In profile: our curator's top five items
Each item in the collections at Chartwell tells a different part of Churchill's life. Some depict the famous man as you'd expect; a great leader, orator and politician. Other items are deeply personal and show a softer, lesser known side to the great man. Curator Neil Walters highlights his pick of those personal belongings of Churchill's that we hope to keep at Chartwell.
1. Speech box
Churchill was one of the world’s great orators, and this is where papers for his speeches were kept. It’s a very unassuming wooden box, but it’s significant in the story of Churchill and the war. His skill in communicating the threat to Europe from the Nazis, together with his military knowledge, was a powerful combination. It was also fundamental in persuading President Roosevelt, and therefore the reluctant American public, to join the British as allies in the Second World War.
Objects often have layers of meaning, and this hairbrush is no exception. The wood was taken from the deck of HMS Exeter as it was being refitted, after it was damaged in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939. Churchill was a naval man through and through. In his study, he ordered the floor to be made of narrow boards just like the deck of a ship. It’s telling that these pairs of hairbrushes were made from the HMS Exeter for only three people: the Captain of the ship, King George VI and Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time.
3. House of Commons book
This book was presented to Churchill on his 80th birthday, when he was still Prime Minister. It’s signed by almost all the MPs at the time (except for five, who objected on principle). Parliament has never again created a gift like this for a Head of Government. Churchill was rare in the way he united the Commons during his wartime leadership. There’s a softer side to Churchill that we rarely see, but when he received gifts such as this one, he was genuinely touched and often moved to tears by the thought behind such generosity. His collection is largely made up of such gifts, which is unusual. There’s nothing outside the Royal Collection that matches the number of high-status items at Chartwell.
4. Lion sculpture
After the Second World War, Churchill received an outpouring of heartfelt thanks from the liberated people of Europe. This bronze sculpture is a gift from the people of Luxembourg. It has pride of place in front of the study, which was the beating heart of Chartwell. It’s where Churchill worked into the small hours on his speeches and strategies. He often used the metaphor of the lion in his speeches as it was a symbol of British strength. He once said: ‘It was the nation that had the lion’s heart; I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’
Churchill was awarded a great range of medallions throughout his life. The fencing medallion (1892) is from Churchill's school days and was a treasured item, especially becaused he struggled in academic subjects. His prowess in fencing tells us a lot about his energy and focus as a young man.
The Iron Cross is symbolic of a pivotal moment in history: Tehran, 1943. It was the first time Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt (known as 'the big three') met to discuss operations in the Second World War. It was also Churchill's 69th birthday and he received a number of gifts to mark the day. This Iron Cross is perhaps the most unusual. It was confiscated from Franz Mayr, a Nazi agent working undercover in Persia.