Death of a Hero
PUBLISHED: 07:55 20 December 2014 | UPDATED: 07:55 20 December 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Fifty years ago, in January 1965, the world mourned the loss of one of the greatest statesmen of all time. A commemorative exhibition at Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchull’s home, considers the legacy he has left us with today
When the funeral cortege of Sir Winston Churchill wound its way through the streets of London to St Paul’s Cathedral on a bitterly cold day in January 1965, it marked the largest service in this country staged in honour of a commoner up to that time.
The life of Sir Winston – the first Prime Minister of Queen Elizabeth II, who had requested the state funeral – the inspirational war leader, soldier, journalist and historian, was commemorated before a gathering which included old political rivals and allies such as Clement Atlee, Anthony Eden, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower, plus representatives from more than 100 nations.
TV cameras beamed the historic occasion around the globe. “It wasn’t a funeral,” said his wife Clementine, “it was a triumph.”
Chartwell’s Death of a Hero exhibition, marking the 50th anniversary, explores the latter weeks of Churchill’s life, the state funeral itself and his lasting legacy. A concurrent Life and Legacy Trail in the grounds will celebrate his life.
And the property, now in the hands of the National Trust, which was his country bolthole for 40 years, seems an appropriate setting for this reflection on the human side of this highly public figure.
Churchill’s ancestral home was Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, where he was born in 1874 and where he proposed to Clementine in the summer house in 1908.
Chartwell is nothing like on the scale of that colossal building, built as a kind of Baroque monument to the first Duke of Marlborough, a military hero in his own right. But while the age of the political leader with a vast country estate had passed by the 20th century, a love of the English countryside was deeply rooted in Churchill. For a short period towards the end of the First World War he and Clementine lived in an Elizabethan manor house they had bought in East Sussex.
The cost proved too onerous and they had soon sold up, but the dream didn’t die. Visiting the Garden of England in the summer of 1921, Churchill fell in love with Chartwell at first sight. It’s not difficult to see why. The house, built in warm red brick, stands on the slopes of a valley enclosed by beech-clad hills.
Ashford Forest in the Kent Weald lies to the south, and the South Downs can be glimpsed on the far horizon. Stand on the terrace when the sun is beating down on the lawns and paradise is the only word. Come when a mist is enveloping the trees, and all manner of romantic visions of England’s past history (to which Churchill was prone to succumb) arise before you.
Yet when the Churchills first put money down for the place in 1922, Chartwell was a tumbledown relic of a Tudor farmhouse, creeper smothered the walls and the hillside was overrun by rhododendron.
“The walls ran with moisture and creeping fungus tracked down the cracks and crevices,” recalled Philip Tilden, the architect Churchill brought in to carry out the modernisation.
It’s something of a cliché to say it, but when it comes to the homes of famous people now run as visitor attractions, those which work best are the ones where it feels as if the former residents have only just departed. Chartwell works well on this level, not least because upon the death of her husband, Clementine immediately passed it over to the National Trust.
Her expressed wish was that the rooms be shown as much as they were in Chartwell’s heyday as their family home. To aid this, she passed on many pieces of furniture, carpets and other items, as well as a collection of around 60 of Churchill’s paintings for the house and studio.
It’s also the case that the stewards here are some of the most approachable and knowledgeable you will ever have the good fortune to meet while visiting a Trust attraction, many with a long association with place, and others with a particular enthusiasm for Churchill.
On my recent visit, a steward on the first-floor landing, where some of Churchill’s paintings are hung, pointed out two pictures of a riverside scene at Cannes, one by Churchill and the other by Field Marshall Harold Alexander, and asked me if I could tell which one was by our hero.
Of course, without giving myself time to think, I picked the wrong one. “It is similar to his style, but if you look closer, it’s very much a military man’s work with the all the details properly recorded,” he explained.
“Whereas Churchill’s picture reveals his artistic side, with his emphasis on foliage and reflections in the water.”
There are many reasons for visiting Chartwell, but a chance to appreciate Churchill the painter is one of the most fascinating. The chintz-curtained drawing room displays his painting of the view from Chartwell. It’s next to a window which reveals how little that prospect has changed in the years since he did it.
Churchill didn’t take up painting until he had entered his 40s. Initially it was a form of therapy after he’d been pitched into depression by the failure of the Dardenelles campaign, which had led to heavy casualties among the combatants, during the First World War. It quickly became an essential component of his life, and he seldom travelled anywhere without his painting materials.
Clementine, seeing what it meant to him, encouraged him and had one of the outbuildings converted into a large studio. The walls are still hung with many of his unframed canvases, which emphasise his favouring of bold, bright colours and love of the landscapes of the Mediterranean.
It would be wrong to depict Chartwell as merely a refuge, however. Churchill never really stopped working and in the first-floor study, beneath the sturdy wooden beams of the original building, he worked on his budgets when Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, and rehearsed his great wartime speeches in the 1940s. He wrote his history books in this room, too.
A distinguished constitutional historian told me that Churchill believed the stories of history coursed through the veins of the English people in the way that it really did through his. It’s a touching image.
We all need heroes but we often alight on some absurdly inadequate ones. Churchill’s reputation, however, has stood the test of time, which is why the 50th anniversary of his death is sure to be widely marked. n