William Nicholson was a favourite visitor to Chartwell. He was referred to by the family as ‘our beloved cher maître’, and when he was later knighted in 1934 they would call him ‘S’William’ (Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale, Doubleday, London, 2011, p.40). Originally commissioned by friends of Churchill to paint a conversational piece of Churchill and Clementine for their silver wedding anniversary, Nicholson started visiting Chartwell in 1933 and was an immediate hit with the whole family who adored his charm and eccentricities. After the daily sittings with Churchill and Clementine, during which Churchill would dictate to his secretary, Nicholson appears to have had considerable time for Mary, visiting the nursery where he would draw Mary’s large family of dolls. Mary also recollects fondly how she used to play games with Nicholson: ‘He would fill a piece of paper with oval to round shapes - tier upon tier of them - to represent a football crowd, and then we would all take turns at filling in the features and expressions’ (Mary Soames, Winston Churchill His Life as a Painter, London, Collins, 1990, p.85). He would often paint side by side with Churchill who was particularly influenced by Nicholson’s more subtle palette. He acknowledged years later to Sir John Rothenstein, ‘I think the person who taught me most about painting was William Nicholson…’ (Mary Soames, Winston Churchill His Life as a Painter, London, Collins, 1990, p.84).
Trust, Chartwell. © Desmond Banks
Nicholson was particularly drawn to the assortment of animals at Chartwell including the swans, Mary’s pug and in particular, he loved to draw the Churchills’ adored marmalade cat Tango (known as Mr Cat), whom he included in the 25th wedding anniversary commission sitting on an assortment of newspapers on the table with Winston and Clementine eating breakfast (Fig 1). Artistic license was used here as Mary notes, ‘our parents had rarely breakfasted together – indeed, my father specifically attributed the happiness of their union in part to this fact!’ (Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale, Doubleday, London, 2011, p.106). Mary had carried Mr Cat in her arms from a kitten and he resided in her nursery, but soon ‘he transferred himself to the upper regions of the house, where he was fulsomely welcomed by all, and became the apple of my father’s eye. He had the cream from a saucer (sitting on a chair or on the table), slept where he liked (mostly on beds – any visitor being regarded as particularly fortunate should the cat’s choice fall on his or her bed) … when he died, in the week Tobruk fell in 1942, the Prime Minister’s staff kept this domestic sadness from him until the news from the battlefront was better’ (Mary Soames, ibid., p.39). Nicholson’s particular affection for this beloved family cat can be seen in the charming drawings (see also lots 12, 170, 174 and 180) with comic annotations of Mr Cat’s adventures such as ‘My love to your cat please’ and ‘See who slept with us last night’.
Animals were especially important to Mary and this was a shared passion with Churchill; together they acquired a menagerie of animals at Chartwell and during Churchill’s time as Prime Minister, ministers would discuss important affairs whilst the cat of the moment was being fed morsels from Churchill’s own plate. His last cat, Jock, named after Churchill’s private secretary, Sir John ‘Jock’ Colville, who gave the cat to Churchill on his 88th birthday, became a particular friend to him in his old age and would travel in the car with him to London; it was rumoured that meals would not start at Chartwell until Jock was at the table. Today at Chartwell according to Churchill’s wishes there must be a marmalade cat with a white bib and socks in residence, currently a little rescue kitten named Jock VI.