Churchill Centre Executive Director Lee Pollock recently spoke with Edwina Sandys, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter and a prominent international artist as well as longtime Churchill Centre Board Member and supporter.
In this CB interview, Edwina talks about her background and family, her career in the art world and her new book, “Edwina Sandys Art”.
Lee Pollock: Edwina, could you tell CB’s readers a little about your background and family. We know about your grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill, but perhaps less about your father, Duncan Sandys, and his career in the military and in public life. Could you fill us in?
Edwina Sandys: My mother, Diana, was the first child of Winston and Clementine and she married Duncan Sandys in 1935. They were both flaming redheads as was Winston as a young man. When Diana met Duncan he was standing for Parliament as a Conservative and his opponent was none other than Diana’s brother Randolph Churchill – Diana was helping her brother. My father went on to become a minister in various governments – Minister of Supply, Housing, Aviation, Defence, Commonwealth & Colonies. He started the Civic Trust, an organization to encourage “good” urban development which supported putting the “green belt” around London to prevent sprawl. He was also an amateur painter.
LP: You were born just before the start of the Second World War. Do you have any memories of the end of the War and could you share some recollections of your grandfather’s career in public life in the decade from 1945 to 1955 and your relationship with him when you were growing up? Do you remember when you first realized that he was a unique figure in British history?
ES: I remember the sirens going off and going to the Victoria Embankment Gardens right next to the Houses of Parliament on the River Thames. There were a lot of barrage balloons tethered on ropes flying above the river hoping to entangle incoming bombers, and one day one of them was on the ground in the gardens. The airmen who knew we were Churchill’s grandchildren invited (only) my five year old brother Julian to go inside. He started fooling with all the controls and was banished.
I think we always knew Grandpapa was special. We never didn’t know. We heard it before we understood it. And took it for granted.
LP: Have you ever had any political urges of your own?
ES: After I had got married, had children, moved house twice and got divorced, I wondered what I should do with the rest of my life. This was a turning point. I thought of politics, writing and art. I did consider going into Parliament and was adopted for a seat but this became a conflict with my then husband who was also standing for Parliament. His constituency insisted that a wife was an important part of the job. So I bowed to their wishes and gave up my aspirations. Then I wrote a novel and wrote a column for the Sunday Telegraph. But art won out in the end and that became my overriding passion.
LP: Sir Winston was famously devoted to painting, creating some 500 works during his life. Tell us about how your own career as an artist developed and do you think you inherited some of his artistic instincts. Have you been inspired by his life and work, both political and artistic?
ES: Grandpapa was the first artist I ever met and I used to stand behind his chair and watch him paint, bringing magic to the canvas. I hope I have inherited some of his artistic instincts in that we both share an inordinate love of colour and dash.
My artistic career as such started in 1970 with felt pen colored drawings on paper. I had a show in London and sold them all and got commissions to do portraits of ambassadors and diplomats. Hitherto I had only drawn people as characters not as likenesses which was more challenging and not so free.
In some of my later work I have been inspired by my grandfather. In 1989 when the Berlin Wall went down I made a sculpture using 32 sections of the Berlin Wall that I had persuaded the East Germans to donate to me. The sculpture “Breakthrough” was installed at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, the 1946 site of the famous “Iron Curtain” speech. The Berlin Wall erected in the early 1960’s was the physical embodiment of “Iron Curtain” so I thought that bringing the sculpture to Fulton was bringing history full circle.
“Breakthrough is comprised of eight sections of the wall (the eastern side blank and the western side full of colorful graffiti) with two spaces cut through in the shapes of man and woman. People can walk through these portals and imagine they are coming from the grey world of communism into the light of the free world. Ronald Reagan did the dedication in 1990 and the following year Mikhail Gorbachev walked through the sculpture and addressed the crowds there.
LP: Have you used images of Sir Winston in your work?
ES: I have used my grandfather in some of my paintings and prints; for example, one of my prints “Chartwell” shows Churchill at his easel. In “Romeo Revisited” I depict an array of bottles and cigar boxes inspired by the Churchill painting “Botttlescape”. A portrait of Churchill is hanging on the wall but he has no cigar in his hand. He is looking longingly at the open box of his favourite Romeo y Julietta cigars, wishing he could reach out and grasp one.
In “Winston at Work”, Churchill is standing at the easel painting. In the library shelves are a number of the many books he has written. This could have been called “Winston at Play” as he is doing his favourite things.
LP: You’ve worked in diverse media over the years – sculpture, painting and lithographs. Have these presented different challenges and is there one that you particularly favor at this point in your life. Are there some works in your career that you think are especially representative or iconic?
ES: I like them all – they are all my babies. I have been recently been working on metal sculptures but who knows what the future may hold? The “Woman Free” sculpture I made for the United Nations in Vienna is maybe my most iconic piece. Using positive and negative shapes, each as important as the other, the woman is cut out of the rough marble block and stands free and clear ready to reach her full potential.
LP: Your subject matter and themes have been quite varied. Could you tell us about some of these and how they have inspired you?
ES: The whole of life inspires me – I don’t want to be pigeon holed and restricted. I like men and women, I like flowers VERY much. I like situations and juxtaposing opposites to tweak people’s minds. I like the puzzle and challenge that a commission gives you – not just working on your own but sometimes being forced to consider things from another’s point of view.
LP: Your grandfather’s paintings have become extremely valuable in recent years, selling in excess of $1,000,000. Have you been surprised by this and how would you describe the attraction these works possess for both art collectors and Churchillians?
ES: People like Churchill paintings because they are attractive, full of flair and colorful. Art collectors can enjoy something that has been physically and lovingly worked on by their hero. They also portray one of Churchill’s myriad facets. He was a man for all seasons.
LP: You’ve lived in New York for many years and are married to a native of the city. Was your husband a Churchillian when you met him or did that develop over time?
ES: My husband, architect Richard Kaplan, has always been a Churchill admirer. His formative years were during the war. His father Jack Kaplan once went to a lecture by Grandpapa in New York – some time in the 20’s or 30’s. He saw it listed and said “I’d better find out what this man’s all about”. Not a big success – only three people attended. But Jack got a chance to speak to him.
LP: Lastly, tell us a little about your new book.
ES: It is “Edwina Sandys Art”, with text by Caroline Seebohm, and is published by Glitterati Inc.
This is the first comprehensive volume about my art. Because the art and the artist are part and parcel of the same thing the book is quite a bit about my life as well.
Thank you Edwina and congratulations on a beautiful book which our readers and other Churchillians will certainly want to add to their libraries.
Edwina Sandys has been an internationally acclaimed artist for forty years and was recipient of the 1997 United Nations Society of Writers & Artists Award. Her work has been exhibited in over a dozen museums around the world and is included in the permanent collections of the Tate Gallery and Brooklyn Museum. Her website which includes information on purchasing her new book is www.edwinasandys.com.