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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Churchill’s Sanctuary

Much is known of the professional life of Sir Winston Churchill, the interior aspects of his personal life, however, remain relatively unexamined—and underappreciated.

Chartwell Manor, Churchill’s much-loved home for over forty years, exemplifies the complex character, emotional depth and tenacity of this popular prime minister. As his daughter Mary Soames noted, the sprawling eighty-acre estate near Westerham, ‘became his workshop—his ‘factory’—from whence poured books, articles and speeches, which alone kept Chartwell and the whole fabric of our family going.’ Simply put, Chartwell functioned as Churchill’s personal sanctuary, the place from which he drew creative inspiration, weathered career ups and downs and found happiness. To visit Chartwell is to know Churchill the man more intimately; to appreciate the house and grounds he helped renovate with his own hands; to see first-hand the study and studio where he cultivated his significant literary and artistic activities; to take in the spectacular view across the Weald of Kent, which captured his affections, at first sight.

In September 1922, when Winston Churchill purchased Chartwell Manor for £5,000, expressly against his wife Clementine’s wishes, it was in a sorry state. Neglected and unkempt on the outside, with a hodgepodge of rooms added gradually and seemingly at random within, Chartwell needed major renovations.

Known originally in the 14th Century, as ‘Well-Street’, due to the Chart Well spring which runs north of the house, the property had a long, varied history as a working farm, a foundling house for deserted children and a Victorian country mansion before Churchill took possession. As he saw it, once stripped of its Victorian superstructure and updated to modern standards under the guidance of architect Philip Tilden, with larger bedrooms and kitchens, a library, an office, and a new wing with rooms optimized to enjoy the view, Chartwell would afford the Churchill’s a medium-sized family home fixed on its own extensive park and grounds, with plenty of space for entertaining large groups, all within twenty-five miles of London.

Clementine, on the other hand, saw in Chartwell only a bottomless money pit: accustomed to her husband’s proclivity to spend recklessly and live beyond his means, Lady Churchill feared the bulky, Victorianised house would stretch their already strained family finances to the breaking point. In this fear, she was not far off the mark. Chartwell took several years, heaps of patience and more than £10,000 to renovate; on-going problems with dry rot and leaks, cracks in the walls and foundations and electrical malfunctions served as a constant source of marital tension. ‘Clementine never quite forgave him for it’, Mary remembered; though she, too, would eventually come to love the house, although never to the same extent as her husband.

Like many married couples of the era, Winston and Clementine kept separate bedrooms; they set their daily lives at Chartwell to entirely different schedules. Whereas Winston was a late riser, who enjoyed working into the wee hours of the morning and breakfasting in his four-poster bed, sometimes while dictating, pyjama-clad to his secretary, Clementine preferred waking early and retiring shortly after diner. Churchill spent the majority of his time in the study adjacent to his bedroom on the first floor, dictating or writing at a mahogany table or upright desk the numerous articles, speeches and books that helped fund their costly existence at Chartwell and sustained Churchill intellectually, particularly during the ‘wilderness years’ of the 1930s. Here he wrote all or most of The World Crisis; Marlborough; The Second World War; A History of the English Speaking Peoples; and Thoughts and Adventures, and the National Trust has kept Churchill’s study much as it was when he was alive, with cigars and daily newspapers still on display.

The many personal mementos, pictures, clothing, artwork and books carefully presented throughout the house help to recapture the statesman’s spirit. ‘To one who has built his own house or renewed an old home’, wrote Gordon Banks, former President of the Manuscript Society, after a visit to Chartwell in 1969, seeing Chartwell in person is a ‘nostalgic experience’. ‘One can visualise Sir Winston, feet apart, waving his cigar . . . as he plans yet another campaign of restoring or preserving the grandeur and charm of the English past. Unlike many, he did not indulge in the grand manner of elaboration. The house called Chartwell is a home elaborated only by the symbols of greatness casually laid here and there’.

Churchill’s stamp is especially apparent in the large studio hung with his original paintings near the bottom of the garden. Although he did not pick up a brush until the age of 40, Churchill became an accomplished painter, producing a total of more than 500 pieces of artwork during his later years. ‘Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind’, Churchill explained in Painting as a Pastime (1932). ‘When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting so as to get to the bottom of the subject’. Consequently, Chartwell is jam-packed with Churchill’s paintings and drawings, and visitors can view his palette, easel, unfinished canvases, and completed works piled in his studio at leisure. Seeing his paintings up close reveals a hidden, sensitive side to Churchill; indeed, Mary claimed that painting ‘nourished deep wells’ in her father.

Winston Churchill loved Chartwell. He loved working and walking in the gardens, feeding the pigs, fish and other animals on the estate, staring out across the two lakes on his land to the Weald of Kent beyond, and tackling robust building projects himself. The hillside gardens alone are well worth a visit to the estate. A walk around the grounds through the terraced garden, Clementine’s Rose Garden and the kitchen garden evokes Churchill’s wide-ranging interests and deep appreciation of nature.

Chartwell, a house that once belonged to England’s greatest 20th century statesmen, is now an integral part of the British national inheritance. All Churchill fans, as well as those who would like to know more about Churchill the man, should visit this fascinating family home and soak in the history of its rooms, corridors and gardens. See the many roles of Winston Churchill: politician, historian, farmer, bricklayer, host, father, painter, and, now, international symbol of Britain.


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