countries like Morocco. From that I can now develop a style, which I think will keep me going to the end of my days, because there is so much to do. It’s an enormous discovery for me. I spent all my life painting and it feels as if I have worked up to this, through so many other subjects. And now I’ve found a challenge which I want to develop and take as far as I can. I haven’t got half way to the beginning, let alone started, you know. I’m still really enjoying the discoveries of what you can do with these ideas and changing colors of the extremes of the lights, shades, landscapes, textures. I don’t think I’m going to be bored!

About Paul Maze

Paul Maze was taken by his father as a young boy to meet Claude Monet at his house in Giverny and subsequently he met Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir. Growing up in Le Havre he became friends with Raoul Dufy, Othon Friesz and Georges Braque. After World War I he rented a studio in Paris in the same building as André Derain and Édouard Vuillard. Vuillard would become a close friend and mentor, introducing Maze to pastel. His circle of friends included Jean Marchand, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard and his greatest friend André Dunoyer de Segonzac. After World War II Maze lived in England and became a British citizen. He remained a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, whom he had met during the 1st World War and had encouraged with his own painting. Maze’s career as an artist blossomed in the UK & the USA. He showed in London at, Marlborough Fine Art and Wildenstein and in New York at the Wildenstein and Acquavella galleries. In 1953 he was selected to be the official painter for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Paul Maze believed “painters were born, not made”.