National Trust project secures Churchill’s treasures at Chartwell
A £7.1m project has successfully acquired and conserved hundreds of items once owned by Sir Winston Churchill and led to a transformation in the presentation of the former Prime Minister’s family home of Chartwell in Kent.
The National Trust has acquired items previously on long term loan including personal mementoes and gifts from around the world, and undertaken research to give a deeper understanding of Churchill’s life at Chartwell before and after the Second World War. New interactive displays share the results of the research, telling the story of the Churchill family and their guests.
The Trust was able to raise the £7.1m needed thanks to generous support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Royal Oak Foundation, the Linbury Trust, the Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, and the David Webster Charitable Trust, as well as National Trust Supporter Groups, private donors, and members of the public.
For the first time visitors to Chartwell will see a room which was used by his secretaries. With the help of historic photos – and memories from the secretaries themselves - it has been recreated as it was in the 1950s. The room has a mix of audio-visual interactives and original collection items identified as having been in the room during the Churchills’ time at Chartwell. This includes a map case given to Churchill by President Roosevelt for Christmas at the height of the Second World War, as well as everyday items such as typewriters, telephones, address books, inkwells and photographs of important political and military figures, including Field-Marshall Douglas Haig and Charles De Gaulle.
The duties of a secretary were many and varied and visitors will be able to hear recordings where they explain the tasks they undertook and what working life at Chartwell was like.
Zoe Colbeck, General Manager at Chartwell, said: ‘Chartwell was Churchill’s beloved family retreat away from the stresses of political life and he often spoke of his wish for a museum on site at the house after his death. It was very special to the Churchill family and now also holds a special place in the hearts of many people.
‘We have been delighted that so many who shared our ambition donated to the appeal to save such a wealth of items and make them more accessible to future generations. It has allowed us to tell this aspect of Churchill’s story in new and dynamic ways as part of our wider plans for Chartwell, and ensures that one of the leading figures of the twentieth century remains accessible to people of all ages to learn more about.’
The final stages of the project were completed during lockdown when National Trust curators used a scaled digital replica of Churchill’s painting studio to collaborate virtually while isolated. They were able to curate the 141 paintings to create a studio hang reminiscent of the early 1960s.
Project Curator, Katherine Carter said: ‘The studio contains the single largest collection of Churchill paintings in the world. To be able to recreate the display to more accurately reflect how Churchill himself knew it, enables us to have a deeper understanding of him as an artist and the great pride he took in showcasing his paintings within that space.
‘With the help of historic photos, the software has allowed National Trust curators isolating in lockdown to collaborate virtually to create a draft of how the physical space of the studio could be arranged in a way that is both achievable and in keeping with the style of the early 1960s.’
When opened in the late 1960s, the studio had fewer of Churchill’s paintings on display but with the gift of more of his works over the decades that followed, it has now been rehung to more closely represent the studio Churchill would have known, including removing paint from the oak shelves to bring back the 1960s appearance.
Chartwell is the only place in the world where objects, many of international significance, that belonged to Churchill can be seen in their original domestic setting.
The collection of items owned by Churchill and now acquired by the National Trust includes his collection of inscribed books, medallions, gifts and awards that he received from around the world, along with personal and poignant mementoes.
Star items are his Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to Churchill in 1953; his wooden speech box; a collection of medallions he received throughout his life; a pair of hairbrushes made from wood from the deck of the Second World War ship HMS Exeter; and a miniature paint box.
Conservation and research have also unlocked the secrets of some of the items. Work on a pair of chairs has preserved wear patterns on the arms which showed the one used primarily by Churchill, who was left-handed.
The research into his visitors’ book has also revealed previously undeciphered names. The book has now been digitised allowing today’s visitors the chance to scroll through the handwritten entries of more than 700 personalities who visited between 1924 – 1964 including film star Charlie Chaplin, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst and politician David Lloyd George.
The project was supported by volunteers, working closely alongside the Trust’s curators, to help research the visitors’ book. The volunteers also helped to fully catalogued and research Churchill’s collection of inscribed books for the first time.
Volunteer coordinator at Chartwell, Claire Middleton said: ‘We brought together a team of volunteers to work on Churchill’s books in the Drawing Room. After training from our specialists, they went through every book, identifying who has written the inscription and carrying out the research into them as well as looking out for conservation issues.’
The project has aimed to provide engaging stories for visitors and for new audiences, from recreating the Chartwell tree house, inspired by the one Churchill built for his children, to developing a selection of audio tours of the grounds. The audio tours offer visitors the choice of themes including seasonal plant highlights, landscape design or what did the family liked to do as well as a tour for younger visitors.