LONDON (AP) _ Had Winston Churchill not been diverted by such time-consuming matters as war and peace, he might have become an artist of the first rank _ or so says the chairman of Sotheby's auction house, which is exhibiting 100 of the statesman's paintings.

The exhibition, the largest ever of Churchill's work, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of his book ``Painting as a Pastime,'' his most celebrated piece of writing on art and artists.

Critics tend to agree with Churchill's self-deprecating assessment of his paintings as nothing more than ``daubs.''

They are ``therapeutic outpourings of frustration and boredom,'' London's Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell wrote after the exhibition's opening this month. The Sunday Telegraph's John McEwen weighed in with this: ``The more one looks, the worse his pictures become, whereas the reverse is true of a genuine work of art.''

But while the critics might not have been overwhelmed, many of the 5,000 or so people who have viewed the exhibition remarked how surprisingly good the paintings are, said David Coombs, curator of the show, which closes Saturday.

Painting was always a pastime for Churchill _ who had bigger preoccupations, such as helping to guide the Allies through World War II as Britain's prime minister. The work should be viewed with that in mind, Coombs said.

The paintings include depictions of troops setting off for the front in World War I, landscapes from around the world, portraits and still lifes.

Despite the fact that art was just a hobby, one landscape fetched $241,500 at auction in November. Another painting, from the collection of one-time daughter-in-law Pamela Harriman, sold for $161,000 in May.

``I think that means something more than just a great man's pictures,'' Coombs said. ``It shows he is beginning to be recognized as an artist in his own right.''

Churchill discovered painting at age 40, after he was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of the Allied disaster at the Dardanelles in Turkey in 1915, and it became an enduring passion into old age.

``If it weren't for painting, I couldn't live; I couldn't bear the strain of things,'' he said in 1949.

In the early days, he often entered his work for exhibitions under a pseudonym so as not to influence judges. He never sold his paintings, which numbered about 500 at the time of his death in 1965, but often donated them for charity auctions.

``I am convinced this compelling occupation played a real part in enabling him to confront storms, ride out depressions and to rise above the rough passages of his political life,'' Churchill's daughter, Lady Mary Soames, wrote in the exhibition's catalog.