April 1, 2023

The Art of Being Winston Churchill: The Sassoons


Winston Churchill’s first election campaign as a Liberal was fought in the cotton-manufacturing constituency of Manchester North West, which had a large Jewish community. Even before this election, his comfort with the Jews and antipathy toward the rampant anti-Semitism of the aristocracy had been a striking contrast, and an irritant, to most of his peers.

Churchill’s Jewish sympathies—bolstered by the Dreyfuss affair from 1894, which he had deplored—were significantly inherited from his father, of whom it had once been said that Lord Randolph not only socialized with Jews, but actually ate at their homes. Winston continued this association when he and Clementine became regular guests of Sir Philip Sassoon, a Conservative MP and scion of a Jewish family that had made its fortune in India.

Sassoon lived at Port Lympne, a mansion he had constructed in Kent starting in 1913. Winston and Clementine Churchill stayed there, as did T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Charlie Chaplin, and many others. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and his brother the Duke of York (later King George VI) were both regular guests. Sassoon was one of the few, along with Churchill, to support Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis.

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On a visit sometime around 1925, Churchill painted a canvas of the terrace at Port Lympne (see image above). This outstanding work became the property of his daughter Mary. After her death it became the property of the National Trust and part of the permanent collection at Chartwell. Since March, however, it has been on display at The Jewish Museum in New York City, along with two others by Churchill from the Chartwell collection, part of an exhibit about the Sassoon family that runs through August 13. Be sure to visit if you will be in New York this spring or summer.

Barry Singer is proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers in New York City and author of Churchill Style (2012).

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