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Churchill’s Secret Treasures for Sale: A British PM’s Life on the Auction Block

Personal possessions belonging to Lady Soames, Winston Churchill’s daughter, are up for sale—including signed photographs of Eisenhower, paintings, and a red leather despatch box.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The memorial service is one thing England still knows how to do far better than any other nation. You can’t beat a grand British send-off looking back at the colorful times of a member of the great and the good.

The memorial service last month for Mary Soames, the last surviving child of the 20th century legendary British leader Winston Churchill, was a classic of its kind.

Almost 1,500 people packed inside Westminster Abbey to celebrate the life of Soames, who died in May at the age of 91. Sure, there was top royalty (Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles) and a former Prime Minister (John Major). But there was also curly-haired Queen guitarist Brian May and playwright Tom Stoppard.

It turns out May was a neighbor of Soames’s in Holland Park, West London and would attend her annual Christmas party. “Like everybody else, he fell into my mother’s thrall and was charmed by her,” Emma Soames, the editor of Saga magazine and daughter of Mary, told the Daily Beast.

Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre, read an extract from David Hare’s play Racing Demon, which was staged at the National during Soames’ time as Chairman of the London theater.

Since Hare would rather put down his pen than vote for Churchill’s Conservative Party, it testified that while Soames certainly belonged to the British establishment--she was appointed Ladies Companion of the Garter, the UK’s highest chivalric order in 2005--her character and circle was as broad, diverse, and unpredictable as that of her fathers.

This historical eclecticism will be evident on December 17 when Sotheby’s London sells 256 personal possessions from Mary Soames’s estate. Going under the hammer will be unique wartime artifacts and 15 of Winston Churchill’s paintings.

It is, says Andrew Roberts, the bestselling historian, “the most significant and momentous Churchill family event since Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965.” Frances Christie, who as Head of Sotheby’s Modern and Post-War British Art Department, is overseeing the sale, said: “Through her collection you get an insight into the most major events in the 20th century.”

The demand for all things relating to Britain’s Second World War heroic statesman continues to be unceasing. Mayor of London Boris Johnson just published his take on Sir Winston Churchill, and Andrew Roberts will soon begin work on a new biography of the man who served two separate stints as UK Prime Minister.

The Sotheby’s sale includes objects such Churchill’s red Morocco leather dispatch box from his time as Secretary of State for The Colonies that is expected to be sold for between £5,000 and £7,000 ($7,850 and $11,000). It’s one of only seven surviving government dispatch boxes relating to his tenure in office with others on permanent public display.

Unsurprisingly many of the prized lots relate to the Second World War. Following her upbringing at Chartwell, the Churchill family home in Kent, Mary Soames, according to Emma Soames, had “a good war.”

During World War II she took on active service volunteering for the Red Cross and enlisted as a private joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Churchill notoriously remarked to Dwight D. Eisenhower that his proudest moment of the war was when his daughter was commissioned as an officer.

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“She would get special leave to travel with him because they always liked grandpapa not to travel without a member of the family”, her daughter says. “He needed a handmaiden especially after getting hit by a taxi [in New York in 1931].

Mary Soames was posted near London but Emma Soames says “if she had a night off she could get back to Downing Street. The powers that be were aware that the weight of events hanging on my grandfather’s shoulders was immense, so to have family around him was frightfully important.”

The Sotheby’s auction includes signed photographs dedicated to Mary Soames from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Field Marshal Montgomery and Eisenhower. But perhaps the most spectacular lot in the sale is a silver jug, a birthday present to Churchill from his War Cabinet in 1942.

The jug contains the inscription “Egypt 1942,” referring to the Battle of Alamein which took place near the Egyptian coastal city of El Alamein and which is widely regarded as marking a turning point in World War II. It is set to go for between £4,000 ($6,275) and £6000 ($9,400).

Mary Soames had a ringside seat at the Second World War, accompanying her father on several key trips including to the Potsdam Conference in 1945 where she organized the dinner between her father, Harry Truman and Stalin.

But Emma Soames counsels against the temptation to think she strategized with her father in the wartime ring: “My mother was around a lot but she didn’t give him political advice. What she gave him was support in very dark hours.”

After the war she married Christopher Soames who became a Cabinet Minister, French Ambassador and the final governor of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and had five children. Throughout her life she championed her father’s legacy.

“She adored her father and she did all she could to keep her memory burning bright and to keep people on the straight and narrow of the truth,” Emma Soames says. In particular Lady Soames hated people overstating Churchill’s partiality to drink and asking what he would have thought of contemporary politics.

Lady Soames wrote five books about her family, including one devoted to her father’s paintings. The sale offers 15 of Churchill’s paintings that hung in West House, Mary Soames’s Holland Park home. They include “The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell” painted in 1932 and “The Harbour, Cannes,” painted circa 1933.

Admirers of Churchill’s paintings include Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who own “The Tower of Katoubia Mosque,” painted in 1943, the only picture Churchill completed during the Second World War. That painting is currently on loan to Atlanta’s Millennium Gate Museum which is currently holding a retrospective of Churchill’s work.

“She inherited his best pictures--they are the masterpiece works which he saved for the family and they give us a look into the private side of the great man,” says Frances Christie. “A lot of people don’t realize quite how much he was able to paint given he was so busy and a lot of people don’t realize how good he was.” (Separately 38 paintings belonging to Soames that were hung in Chartwell will be offered to the nation in lieu of inheritance tax.)

“There is much more to Churchill’s art than just his fame,” says David Coombs, the author of the definitive catalogue on Churchill’s pictures. “It’s real. He studied Turner with very great attention.”

The art and the artifacts are linked, Coombs notes. “He had the red dispatch box while he was Secretary of State for the Colonies. He lost his seat in Parliament when the government fell and he went on a six-month holiday with his family in St Raphael where he painted 'Sunset Over the Sea' [on sale in the auction]. He had just lost his job but that painting is full of hope for the future.”

The Sotheby’s sale also shines a light on Churchill’s artistic circle with paintings by friends including William Nicholson, Oswald Birley, Sir John Lavery and the Anglo-French painter Paul Maze. “He knew these artists before he had the huge fame we all know him for,” says Coombs. “Artists and Churchill, in the right circumstances, got on like a house on fire.”

“Art was a sort of therapy for him because when you’re painting you can’t think of anything else,” Emma Soames says. “He did suffer from ‘Black Dog’ [depression] as he called it and having something to concentrate on was therapeutic for him.”

The sale captures Mary Soames’s personality in its multifaceted glory. “She was very kind and I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone,” Emma Soames says. “You could warm your hands on the spirit of her soul and because of who she was people discovered how she was--a great woman in her own right.”

Emma Soames, whose elder brother Nicholas Soames is—like his Grandfather—a Tory MP, stresses Sotheby’s is far from putting all the Churchill’s cherished possessions under the hammer.

“We’ve all got pictures of her so we’re not selling everything by any means,” she says. “She left her will very flexible and she wanted us children to deal with her estate in the fairest way possible. We decided, as a family, that this was the fairest way forward. It was a family decision.”

For example, while the family has retained some of William Nicholson’s pictures of marmalade cats at Chartwell, others have been retained by the family.

Mary Soames is an exception to the rule that gilded offspring endure life rather than enjoy it.

“She had a happy marriage that lasted 45 years and after my father died [in 1987] she never looked at another person,” says Emma Soames. “She had a very stable childhood because of a wonderful nanny called Nana White who was a cousin. She was a big influence on my mother’s life and gave her great stability which, I think maybe the other children didn’t have. I think they were brought up by a series of governesses they ran circles around.”

The eulogy at the memorial service by family friend William Shawcross encapsulated Mary Soames’s love of freedom and wicked wit, two defining features of her father’s personality. She wrote to her father in his old age, “In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving, generous father, I owe you what every English man, woman and child does--Liberty itself.”

Shawcross also recalled, “She worshipped regularly at St John’s Ladbroke Grove. One Sunday earlier this year when she was too unwell to get to church, her friend, the Vicar William Taylor, came over and said, ‘Mary, I have brought you Communion.’

‘What time is it?’ she asked.

‘11.45,’ he answered.

‘In that case I would prefer a gin and tonic.’”