In 1922, in the week that Mary Soames was born, Winston Churchill made an offer on Chartwell Manor, an idyllic retreat in Kent that was to become the family’s home and refuge for the next 40 years. Mary moved into Chartwell upon its renovation when she was two and spent the entirety of her childhood amongst its walls, later returning to live the first ten years of her married life in the small adjoining farm.
Having sold Lullenden Manor in 1919, Winston and Clementine had since been on the lookout for a new country home, a ‘little country basket’ as Clementine put it, as holidays and weekends spent at various country getaways were no substitute for sustained country life. Finances had been the real hindrance to their achieving this goal, but circumstances swung in their favour in 1921, when Winston inherited the estate of a distant cousin, Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, and he also had a spur of advances from the first volume of The World Crisis. Winston kept his eyes and ears open, and when he heard Chartwell was on the market immediately set out to view the property. He fell instantly in love with the view and setting, the house being set atop a hill and overlooking the rolling valleys of Kent. He was also intrigued surely by the rich history of the house, a 19th century construction built around a much earlier core, which had once counted Henry VIII amongst its occupants, during his courting visits to Anne Boleyn, whose family home was nearby Hever Castle.
Chartwell had thoroughly captured Winston’s imagination and he was from that point determined that this should be the family’s home. He very shortly brought Clementine to view the house, and she too was initially bowled over by the picturesque setting, later writing to her husband ‘I can think of nothing but that heavenly tree-crowned Hill,’ (Letter to Churchill, quoted in Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale, Doubleday, 2011, p.18). Upon further visits and closer inspection, Clementine became justifiably concerned about the costs and time involved in restoring the property, as well as the considerable amount of maintenance that would be required to run an estate of this size. She would with time be proved right on these accounts, but there was no dissuading Winston, whose heart was now set. Without Clementine’s knowledge, he very shortly placed an offer on Chartwell which was subsequently accepted and this lack of disclosure was a thorn which Clementine never entirely forgot. Sarah Churchill remembers her father taking the brood to see the house and garner their opinion- without telling them of course that by this point the house had already been acquired. Luckily the children were ecstatic with his choice:
‘We clambered into an old Wolseley and with my father at the wheel off we went. He told us on the way down that the purpose of this journey was to inspect a house that he thought of buying in Kent, and he wanted our opinion. We were thrilled. We must have taken a picnic lunch, but this I don’t remember; only the excitement of his showing us Chartwell for the first time. Chartwell was wildly overgrown and untidy, and contained all the mystery of houses that had not been lived in for many years. We did a complete tour of the house and grounds, my father asking anxiously- it is clear in my mind- “Do you like it” Did we like it? We were delirious. “Oh do buy it! Do buy it!” we exclaimed’ (Sarah Churchill, quoted in Chartwell, The National Trust, 1995, p.7).
Remodelling to restore and update the house began immediately upon purchasing the property, and Winston employed architect Philip Tilden to undertake the project. He had been recommended by Churchill’s close friend Philip Sassoon who had used the architect to renovate his home Port Lympne (see lot 144). The development would take two years, Churchill becoming quite impatient by the end to see the work completed, and modernisations included removing the ceiling in what would be his study, revealing beams and rafters of the earlier structure, as well as a large extension. The gardens were also transformed, creating several lakes and a water garden where Churchill would paint and feed his goldfish (see lot 181). Much of this work was undertaken by Chuchill himself, once the family had moved into the property, as he was seldom happier than when he was undertaking a project on the estate -from building dams, to clearing land and burning trees, creating bonfires which Mary recalled were a particular delight during the winter months. He also built several walls around Chartwell, with Sarah and Mary often acting as bricklayer’s mates (see lot 187), as well as a little cottage for Mary which became known as ‘Marycot.’ The cottage was a source of unending amusement for Mary as a young child. Equipped with a little coal range, dresser, table and chairs, visitors to Chartwell were frequently corralled into the cottage for tea and cakes. The laying of the first brick was the subject of one of Winston’s paintings (Fig.1), and he recounted the event in a letter written to Mary’s eldest sister Diana:
‘Mary’s house is growing and I hope to have treat for you when you come…Mary has taken the greatest interest in the work and laid the foundation stone with great ceremony. She was presented with a bouquet by the Prof. [Professor Lindemann] and then manifested a great desire to make a speech. We all had to stand for five minutes while she remained in deep thought, her lips frequently moving over the sentences. In the end she said she regarded it as a great honour to have been called upon to lay this foundation stone and that she hoped she would spend many happy hours in the house when it is finished (Loud cheers)’ (Churchill letter to Diana, quoted in Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale, Doubleday, 2011, pp.63-64).
Winston left the decoration of the interior of the house almost entirely to Clementine, who set about making the space a comfortable home for her family, as well as for the many visitors who passed through the doors. Clementine decorated the house in a contemporary 1920s style, and as her taste was quite practical, she mixed in modern furniture with antique family pieces to create agreeable and comfortable interiors. The visitor’s book at Chartwell documents the frequency with which the house was filled with various members of the extended family, friends, and Winston’s colleagues. Conveniently located within a short drive or train ride from London, Winston often brought associates from Westminster down for lunch, over which business, politics and current affairs would be passionately discussed. Apart from Churchill’s political allies, the house also counted notables such as T.E. Lawrence (who would roar in on his motor bike), Charlie Chaplin, and a range of artists including William Nicholson (see lot 170), Paul Maze (see lot 15), and Walter Sickert (see lots 13-14) amongst the frequent guests.
For Winston, Chartwell provided the perfect space where he could write and work while not in London, but the home was also (and perhaps most importantly), a place of respite to enjoy family life and to paint. When embroiled in the world of politics or when working on a publication (these commissions being increasingly important to keep the family’s finances afloat), Winston would often work late into the night in his study, which he designed specifically for this purpose, providing hours of dictation for various secretaries or research assistants. Mornings at Chartwell were often spent in bed, Clementine and Winston had separate bedrooms (as was the custom at the time), and rarely breakfasted together. Mary recalled in her memoirs that she would often make her way from her nursery wing in the mornings to her mother’s room, where Clementine could be found reading The Times, taking her breakfast tray or receiving various members of the staff. For Winston, days at Chartwell, if not occupied by work or a building task about the estate, were often filled with painting (please see David Coombs’s essay). When he was not painting directly in front of his subject, he worked in his studio, an outbuilding which was a cherished retreat having been converted for this purpose in the 1930s.
Life at Chartwell was defined by a lively tumult of activity, filled as it was over the years with Winston and Clementine’s four children, and later grandchildren, as well as staff and numerous guests. Mary recalls that Christmases were a particularly happy time to be at Chartwell. The house was always decorated festively, with days at home often leading to entertaining outdoor activities and general merriment: ‘Christmas at Chartwell was always a glorious feast.... The Christmas of 1927-8 was the time of the Great Snow. The older children constructed a marvellous igloo; there was a snowman, tobogganing and skating on the lake’ (Mary Soames, A Churchill Family Album, A Penguin Book, 1985, unpaginated) (please see lot 208). Central to this family life at Chartwell were the multitude of resident animals – a veritable menagerie at points. Both Winston and Mary were avid animal lovers and this was always to be a strong bond between them. When the family first moved in there were several ponies, and for a few years they employed a resident groom. At various times there would be flocks of sheep, the orphan lambs cared for by Mary in the spring, black swans, numerous dogs (including the favoured pugs), Winston’s goldfish, and always a nursery cat- the marmalade cat Tango emerging as a particular favourite of Winston’s (please see lots 12, 170, 174 and 180).
During the Second World War, Chartwell was largely unoccupied. Its location was well known, and with its distinctive landscaping, it was an easy potential target from the sky, and was consequently deemed too dangerous for occupation. While the house was boarded up, Churchill did return on occasion, to check on the health of his beloved animals. After the War, and his subsequently heart-breaking defeat in parliament, Churchill very much looked forward to reopening the home and returning to the site on a permanent basis. With the cost of reviving a home to consider, once again the issue of funds reared its head, and Clementine and Winston were at real risk of losing Chartwell forever. Having gotten word of these difficulties, in 1946 a group of Churchill’s close friends and admirers bought the house and presented it to the National Trust- under the condition that Winston and Clementine should be allowed to live in the home for the rest of their lives. After Winston died in 1965, Clementine relinquished the house to the National Trust, who opened it to the public as a memorial to Winston’s achievements. Clementine continued to visit and immensely appreciated seeing the public enjoy the home she and Winston had shared for so many years.