Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
By David Druckman
David and Lynn Druckman are world travelers in quest of Churchill; David’s articles have appeared frequently in Finest Hour. For the historical account see “Churchill’s Madeira,” by Terry Reardon (FH 121:30-31).
I was embarrassed. In the midst of presenting cruise ship lectures on Churchill’s life, one passenger’s question left me humiliated: “Tomorrow we dock in Madeira. Can you tell me about Churchill’s visit there?” Hesitating, I told the passenger I would respond in my next lecure.
Our ship duly pulled into Madeira, the chief island in the Portuguese archipelago 400 km. north of Tenerife, Canary Islands, in the northeastern Atlantic. The next morning my wife and I strolled the main harbor and capital, Funchal. On display was a boat that was reportedly designed by Lawrence of Arabia. As we were about to return to the ship we are accosted by a taxi driver who seemed quite knowledgeable about Churchill’s visit. So we hired him for the afternoon.
“See that large building half way up the mountain?” he began. “That is Reid’s (Palace) Hotel, where Churchill stayed.” The mountain, Cabo Girão, 580 meters, forms the sixth largest cliff in Europe. “I can also take you to where he painted the scene of the small fishing harbor,” the driver added.
“In the 1950s the roads were cobblestone or dirt; transport was by donkeys pulling carts but someone had an old Rolls-Royce which was reconditioned for Churchill.” Anyone who has chased Churchill sites can understand my growing excitement.
At Reid’s Hotel we were graciously greeted by the manager who offered to show us the famous Churchill (or Presidential) Suite. The view from his living room window, over the bay and into the city, was glorious. The most elegant of Reid’s 163 rooms in 1950, it rents today for €2240 per night. There are framed photos of the Churchills and cartoons of WSC throughout the suite, even in the bathroom. Although there is a full kitchen, the suite is insufficient to house more than a half-dozen guests.
As Terry Reardon has recounted in Finest Hour 121, Churchill yearned for a relaxing 1949-50 winter holiday away from cold and dreary England. On November 19th, in a telegram to Bryce Nairn, British Consul in Madeira, Churchill wrote: “query warm, paintable, bathable, comfortable, flowery, hotels etc.”
On 3 January 1950 Winston, Clementine, their daughter Diana, literary assistant Bill Deakin, two secretaries, and two Special Branch detectives arrived by ship in Funchal. Churchill had been there a half century earlier, on his way to South Africa as a war correspondent. This time he was looking forward to relaxing for a few weeks to paint and work on his war memoirs.
Churchill’s idyll was foreshortened on January 12th when, notified that Prime Minister Attlee had suddenly scheduled a General Election for February 23rd, he departed by Flying Boat for London. His stay in Madeira had lasted only nine days and had produced only one oil painting.
The taxi driver drove us to Churchill’s “paintaceous” site, in the small fishing village of Camara de Lobos (Chamber of the Wolves), about 10 km. from Reid’s Hotel, high on Cabo Girão overlooking a small bay and tiny harbor full of fishing boats. It looks much the same as it did when Churchill was there.
On a balcony atop the cliff, the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition created an oil painting entitled “Fishing Port of Madeira” (Coombs 294), a landscape of the bay and fishing village, which he later gave to his son Randolph. It has since passed to his grandson Winston and, most recently, to his great-grandson Randolph.
Thirty meters away from this spot redolent with memories of the Great Man at his easel was a restaurant aptly named the “Churchill Restaurante.” We did not dine there, but purchased a bottle of Madeira wine to take home as a souvenir of our visit.
The next day, on our cruise ship, I opened my lecture with nonchalant ease: “After my last presenta- tion I was asked….”
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8 “Never Despair” 1945-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 498-501.
Mary Soames, Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 169-70.
David Coombs and Minnie Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life Through His Paintings (Philadelphia: Pegasus, 2003), 225.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.