Churchill’s studio at Chartwell.
‘And the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
His boots are cracking for t' want of blacking
And his old fusty coat is wanting mending
Until they send him to the Dardanelles’
In 1915, when this sang mildly satirical ditty was first heard, Sir Winston Churchill took up painting.
His wife, Clementine, did all she could to encourage Winston’s new hobby. He’d suffered from depression for years and the failure of the Dardanelles campaign, for which he was blamed, was a time of national mourning. She even called on artist and family friend Sir John Lavery to help the great man. Given his well-known irascibility, that must have taken courage. Churchill apparently ignored advice to tone down his hues.
After a false start with water colours, he completed over 500 oil paintings over his lifetime. About 350 are still at his country house, Chartwell, now owned by the National Trust, some in the house itself but most in the studio he had built in the grounds.
Last Sunday’s Spring-like weather made the prospect of hour’s drive from South London through Kent very tempting. It would have been an hour, if we hadn’t been diverted round Sundridge.
Mothers’ Day coincided with Chartwell’s opening for the Trust’s 2010 season, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that parked cars spread into a reserve field and the restaurant had run out of chicken cobbler. It, crowded, noisy, messy and overrun with children. We wished we’d stopped at one of the pubs in Brasted instead.
I’d enjoyed previous visits to the house, full of Churchill memorabilia and an exhibition about his military achievements. Today I wanted to see the paintings and we were just in time to catch a three o’clock introductory talk.
Churchill made no claims for the quality of what he called his ‘daubs’ and it’s just as well. Possibly the best ones are in private collections elsewhere, and a couple in the National Gallery were mentioned. The paintings are mainly landscapes – scenes from the Kentish Weald farm where Churchill lived before moving to Chartwell and the grounds near the house itself. The majority showed French, Italian and Moroccan locations he visited on holidays and campaigns.
Interesting as the domestic interiors and the paintings are, the real star of the show is the Kentish landscape surrounding the house, situated on a small promontory overlooking a valley. Ponds, for swimming and fishing, border the sloping lawns, beyond which fields merge with wooded hillsides, resembling pastel sketches in subtle greys, reddish browns and soft purple. The spears of daffodils, bright green among the bracken and rocks near the house, contrasted with the dead ribs of giant ochre leaves in a huge patch of rhubarb-like plants near the house.
‘A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted’, Churchill said. The peace and stillness here must have helped him forget the turmoil of war that haunted him. It’s certainly a place to inspire a budding artist as well lift the spirits of visitors.
About the National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk