Some country houses are less of note than the people who were associated with them. For some, the architect will be the draw, but with a strange ‘Midas’-like power, any house associated with figures of great renown will always be remembered. When asked to name the greatest UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill often justifiably tops the polls, and his retreat, Chartwell in Kent, became his refuge, but also a burden which was only relieved late in his life. As is often the case with older houses, they require adaptation for modern life, and Chartwell was no different. In an almost inverse to Churchill’s fame, the architect who worked on the house was the low-profile Philip Tilden, about whom we’ll find out more in a separate article.
Chartwell passed to the National Trust in 1965 and, this weekend it will be the focus of their ‘Uncovered‘ campaign which is exploring the British landscape. As the event in the series most connected with a house, below is a guest article from Emily Christmas, Learning and Events Officer at Chartwell for the National Trust, exploring Churchill’s love of the countryside and why the house became so special to him.
“I have no hesitation in saying that this site is for its size the most beautiful and charming I have ever seen.”
These were the words used by Sir Winston Churchill to describe the property he purchased in 1922, which would become his family home for the following decades.
In his eyes, he was acquiring the land and the view far more than the house itself. And what visitors today might not realise is that what he saw back then was not the same Chartwell that can be seen today.
The house and gardens are very much the product of two minds: Sir Winston Churchill and his architect Philip Tilden. Even before the sale was completed, Tilden was at work preparing the house for reconstruction. Over the course of the following several years, work was undertaken to change the existing house into one that would take best advantage of the stunning views with which Sir Winston fell in love.
The history of the property isn’t well known, though the oldest part of the building is thought to have been a Tudor hunting lodge; and like most ancient sites in this part of Kent, there’s the oft-uttered myth that King Henry VIII stayed at Chartwell while on the way to visit his sweetheart Anne Boleyn at Hever. One of the rooms in the house was even named after him.
Over the course of the following centuries it changed hands several times, became at one point a house for abandoned children, and in the 19th century the house, gardens, and outlying cottages began to take on something of the appearance that can be seen today.
Enamoured as he was with the views from Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill immediately set to work rebuilding the house to best take advantage of Kentish weald.
The Colquhoun family, who had been in possession of the property for the previous century or so, had extended the house a fair bit, as can be seen in the photographs. However, to ensure the largest number of rooms had access to the stunning views, Churchill reduced the overall size of the house, creating in their place the rooms on the south-east terrace, which can be accessed through what is now Lady Churchill’s sitting room.
The best indication of the change can be seen when viewing the house from the south-east side. The front of the house was also reduced and simplified to what can be seen today.
Visitors to the house today often remark upon the views when they walk out onto the pink terrace. Looking out across the North Downs, it’s not difficult to understand how Sir Winston felt when he first saw the place, despite the changes it has gone through over the past century.
Having withstood war, bombs, and even a hurricane, the property still boasts some of the most beautiful views to be found in Kent. You can experience the views in person and visit during the National Trust ‘Chartwell Uncovered’ weekend of 21st-22nd September. Displays will include copies of some of the most iconic Churchill paintings of the landscape within the very views they depict, so it’s a rare opportunity to get insight into Churchill’s reflections on the land, his house, and his life.
View the full events programme for Chartwell Uncovered
Or find out more about the rest of our Uncovered campaign.
More views of the house can be found on the National Trust Picture Library
To coincide with the article, it seemed a good opportunity to look at the life and work of Philip Tilden; an architect with a complex life, who worked on a remarkable series of houses. Watch this space…