BIG House Tour: Chartwell

It’s been a while since we went on a BIG House Tour. For those who are unfamiliar with Chartwell, let me put it in some historical context. This house tour is important because of this little boy:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

You may not recognize him now, but he grew up to be someone very famous in history. I want to start with him at this age, though, because we often forget that very famous people also live everyday lives. They have family arguments and have to decide what they want for lunch and where they want to live, just like the rest of us.

We also need to remember that most historical icons start out with no idea that they might be subject of books later or that people will want to visit their homes, simply because they once lived there. Understanding these common human beginnings and how history’s celebrities choose to live the everyday side of their lives can really give new understanding to their life’s work.

Our hero had a wealthy childhood, but not a very happy one.  His father, Randolph, came from a famous aristocratic English family with very empty coffers. This is the English family home, Blenheim Palace:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

While it is very grand, it doesn’t really say, “come in and relax”, does it? As you can guess, it isn’t cheap to keep up a house like this, to say nothing of the very large swath of landscaped grounds that surround it. So, the men of this family chose a popular solution of the day: they married the daughters of American millionaires. (If you’re a PBS Masterpiece fan like me, you might already recognize this marriage formula from “Downton Abbey”.)

These American women, many with maiden names still recognizable today,
brought lots of money to their marriages in the form of dowries. In return, they were guaranteed a lifestyle on the scale they had grown up in, including a large house that their mothers had educated them to run. These ladies often also received some extension of their husband’s titles when they married, which was a lovely novelty for the families back home in the US.

Sounds perfect for everyone, right? It wasn’t. In fact, it led to many love-less marriages with wives feeling abandoned or neglected and husbands resenting that they had to do their “duty” by marrying money to keep the family bills paid. Our little hero’s American mother, Jennie, was in just such a marriage. Her husband, Randolph, was a known philanderer and was very distant with his two sons.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So, our hero went off to boarding school, into the army (seen above), saw some action in a few war zones and eventually began a long career in the British government. Shortly thereafter he got married to a lovely girl named Clementine. Here she is:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Together this couple would live in many houses over their adult lives. Some were chosen as they searched for the perfect house in London, some were tried on for size as the possible perfect house in the country and some came as part of our hero’s jobs.

You see, our little boy grew up to be…

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

…Sir Winston Churchill. This is the image most people think of when they think of Winston Churchill, but it’s worth remembering that while he was trying to save the world he was also a husband and a father of five children. And when you see the house the Churchills finally settled on, you can really understand why they chose a setting of quiet countryside.

Here’s a view of the back of the house as they found it:

Image source

Named “Chartwell, meaning “rough ground near a well”, this house had already been lived in for several centuries before the Churchills purchased it in 1922. As you can see from the picture above, there had been all manner of additions and “improvements” by previous owners.

Despite coming from aristocratic families, the Churchills had to ask, hat-in-hand, for money from the family trust to buy this house, and all other home purchases and leases in their lives. The governors of the trust would determine if they thought the purchase wise, then offer what money of the trust they deemed appropriate for each purchase. It was up to the Churchills to make up whatever money was leftover for the purchase. Here’s the property deed:

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After purchasing the property and a large amount of acreage around the house, the Churchills had to make many changes to the house to bring it up to contemporary standards before they could move in. This included adding a wing to serve their children’s bedroom needs and much more basic-yet-expensive things, like replacing all the wiring and heating. They also took great steps to clean up the architecture of the house, as you can see by this picture of the back of the house.

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The front of the house had also suffered under previous owners. Not only had it endured the addition of mismatched gables and tacked on bay windows, but almost the entire front of the house was covered in ivy.

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Ivy, as any builder or gardener will tell you, is a real threat to the structure of any building. It corrodes what it clings to, be it mortar, brick, stone or wood. The Churchills had all of the ivy removed immediately and then set the builders the task of finding and restoring the original facade of the house.

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Despite many set backs, billing arguments and expensive-old-house-discoveries (it is reassuring to know that even great world leaders have major contractor complications), the basic workings of the house were in place and the family moved in. Here is the front of the house as it stands today.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

After World War II, Chartwell was bought by a group of friends and admirers of the Churchills to be given to the National Trust upon Sir Winston’s death. This extraordinary gesture alleviated most of the mortgage woes and inheritance details the Churchills worried about for their children. For years, the identity of the group of donors remained a secret, but today, the names of these men and their generous gift are celebrated on a plaque on the Chartwell grounds.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

We’ll take a look at the extensive grounds later, but first, we’re going to look around inside. Although the Churchills lived in the house until the early ’60’s, all of the rooms have been restored to the 1930’s-40’s furnishing, per family wishes.

Because Chartwell is a popular tourist site, there are no photographs allowed inside the house itself. This keeps the tourists coming to see the house and keeps the profits up to maintain the property.  The few pictures I can show you of the interiors all come in various sizes from publications, guidebooks and postcards of the National Trust.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

This is the family sitting room, or drawing room. I love the large mirrors that flank the far window and the built-in bookcases. This seems like a lovely place to relax in with a good book. This room also shows how much light can reflect off of a glossy ceiling in a light color. In the US, we tend to paint most ceiling in a matte or flat finish.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

The dining room has sweeping views of the surrounding grounds. I love the round table, which can be extended to host a large party of guests. The chairs look rather comfortable and the floral upholstery keeps them from looking too formal.

Don’t you just love all the light in this room? Have you noticed that there is no chandelier over the table? They must have relied on candlelight and peripheral room lights, like those floor lamps, for evening meals.

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This is Winston’s study. When the builders were restoring the house in the twenties, they discovered this timbered ceiling had been closed in and a lower ceiling installed under it for this room. The Churchills had the ceiling opened up and this room became the office for Winston and his writing. (Please take note of the fish tank, which we’ll discuss more later.)

Winston wrote prolifically, totaling 43 book-length works in 72 volumes, which still amazes me that he had time to do anything else. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Here is his desk in the study, where he did most of his writing at Chartwell:

Image courtesy of the National Trust

While I love all of the framed pictures and mementos on this desk, it does seem almost too perfectly staged to be realistic. I’m thinking that Winston used more desk surface for his researching and writing than just two pads of paper’s worth of space. Don’t you? The light is lovely across the desk, though. I can see the attraction of the desk’s placement in the room. Let’s go upstairs…

Image courtesy of the National Trust

This is Clementine’s bedroom. As was the custom of their upbringing, the Churchills maintained separate bedrooms for their entire marriage. I find it interesting the Clementine’s bedroom is decorated in such rich, solid color, when the rest of the house has mostly neutral walls and delicate florals or small patterns in the furnishings.

You can also see they she placed her desk facing the fireplace, just like her husband did in his study. I would have never considered blocking the heat from a fireplace in a large old house, but it would be cosy to be close to as you work at your desk. (Side note: I just saw an oval phone table just like Clementine’s in a store the other day. It looked so familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen it before. You can see it here.)

Next is Winston’s painting studio:

Image courtesy of the National Trust

I know what you’re thinking. In addition to writing professionally, raising a large family, running a government and ridding the world of Nazis, the man had time to paint?! Yep. And he was really quite good at it, as you will see in a moment.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

He created over 500 paintings in his lifetime. Makes us all feel like slackers, doesn’t it? It gets worse. He didn’t start painting until he was 40 years old.

Time to head outside…

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This a map of the overall ground of Chartwell today. First let’s start with a side view of the house to get ourselves oriented:

Image courtesy of the National Trust

This croquet lawn was originally a tennis court for Clementine when the Churchill family first moved into the house. Later, they had it turned into a croquet lawn for more use when entertaining house guests and their grandchildren. Using the map above, you can see that the front of the house is the left side of the building and the back terraces are on the right.

The lakes feature prominently at the back of the property. While the Churchills bought the property for its beautiful views of the forest (the Weald of Kent), those trees have grown considerably over the decades and now lend the land a quiet sense of seclusion.

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I think this view could inspire anyone to take up painting. Although, it wasn’t always this way. Several of the water features that look natural on the property now were installed using local labor and much supervision (and meddling) by Winston himself. They workers (and Winston) even used a portable railroad line to haul all of the dirt and muck out of the dig zones. You can see a railroad in action with this lake construction:

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And Winston didn’t stop at the big projects. Many stories tell of his opinions on how to build things properly being shared with any building or gardening professional that would listen. He even got his hands dirty and found masonry to be quite relaxing:

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(I always prefer a fedora when I’m building a garden wall, don’t you?)

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It is believed that Winston helped out with the building of “Marycot”, short for “Mary’s Cottage”, for their youngest daughter. This is an example of what the British refer to as a “Wendy House” or what Americans call a “Playhouse”. (The “Wendy” comes from Wendy in Peter Pan, who had a small house built just for her in Never Never Land).

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(I would move in there tomorrow if the windows weren’t quite so low.)

This is a view of the old kitchen gardens, near Marycot, as painted by Winston:

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Most of the kitchen gardens have now been removed to allow for facilities needed by the National Trust, pesky things like visitor parking, rest rooms, offices. Now let’s just wander around the grounds and I’ll show you a few more things before we leave Chartwell.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Image courtesy of the National Trust

The above rose garden was a Golden Anniversary gift from the Churchill children and grandchildren. 

The Churchill family were great animal lovers. They counted dogs, cats, birds and fish among their many pets. Here is Winston with one of his poodles, “Rufus”:

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Remember that fish tank in Winston’s study? He was a great fan of fish and built an ornamental fish pond, where he also enjoyed painting:

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Black swans have always been a part of Chartwell’s landscape. Here is a painting of them by Winston, which I think is quite good for a hobby-ist:

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The (heated) swimming pool:

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The walled garden:

Image courtesy of the National Trust

The green houses:

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The loggia which leads from the rose garden to the “Marlborough Pavillion” or summer-house.

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Image courtesy of the National Trust

Image courtesy of the National Trust

The frieze on the wall of this summer-house was painted by Winston’s nephew and depicts the Battle of Blenheim, pronounced: “Blen-nem”. Winston was a descendant of the Spencer-Churchill family and the Dukes of Marlborough. The first Duke was awarded Blenheim Place, seen at the top of this post, for winning the Battle of Blenheim in today’s Germany.

(If you are a Princess Diana fan and you noticed a familiar name in that last paragraph: Yes, those Spencers. Winston and Diana were cousins in a very large and very old aristocratic family.)

Image courtesy of the National Trust

That ends our BIG House Tour for today. Aren’t we lucky that we had such great weather and no lines at airport security? Could you see yourself living as the Churchills did at Chartwell? I would certainly give it my very best effort!  If you would like to visit Chartwell, please explore the detailed National Trust website right here. This organization works very hard to preserve history for all of us to enjoy and deserves your support!

Much of the information and many images shared in today’s post were found in Stephan Buczacki’s Churchill & Chartwell: The Untold Story of Churchill’s Houses and Gardens. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for those interested in history and Churchill. Despite being one of the most written about figures in history, this is the only book that really examines all of the homes Winston lived in and how it was all managed and paid for over his lifetime. A great read!

Do you have a BIG house that you’ve always wanted to visit? Do you have a must-see recommendation of a BIG house? Leave a comment! You might inspire our next tour!

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Posted on July 12, 2011, in BIG House Tours. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I really enjoyed your post today. I had no idea about his painting. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Churchill “supervised” the builders.

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