Churchill painting beside Lake Geneva
Winston Churchill, Britain’s former prime minister, found an escape in art and even during the second world war made the time paint © Fox Photos/Getty Images

Whose landscapes, climbing in value at auction, display “an unusually open and lucid sense of space” — Turner? Monet? Claude Lorrain perhaps? According to one critic, the answer is Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister and keen amateur artist in later life.

This week brought a reminder of the intriguing tendency for powerful men under pressure (and it does seem to be men) to pick up a paintbrush. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and once China’s richest businessman, is now in exile and has been living in Tokyo for the past six months. Alongside the clichéd distractions of the global super-rich — he has been spotted on golf courses and in exclusive members’ clubs — the 58-year-old is pursuing a hobby beloved of many leaders when their power abates: painting.

According to friends, the forced inactivity of being severed from his business empire and his home country had caused Ma to turn to painting watercolours to pass the time. The mental picture this conjures is of Ma immersed at an easel, minus the cigar but otherwise reminiscent of photographs of Churchill in his “wilderness years”, when what he called his “little daubs” were a solace.

Famous for his “black dog” depressions, Churchill found an escape in art: “the Muse of Painting came to my rescue,” he wrote. For the tortured egotist, the fact that painting is so damned difficult to do well, requiring discipline and focus, offers a refreshingly different struggle — certainly, one imagines, a relief from public or business duties. King Charles, perhaps the ranking dauber, prefers watercolours so he doesn’t have to keep the security detail waiting too long in all weathers. (Some of the results could have done with a bit longer to my eye.)

Masayoshi Son, the SoftBank chief executive, has an affinity with Ma’s artistic enthusiasm and they discuss their mutual hobby: “He likes to draw . . . and he has sent me many drawings of his,” Son disclosed last year. He added that he himself had been spending 30 minutes before bed drawing — and looked forward to showing Ma his creations.

As an art school drop out and persistent Sunday painter, I can bear witness to the satisfaction of losing yourself completely in the challenge — something that others with a difficult self to lose will appreciate. But these chaps are cut-throat magnates not dilettantes — it’s easy to imagine Ma and Son getting competitive over their efforts. Or even their output. Does Ma, as he dips his brush mindfully into the water, think of Churchill’s estimated 500 extant paintings? As a collector, the extremely saleable efforts of this previous paint-spattered leader can’t have escaped his notice.

George W Bush’s portraits include (clockwise from top left) Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper, UAE president Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy and South Korea’s former president Lee Myung-bak © Brandon Wade /Reuters

There are others he can afford to ignore. Dwight Eisenhower got the bug at the same age Ma is now, and wrote to his friend Winston that he had taken up “in my somewhat miserable way, your hobby of painting”. But, he admitted it was without justification of training or talent. And after his presidency became mired in the fallout of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, George W Bush took up portraiture, producing strange, looming visages of other world leaders. “Awful art made by an even more awful person”, was one reviewer’s verdict. Still his Vladimir Putin is the stuff of nightmares, so maybe he is on to something.

Churchill’s advice to fellow amateurs was humble: “We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joyride in a paintbox.” But his dedication was evident, and even during the second world war he kept his hand in, dashing off a rosy depiction of Marrakesh, a present for President Roosevelt, after the 1943 Casablanca conference. This garnered more than £8mn at Christie’s last year. We’ll see whether he’s been bettered if Ma’s gifts to Son ever come to market.

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