“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill of the House of Commons. The dictum surely applies to Chartwell Manor in Kent, his home for over forty years, where still today something of his spirit lives on. He had first set eyes on the place one summery day in 1922, and, enthusiastic for the view it offered over the green and pleasant England landscape, he promptly bought it, spending and inheritance he had received the previous year. For his wife Clementine, whom he did not consult about the purchase, Chartwell was a source of frequent worry from the day the family moved in. For Winston it was his office and his playground, a place where he could both earn his living and pursue his enthusiasms for the next forty years.
Churchill made Chartwell
Chartwell Manor, and its gardens, were in poor repair when Churchill first came to the property and needed a lot of work done before he would consider it habitable. Churchill, naturally, had to shape it to look exactly the way he wanted. He set about the project with his trademark gusto, commanding an army of builders, gardeners, diggers and planters and frequently getting stuck into the work himself. While the house was getting done up and having a three-floor extension added to it, Churchill was frequently to be found in the gardens, planting trees and flowers, reshaping and relaying the lawns. The developments did not stop when the family moved in — Churchill was an expansionist. In the first volume of his History of the Second World War he described his life in Chartwell
“I had much to amuse me. I built with my own hands a large part of two cottages … and made all kinds of rockeries and waterworks and a large swimming pool which … could be filtered to supplement our fickle sunshine…. I dwelt in peace within my habitation.” (The Gathering Storm)
Chartwell, then, was very much Churchill’s own creation and it became the place a place where he could marshal his tremendous energies to fulfil his destiny.
Chartwell made Churchill
A painter, an amateur lepidopterist and a member Amalgamated Union of Bricklayers, Churchill had many hobbies and in Chartwell he saw to it that he had space and facility to pursue them all. As a painter, he set up an art studio which is still home to many of the 500 paintings that he did over his life time, including a number depicting views and scenes around Chartwell. As a lepidopterist, he designed his gardens to suit butterflies and other insects, and in the Summer of 1939, even as the country was about to go to war, attempted an ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to reintroduce to the UK the black-veined white butterfly which had become extinct. As a bricklayer, he built a large wall around the vegetable garden and a Marycot playhouse for his two daughters. This was all relaxation to him. He said of his pursuits:
“It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated…It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.” (Painting as a Pastime)
The energy he put into his leisure activities were thus a counterbalance to the drive with which he approached his work. Without the space and freedom to play, without the variety of activities that he enjoyed at Chartwell, he would have doubtless found it more difficult to maintain the intensity with which he worked.
Though much of his career was spent in the Westminster corridors of power — or in a warzone — Churchill did spend long periods of time ‘working from home’, and his home was the ultimate ‘Fast-Paced Work Environment. Churchill was a writer by trade, and, through his politics, by vocation, and he designed in Chartwell a process finely tuned for the production of his speeches, articles and books. He employed a team of researchers, about six of them, who would work downstairs, scouring all manner of resources, including his personal library of over sixty thousand books, to find material. They would then bring their findings to his study where they would often find him pacing the floor, dictating the first draft to a hard-pressed typist. These typed pages he would then amend, standing at his special upright desk, send for retyping and amend again, and again, until at last he was satisfied. In his lifetime he produced hundreds of articles, prepared numerous speeches and authored more than forty books in sixty volumes, earning, for his efforts, huge sums of money and winning the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Home: A Place for Action
“Action this day” was one of Churchill’s many mottos and he did much of it at Chartwell. Surely part of the secret behind his extraordinary high-quality productivity was that his environment had been personally designed around him, with a loyal and dedicated staff who would bend themselves around his busy schedule and cater to his whims. He could work — or not — whenever it suited him, in his pyjamas, from his bed, or in the bath and he make the best use of his leisure times. Though at times it could be little more than a weekend retreat, it was in Chartwell that Churchill had invested himself and here that he felt most comfortable. Small wonder that Churchill was once heard to remark “A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.”
Your home is your castle, your port in the storm, a place to relax, a place where you can concentrate on simply being ‘you.’ Sadly, this can mean that home is a place for eating, sleeping, and watching TV before heading out to work again, missing out, perhaps, on the potential that lies within our walls and gardens. Clearly, we cannot all have the tremendous good fortune to live in a spacious country manor, replete with a full complement of staff. We can, though, examine how Churchill lived in Chartwell, see how Chartwell helped shaped and ponder whether we can use the space around us as effectively.