By Charles L. Cox, PHD, Professor of European History, with Jean Cox
Edwina Sandys & Sir Winston Churchill: Granddaughter and Grandfather – His influences and legacy and how she basks in his sunlight
On a recent Sunday morning in January, in her SoHo, New York loft, artist Edwina Sandys answers the telephone in her soft, measured and charmingly English accent – with the quiet confidence of a Cleopatra. One might not surmise at first that Edwina’s grandfather was historically perhaps the greatest statesman the world has known: Sir Winston Churchill. She is by math one quarter Churchillian, proof of which is evident in their common red hair. Yet, Edwina is clearly more than that. This article is about Edwina Sandys’ emergence as a world renowned artist and her grandfather’s influence and legacy. He will hover in the background throughout.
Left to right: Edwina Sandys; “The Breakthrough”; “Chartwell” 1983; “Double Vision” 1972; “Party Dec15”; “Winston at Work” 1991;[print_gllr id=1192]
Edwina was born in 1938, the daughter of Tory politician Duncan Sandys, who later rose to the rank of elder statesman, retiring as Lord Duncan-Sandys, and Diana Churchill, first child of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine.
A word now about the great man. Churchill’s name, still today, invokes awe and fires the spirit. Some may include Abraham Lincoln in this classification, but one must remember that while he saved the United States, Churchill in May 1940, saved the world, telling his War Cabinet – some of whom wished to surrender to Hitler – “We shall go on and we shall fight it out … and if at last the long story is to end … not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.” Had he done less, England would have surrendered and the result a Nazi victory. “The world would have sunk into the abyss of a new Dark Age,” Churchill later said. British leaders since Churchill’s death on January 24, 1965 (the date of which Churchill himself predicted eight years earlier – the same day his father died) have labored under his great shadow.
Churchill from the eyes of a child
Edwina’s earliest recollections of her grandfather was at Checquers, the country home of the British prime minister during the war. Her family visited frequently as Churchill’s schedule permitted. Luncheons and dinners were pleasant and the children were included in all activities, never shunted aside. “Grandpapa loved having people around him, especially children and was not only a great man, but a great grandfather.” Edwina also tells us that he loved animals. He did have pigs. He had a farm and cows and some special black swans. “He even got a lion once,” recalled Edwina. “Of course, we couldn’t keep it, so we had to visit it at the zoo. I remember it was a wonderful thing to go to the zoo and see Grandpapa’s lion.”Churchill inspired the children with poetry. He could quote all 70 stanzas of “Horatius at the Bridge” by heart. Also there were discussions of literary works and, above all, painting. It was this latter activity which truly inspired Edwina because, at her age of 5 or 6, she had never before seen an artist at work. “When he sat down to paint, he had his favorite hat, glasses, cigar [the famed Romeo y Julieta], brush, easel and canvas,” Edwina recalled about Churchill. “Grandpapa was all business when it came to painting, totally concentrated, and we would not dare to make so much as a peep.”Edwina was naturally good at drawing and would draw scenes on cards for her grandfather to see. “When he had time, he would critique them, giving advice on matters such as color and placement,” she said.This association continued over the years and she saw him frequently at Chartwell, his home in Kent. She received a first-class education and eventually married Tory M.P. named Piers Dixon and gave birth to two sons, Mark and Hugo. Early in her marriage, she served on her local town council and even considered running for a seat in Parliament, but decided to write a novel instead. When Churchill died in 1965, Edwina was 27. Over the next 18 months, she began to do pen and ink sketches, framing some and hanging them on the walls of her home.
“One day, a friend, a restaurateur was visiting and expressed admiration for these sketches,” Edwina said. “He suggested that we hang them in his restaurant and sell them. And, we did, and they sold well.” This launched her career in art and eventually led to commissions to paint portraits of friends and others. Though good at it, she found it frustrating when many, it seemed, wanted her to redo the work showing them flawlessly. “No one liked to see their own double chin,” Edwina said.
Examining Edwina’s artwork
In the 70s, Edwina began to hit her stride. In the three decades that followed, she branched out into many artistic media and established a world reputation for herself. She had eclectic tastes and these led to works in acrylic on canvas, clay and bronze, marble, granite, concrete, steel, aluminum and paper.Taking a look at a few of her most well-known works, one can examine her motives, creative excellence and her profound subtle wit – another Chur-chillian characteristic. Churchill determined that he would be willing to “put up with the best life had to offer.” Having no inheritance to support such a style meant that he had to earn big money, and he did that by writing over 65 masterpieces. As he said toward the end: “I lived from pen to mouth.”
While Edwina’s works show wit, many of her works are profound and deadly serious. The first subject prompted an important remark by Edwina. It is called “Double Vision” (1972) and it depicts the same woman from a left facing cant and a right facing cant. They are a mirror vision and only seem different by being reversed.
Winston at Work
Next comes a brief series of paintings called “Winston at Work”. The first, entitled “Chartwell”, depicts the once svelte and lithe young Churchill now in old age, portly and overweight from the back. Edwina’s depiction of him while painting at Chartwell gives the reader a sense of the home’s beauty and charm. In the library scene of “Winston at Work”, here is her grandfather in caricature at canvas, painting a landscape in his library. The message plays upon his notorious self-centeredness. As generous and giving as he was, Churchill probably was the most self-centered “good person of the modern age” (a possible explanation would be Teddy Roosevelt of whom Mark Twain once said: “He has to be the bride at every wedding, the center of every stage and the corpse at every funeral”). Churchill did not lack for confidence either. He once said, “We are all worms, but I believe that I am a glowworm.” When one peruses the books lining the shelves in Edwina’s Winston at Work painting, one finds books mostly written by Churchill himself. But on closer inspection, one discovers a chronologically impossible addition, namely William Manchester’s monumental history of Churchill’s life entitled The Last Lion, written three decades after the great man’s death. This very likely would have been his favorite book because it depicts Churchill objectively, but in all his ability, grandeur and glory. The third of these paintings is “Romeo Revisited”. This above all is touching, utterly apt and deeply humorous. To begin with, it relies on Churchill’s famous “Bottlescape” painted in 1931. It hangs today at Chartwell, part of the National Trust of Great Britain. What strikes the viewer first is
the similarity of “Romeo Revisted” by Edwina and “Bottlescape” by Churchill. But there is much more in her rendition. In the top right corner is a pen and ink sketch of Churchill, which looks like a photograph from the Times of London. Look at his left index finger and see it touching the middle of his upper lip. Notice there is no cigar in hand. Now see his concentrated and yearning gaze through the bottlenecks at the open box of Romeo y Julietas. His first longing is for the tobacco. Secondly would come the whiskey. This work is as seriously deep as it is whimsical. This piece calls to mind two famous statements he made on whiskey and tobacco. On spirits, in his 80’s he said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” On tobacco, “How can I tell that my temper would have been as sweet, or my companionship as agreeable, if I had abjured from in my youth the goddess Nicotine?” Churchill loved art and “Romeo Revisted,” one thinks, he would have adored.
Perhaps Edwina’s most celebrated work is called “Breakthrough”. It is fashioned from a 32-foot stretch of the former Berlin Wall, which Nikita Khrushchev erected in 1962 to keep the East Germans from escaping to the West and to freedom. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, so did its puppet ally the Communist German Democratic Republic. Then the hated wall came down. Edwina was commissioned to take the massive stretch of the Berlin Wall and create art worthy of this triumph. Accordingly, the 70-odd ton section was transported from Germany to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the very spot where, in the late spring of 1946, Churchill gave arguably the greatest speech of his life. It was a clarion call for “the English speaking people of the world to confront and prevent further Soviet expansionism and their relentless suppression of freedom in the world.” It was the famed “Iron Curtain” speech where he said that “from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the face of Europe.”
The work, finished in 1990, stands in front of the building where Churchill spoke and near his statue. “In “Breakthrough,” from the blank former-Communist side, you see light through the male and female shapes, and when you walk through to freedom, from dictatorship to democracy, it’s as if you were living in a black-and-white world, and now you’re in glorious Technicolor. Through these openings, visitors can pass freely – from East to West, from West to East. They can imagine what it’s like to be on the ‘other side.’ They can make their own ‘Breakthrough.’”
Eighteen months later, Mikhail Gorbachev visited America for the first time and, interestingly, came to speak at Westminster College in Fulton. As he stood on that hallowed ground, he delivered an appropriate speech with Edwina and thousands of people present. One wonders what thoughts went through this man’s mind as he viewed the remnants of the wall. Although his intentions proved honorable in the end, he had, after all, dedicated the bulk of his life supporting a soul destroying tyranny that had tried to rob mankind of its most treasured gift – that of freewill. One may wonder if he were seeking some atonement. In a photograph with them pictured together, Gorbachev stands a head taller than Edwina, but when one compares the principles by which each had lived, she rises a head taller than he.
No Coattails for Edwina
It seems clear that Edwina Sandys is distinctly different from most of us. She instinctively understands the human condition and has displayed this gift in her world of art. Further, she understood that she could not, and should not, ride the coattails of her parents and illustrious grandparents. Edwina says of this: “I don’t live all my life thinking I’m Winston Churchill’s granddaughter.” She stands independently on the spot she carved for herself. Understand, there is no resentment here. On the contrary, she truly admires and appreciates his influence on her life. “Being his granddaughter has given me a measure to live up to,” Edwina said. Not blessed with great wealth by way of inheritance, Edwina, like Churchill, had to earn her way in the world. He did that with pen and she did it with brush, so to speak. It is also clear to anyone who studies her and her work that she understood another fundamental truth – one that escapes the cognizance of most people today. She understood early on that no one is entitled to respect – not even the well-to-do. They are only entitled to courtesy. Edwina knew that respect had to be earned and that can only be done day by day, year by year, doing respectable things in life and in one’s chosen line of work. This she has done and become one of the great artists of the modern era, a Renaissance woman. In 1997, Edwina was awarded with the United Nations Society of Writers and Artists for Excellence. The United Nations has installed five monumental sculptures by Edwina at its centers around the world.
Churchill Would Approve
Sir Winston, were he here today, would be immensely proud of Edwina. One can imagine them sitting and discussing her works of art and his. It is entirely possible that he would let her get in a word or two in the conversation (well, maybe). Edwina is now in her 70s, still working – with a new humorous artistic book entitled Social Intercourse recently unveiled. Edwina is now comfortably fixed and happily married to Mr. Richard Kaplan for 25 years. Kaplan is a semi-retired architect who, with cane in hand, tousled hair, and a twinkle in his eye, is as spry as a teenager, and – like his wife – is utterly amusing and devilishly charming. These words from Edwina sum up her leitmotiv: “Overall, I want my work to have an immediate, instant impact. You look at it first because it catches your eye. And you want to look at it again. Then you realize it’s something different than what you originally thought. And when you leave, like after seeing a great movie, there’s a lingering feeling, something that makes you think beyond the initial experience.” And, so she has. William Manchester was right to call Sir Winston “The Last Lion.” History bears this out. Edwina is the pride of the “Old Lion’s” pride.