A playful but typically subversive portrait of the 'British Bulldog' ex-prime minister Winston Churchill, this Banksy print was first shown at the eponymously titled Turf War exhibition. The exhibition, which was held in a Dalston warehouse in 2003, was seminal as the first major Banksy exhibition (to learn more about Banksy's exhibitions, click here). Alongside Turf War, the exhibition featured live farmyard animals—two sheep, two pigs, and a bull—all painted in various fashions, and causing quite a stir. It is no surprise, given the notoriety of the exhibition by the same name, that the prints of Turf War, released shortly after the exhibition's close, have become a recognisable classic of Banksy's oeuvre.
Turf War is executed in Banksy’s signature stencilled style, predominantly in black and white. In place of Churchill’s hair is a lime green Mohican, which appears to be made from turfed grass. With this simple swap, Banksy transforms Churchill from a political leader into a punk rock rebel.
The expression ‘Turf War’ relates to a battle over territory, the implication being that the dispute is unlawful. The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘Turf War’ as a struggle between criminals or gangs.
Churchill was a political leader and the UK Prime Minister for much of the Second World War, which was, in many ways, a dispute over ownership of land: a defensive battle on the part of the allies to preserve what was their ‘turf’.
The artwork's reference to the act of protestors at the 2000 May Day demonstration, before things turned ugly— the turf which was placed on the head of Churchill's statue in Parliament Square—suggests that Banksy uses 'Turf Wars' to describe more than just the territorial disputes of war, however. Banksy is well-known for his anti-authoritarian sentiments, including his ambivalence towards the police. Paying homage to the actions of May Day demonstrators, he also satirises the struggles that take place between protestors, whether mass demonstrators or lone grafitti artists protesting clandestinely through their art, and the police.
The title of this artwork and the turf Mohican on Churchill’s head call into question the Prime Minister’s power and authority. Indeed, this is by no means a tribute to the late Churchill, rather a denouncement of the battles for borders and territory that characterised 20th and 21st century politics - at great cost to the lives of civilians.
Banksy‘s former printer, Pictures on Walls, has described the work as “The original thug immortalised here is the moment the turf was placed on the statue of the big man during London’s May Day riots. Arguably the best piece of vandalism this country has seen for over a decade”.
Anti-war messages have remained prominent throughout Banksy’s career, and in May 2001, Banksy held an unofficial exhibition of his work in a tunnel on Rivington Street, London, following a bet with a group of friends.
He produced 12 stencils for the show, each one with an overt anti-war message, including monkeys with guns, bombs over Big Ben, army tanks next to playing children, and a version of the now-famous Love Is In The Air (flower thrower).
Banksy’s Turf War is based on a photograph of Winston Churchill, known as The Roaring Lion. The image was captured by American-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1941, shortly after Churchill had made a speech about World War Two at the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament in Ottowa.
Churchill’s expression and posture have been said to represent the resilience and persistence of the British during the war, but moments before the photograph was taken Karsh had whipped a smoking cigar out of Churchill’s hand. In reality, the scowl had been directed at the photographer.
Much of Banksy’s work is highly critical of figures of authority and regimes of power. In Turf War Banksy mocks Churchill, defacing his image by changing his hair. Banksy regularly makes bold statements through his artwork, these are often political or directed at other authoritative bodies such as the royal family, police or military.
In his 2009 artwork Donuts Banksy shows a motorcade of five American police officers on motorcycles and a police van. On top of the van is an oversized doughnut – representative of an unflattering stereotype: the lazy, coffee and doughnut guzzling police officer. The image was created soon after the financial troubles of 2007, and is thought to show the American police’s warped priorities, choosing to protect their beloved doughnut rather than fight real crime.
Similarly, in his 2003 Turf War exhibition, Banksy displayed a police van defaced with images of pigs.
Turf War first appeared in Banksy’s 2003 exhibition of the same name. The show was held in an East London Warehouse, and remained open for just two days before being shut down by the police. Other artworks, which have since been released as prints, shown in the exhibition included Monkey Queen, and Toxic Mary feeding an infant Jesus from a bottle marked poison.
The original painting was hung from the ceiling, surrounded by the artist’s well known Flying Coppers – the image of a figure in police uniform, with wings and a yellow ‘smiley’ for a face – sprayed onto cardboard.
In October 2020 a signed edition of Turf War sold for £112,560.
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