Finest Hour 175, Winter 2017
“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.” — Winston S. Churchill
By Edwina Sandys
Edwina Sandys is a painter and sculptor. A granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill, she is the author of Winston Churchill: A Passion for Painting (2015), reviewed in FH 174. This article (A Day at Chartwell) copyright 2017 Edwina Sandys, Artists Rights Society, NY.
I visited Chartwell last June with my sister Celia Sandys to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the house to the public. It was a typical English afternoon, not quite sunny, not quite rainy. Tea was in a large tent on the lawn near the house. Many of our cousins, Soames and Churchill, were there, as well as friends of the family. I was very pleased to meet for the first time David Coombs, author of the comprehensive catalogue of Winston Churchill paintings.
After a few “Hellos” and “How are yous?” I had a strange feeling that we were sitting having tea and cakes on what had in earlier days been the croquet lawn. Before that it had been a tennis court. I had never known it as a tennis court but had heard of my grandmother’s prowess as a fine and graceful tennis player, who also played in tournaments. The Croquet Lawn was very much part of my Chartwell days. Although I never saw Grandpapa playing croquet, I played many games with Grandmama and Field Marshal Montgomery. Monty was a frequent visitor and, although known for being a stern and formidable soldier, was very kind and even interested in talking to a young, shy, teenager like me. In those days, in the English countryside, croquet was quite a different game from the one played today in the United States, where it is taken very seriously, competitively as well as sartorially—everyone in white dresses or flannels.
I slipped away down “memory lane” to the early 1950s. First stop was the goldfish pool, where Grandpapa would spend many hours sitting on a wooden chair throwing worms from a can into the water, delighting at the sudden flashes of orange that leapt to the surface as if from nowhere.
Then to the swimming pool—a great favourite with all the children. Pools were a rarity and an amazing treat. After lunch, although you were meant to wait at least one hour after a meal before swimming to avoid cramps, we would race down the hill and jump into the circular pool, which was part of the landscaping that Grandpapa had not only ordained but also worked on himself. The whole family would swim. This was where I dared to do my first dive. I wore a navy woolen school regulation swimming suit and a tight rubber swim hat. Grandmama wore a much more attractive bathing dress and a voluminous bath cap. We swam breaststroke or a splashy and unpopular crawl. Grandmama glided by with an elegant sidestroke.
From the swimming pool, I looked down at the lakes, where the rare black swans nested. Grandpapa was very proud of these, which were a gift from his friend Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia. Grandpapa would feed the swans bread right into their beaks, but we children had to stay clear, as they were very fierce and, raising their wings in an arc, would come out of the water and chase us up the grassy bank.
Over to the studio, where Grandpapa spent so many happy hours and where I saw with delight about a hundred of his paintings still hanging there. One of my earliest memories is of standing behind Grandpapa as he was painting. I imagined I could still smell the oil paint and turpentine. So many canvasses with Grandpapa’s personality stamped on them all—his flourish with the brush, the excitement, the tension, the rush of adrenaline, the impatience to get it all on canvas but still to hold back like collecting a feisty horse about to jump a fence.
Back up the hill to the gardens now to the Rose Garden. This garden was planted entirely with fifty yellow rose bushes to celebrate my grandparents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary. Their happy marriage was a fortuitous one for Great Britain and the whole world. If Grandpapa had not married the right woman, history would surely have taken another turn.
I walked into the house by the front door. On the left is the oak table on which the visitors’ book still resides. Every visitor, even family, always signed. It is a wonderful record. I remember once while I was signing, Bernard Baruch gave me what he called “candy” and we called “sweets.” A great treat as even after the War, sugar and butter and many other foods were rationed—maybe a blessing in disguise!
The room on the right used to be Grandmama’s bedroom. After breakfast we children would knock and go in to say “Good Morning.” Frequently, she would be in her dressing room carefully sliding large hairpins from her hair, leaving a perfect design of silver curls, which she left unbrushed. I have never seen anyone, then or since, who had the nerve to do that but it gave her a very beautiful sculpted look.
Up the sturdy oak stairs to Grandpapa’s bedroom where we would give him a “Good Morning” kiss. Frequently, with his spectacles low on his nose, he would be in bed working on a speech or writing some notes.
Top left: Edwina with her grandmother Clementine Churchill (photo: Toni Frissel 1951)
Top right: Clementine plays croquet at Chartwell (photo: Lord Montgomery, 1964)
Now to where the dining room was in my day (many of the rooms have been rearranged since the house is now open to the public.) As far as I was concerned, the Dining Room was where it was at! The dinner table at Chartwell was the Mecca to which all were attracted—always the hub of the household— frequently the hub of the world. At Christmas, there were little Soames children running around, Rufus the poodle, and Toby the green budgerigar hopping from one head to another. The guiding light throughout was Grandmama, always ready with a look or a word to make sure that everyone was happy and at ease. The scented room, the flowers, the scrumptious food were a magical combination of warmth and elegance. Later, when the mood had mellowed over brandy and cigars, Grandpapa would frequently hold the table spellbound as he recited poetry until tears came to his eyes. Special favorites were If, by his friend Rudyard Kipling, and Macaulay’s How Horatius Kept the Bridge in the Brave Days of Old. After dinner we would scamper down to the basement to the cinema. This was enormously exciting for the family and dinner guests, as well as for all the staff who worked in the house. Grandpapa was fascinated with Hollywood and had installed a cinema. The films were projected from the back of the room on reels, which occasionally flew off the spool. The family sat in the front on low soft armchairs. Grandpapa would be in one of his velvet siren suits, smoking a cigar and sipping a brandy and soda. He loved all the sentimental films, even some of the old silent films and all the musicals. We were all in tears watching Grandpapa’s friend Charlie Chaplan in Limelight, the sad story of a beautiful blind flower seller. Sometimes we had films before they were released in England. One night we had Manon des Sources, and when I told the French teacher at school I had seen this film, she said I must be lying as it was not yet out. I then had the embarrassment of having to explain.
Up to the drawing room on the ground floor. People have suggested my grandmother did not really warm to Chartwell. She was certainly concerned about the cost of renovation and maintenance. However, if this was so, she certainly buckled to, and turned the rather stern house into a place of delight. She made the whole house comfortable, convenient, and charming. The drawing room was not a sterile parlor for show but a haven of relaxation and stimulation. At the drop of a hat, a card table would be opened up in the middle of the room for a game of Bezique or Gin Rummy. After dinner, Grandpapa would often go to the room opposite the drawing room, when he would work on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples with one of his private secretaries, often Anthony Montague Browne.
The drawing room and the whole house were full of Grandpapa’s paintings. Grandmama hung them in all the main rooms, but more kept coming. She dealt with them in a novel way “wall-to-wall Winstons.” The hallways and passages were lined with canvasses, stacked two or three high, like pages of postage stamps, It was effective, exciting—and very democratic really. Viewing for all ages and sizes—low enough so the smallest grandchild would not have to stand on tiptoe, high enough so the lofty General de Gaulle would not need to stoop his head. This reminds me of a story that my Nanny told me: when I was about four years old, she found me sitting on the General’s knee. He was teaching me to recite: “Vive La France Libre!” I cannot remember as far back as that so I cannot vouch for it, but Nanny never lied, so it must be true.
Just as I stepped outside the front door into the driveway, something else came to mind—a picture of Grandpapa, on horseback. I think it was on one of his birthdays. There he was in full vigor, riding maybe for the last time.
As I rejoined Celia and we drove away, I felt a warm glow. Chartwell was one of the great loves of Grandpapa’s life—a home for his family and an inspiration for his painting. Without Chartwell, he might have not been able to weather the difficulties and disappointments of the “wilderness” years. He might not have had the fortitude and strength to lead Britain to victory in the Second World War.