No day wasted: an interview with Churchill's biographers

Published: 13 May 2019

Last update: 13 May 2019

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A statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill

Although many books have been published on the life and work of Sir Winston Churchill, few have looked at him through the prism of the house he occupied for over 40 years – Chartwell in Kent. In the new National Trust book, ‘Churchill: An Extraordinary Life’, Sarah Gristwood and Margaret Gaskin do just that. We caught up with the authors to find out a bit more about their impressions of the statesman and his home.

" A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted."
- Sir Winston Churchill

Sarah Gristwood (SG) and Margaret Gaskin (MG)

What was it that drew you to Sir Winston Churchill as a subject?

SG: I guess everyone starts out with the fact that he is one of the great icons of the 20th  – perhaps of any – century. The fact that he’s a controversial figure, about whom people have wildly different views, only heightens that importance. But then there’s the fabulous wealth of material at your disposal: not only the Parliamentary records and speeches but the millions of other words he poured out – to say nothing of his legacy in paint, plants and brick.

MG: My first real ‘contact’ with Churchill, beyond the general sense of him we all have, came through my book about the 29 December 1940 Blitz on the City of London. I was incredibly lucky that the person who probably knew more about him than anyone, his official biographer the late Sir Martin Gilbert, very kindly read that manuscript so I felt I had a small sense of the real man on that one day. Being invited to work with Sarah, and expanding that snapshot of a ‘day in the life’ to something of the bigger picture, was a privilege.

A view over the lake at Churchill's family home, Chartwell in Kent
A lake view to the house in autumn at Chartwell, a National Trust in place
A view over the lake at Churchill's family home, Chartwell in Kent

His former home, Chartwell, in Kent, often appears in the book and while reading it seems like it’s a very atmospheric place. What sort of impression did it give you of Churchill? 

SG: Chartwell was very much the home of Churchill’s heart. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it was one of the great loves of his life. Walking around there gives you a very intimate – and very appealing – glimpse into Churchill the private and the family man. Yes, the house boasts many artefacts which reflect his public fame, but step out into the gardens and you have the studio where he loved to paint, and the miniature house he built for his youngest daughter.

The graves of his cherished pets, and the fishpond where he used to feed his golden orfe.  You sense that Chartwell answered a need in Churchill – and that we need to know Chartwell to begin to understand him.

MG: He did once say that he bought Chartwell for its view and, if you look out over the peaceful surrounding countryside, and think how very, very few minutes’ flying time it was from the French coast in 1940, the Battle of Britain suddenly seems very close.

In the book, you describe Chartwell and some of the items there that tell the story of his life – did you come across a favourite?

SG: My personal favourite has to be his battered paintbox. I love the way that painting helped rescue him from depression after the disaster of Gallipoli in the days of the First World War – and how strongly he was drawn to all the vivid colours, even declaring that he felt ‘genuinely sorry for the poor browns’.

MG: For me, the piece of shrapnel that memorialises one of his many narrow escapes from death on the battlefield encapsulates what a stroke of fate it was for the world that Churchill ever survived to see his ‘finest hour’. From childhood onwards, illness, accidents and his own downright foolhardiness almost did for him time and again. It confirms his contention that history doesn’t proceed in the expected fashion - it can always surprise you.

A snippet from Churchill: An Extraordinary Life, which reveals some of the objects that tell the story of his life, and which you can see at Chartwell, Kent
An extract from Churchill: An Extraordinary Life, showing some of the key objects at Chartwell
A snippet from Churchill: An Extraordinary Life, which reveals some of the objects that tell the story of his life, and which you can see at Chartwell, Kent

Q: Do you have a standout story or anecdote about Churchill that you discovered while writing the book? Could you share it with us?

SG: I’ve always had a special interest in Churchill’s relationship with women – both the women of his own family, and those with whom he either clashed or collaborated in the course of his Parliamentary career. He’s gone down in history as being no friend to the Suffragettes, part of whose battle for emancipation coincided with his time as Home Secretary.

But towards the end of his life, when Churchill College in Cambridge was founded as his memorial, Winston himself told the trustees he hoped it would be one of the first colleges in the University to admit women and men on equal terms. ‘When I think what women did in the war I feel sure they deserve to be treated equally.’ What I love about that story is, it reflects one very important thing about Winston Churchill. Whatever his foibles or his failings he had the humility, and the courage, to change . . .

If I’m allowed two stories, though, I’d add Churchill at the Chartwell dinner table. Making his wife Clemmie carve the Sunday roast, because he couldn’t bear to cut up any creature to which he’d said ‘Good morning’ . . .    

MG: Mine also relates to women, and goes back to Sarah’s point about the importance painting played in his life. It was his sister-in-law who spotted that painting might spark his interest, Clemmie who bought him oil paints – and artist Hazel Lavery, a friend of the family, who rescued him from his fear of the blank canvas.

Churchill is such an entertaining writer and I love his account of how he was sitting in the garden, cowed before it, when she drove up in her motor car, got out, grabbed the brush from his hand and began sploshing paint boldly across the pristine white – and after that there was no stopping him.

The Studio at Chartwell is filled with Churchill's paintings and equipment
Churchill's painting studio at Chartwell, a National Trust property in Kent
The Studio at Chartwell is filled with Churchill's paintings and equipment

Q: Did writing this book change your view of Churchill at all? If so, how? 

SG: It absolutely reinforced my awareness of something we all half-knew already – what an extraordinarily multi-faceted career he had. In politics alone he had three or four different eras of influence, each one of which might have been plenty for any normal man - and then there was his writing, and his painting, as well. Just when you think you may finally be getting to the bottom of him another vista opens out... It makes him a daunting biographical subject, perhaps, but a thrilling one as well.

MG: I agree, it astonished me just how significant he was in world history, in so many more ways than just as a war leader. In one sense it’s to be expected in a seven-decade-long career but however much you think you know about him, there’s always something more to discover. Of course there’s only so much you can fit in to a single book but I’d like to think we have come up with a few surprises – even for the Churchill buff.

A peek inside Churchill: An Extraordinary Life
A sample spread from inside 'Churchill: An Extraordinary Life'
A peek inside Churchill: An Extraordinary Life