Politics, roses and butterflies

The south front of Chartwell, Kent, the country house of Winston and Clementine Churchill between 1922 and 1964. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

The south front of Chartwell, Kent, the country house of Winston and Clementine Churchill between 1922 and 1964. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

I am just now reading Stefan Buczakcki’s Churchill and Chartwell: The Untold Story of Churchill’s Houses and Gardens. This is a biography that approaches the man through the houses he inhabited.

Portrait of Churchill wearing his official robes as Chancellor of the Exchequer, by John Singer Sargent, 1929. © National Trust Collections

Portrait of Churchill wearing his official robes as Chancellor of the Exchequer, by John Singer Sargent, 1925. © National Trust Collections

Churchill lived in an extraordinary succession of houses during his lifetime, perhaps reflecting his restless personality and tumultuous career.

The Study at Chartwell, the hub of Churchill's political activities for over 40 years. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Study at Chartwell, the hub of Churchill’s political activities for over 40 years. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The book brings home the fact that Churchill was very much a man of his time and class: he was forever finding new houses through his extensive circle of friends and relations and borrowing accommodation from wealthier and grander relatives. And as soon as he could he acquired a house in the country in addition to his metropolitan base.

The front door at Chartwell, with an 18th-century carved wooden doorcase purchased from the London dealer Thomas Crowther. The cat is a recent reincarnation of Churchill's ginger tom Jock. ©National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

The front door at Chartwell, with an 18th-century carved wooden doorcase purchased from the London dealer Thomas Crowther. The cat is a recent reincarnation of Churchill’s ginger tom Jock. ©National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

The vicissitudes of Churchill’s political career also influenced his frequent changes of address. At various times he lived in official residences, such as Admiralty House, the Admiralty yacht HMS Enchantress, and of course 10 Downing Street and Chequers.

Portrait of Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill by John Singer Sargent. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Portrait of Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill by John Singer Sargent. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Buczacki suggests that Churchill’s taste in interior decoration was influenced by the sumptuously Edwardian sense of style of his mother, Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill, born Jennie Jerome.

The Dining Room at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Nick Guttridge

The Dining Room at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Nick Guttridge

The ultimate home of Churchill and his wife Clementine was to be Chartwell in Kent, which they had substantially rebuilt by the architect Philip Tilden.

The Golden Rose Walk at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Stephen Robson

The Golden Rose Walk at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Stephen Robson

There is lots of evidence at Chartwell of how Churchill shared some of the – to us – surprisingly genteel hobbies of Victorian and Edwardian politicians and men of action, such as cultivating roses, collecting butterflies, painting in oils and an admiration for ‘old English’ architecture and Arts & Crafts-style furnishings.

Churchill's desk in the Library at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Churchill’s desk in the Library at Chartwell. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

To me Churchill is interesting not just as an unconventional politician (there is a fascinating article on ‘Churchill as aristocratic adventurer’ in David Cannadine’s book Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain), but also as a kind of bridge between different ages, a Victorian in the 20th century.

10 Responses to “Politics, roses and butterflies”

  1. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    That entrance is fantastic!

  2. Sandra Jonas Says:

    The Golden Rose Walk is beautiful! Enjoyed seeing the library too.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Classicist, yes it is, isn’t it? And very much part of that vogue for architectural salvage between the two World Wars, of which the Pin Mill at Bodnant is another example (http://bit.ly/UecWeV).

    Sandra, yes and again one can feel the ‘Arts & Crafts’ ghosts of Jekyll and Peto hovering: roses, high clipped hedges, informally laid flagstones, sundial.

  4. columnist Says:

    Chartwell is a beauty. It’s so understated and comfortable, with none of the over-the-top grandeur that is the bain of the grand country house, including of course his birthplace, Blenheim Palace. Each room is very welcoming; the photograph of the dining room gives you some idea, and the view from the windows over the lawn beneath is charming. Well worth a visit.

  5. John T Says:

    If Sargent drew the Winston Churchill portrait in 1929 it must be a postumous work – seeing as he died in 1925.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    John, thanks very much for alerting me to that – indeed Sargent is not known to have produced posthumous works :) I think the 1929 date mentioned on the database must be a misreading of the last digit of the date on the drawing, which looks a bit like a 9 but is probably a 5. I will correct my caption and the database entry.

  7. Andrew Says:

    How amusing. The shape of the last digit is very different to the second digit.

    The current description on the NT collections database clearly says (twice) “John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 – London 1925)” and then “signed and dated 1929″ (!) – http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1101408

    The database helpfully includes an image of the reverse of the frame, which bears several labels, including one from the NPG which clearly says “Winston Churchill, 1925″.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes thanks for rubbing it in Andrew :) I have amended the database entry, but the public side of it only refreshes once every 24 hours, so the change will appear tomorrow.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Sorry for dwelling on it, but it was interesting to see the various different labels on the back of the drawing – as well as the NPG, there was one from Leeds art gallery, another from Sotheby’s, an NT one, and some others that I could not make out. All part of the history of the item and its provenance.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed those old labels are fascinating, documenting episodes in a picture’s ‘biography’. If you wanted to be intellectually fanciful you could even call those labels ‘metadata’, or ‘paratexts’ :)

    My colleague Fernanda Torrente, the registrar responsible for advising on loans and exhibitions, is hoping to add more of such information to our website and collections database. The database does have the capacity to record the exhibition history of an object, for instance, but as with everything one then also needs to free up the human capacity to actually populate those fields :) But it would definitely enrich the story of our collections and we need to start doing it.

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