Learn more about Britain’s war leader in a historic corner of Mougins.
The 13th century Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins is an important part of the heritage of the Alpes-Maritimes and of France. Sir Winston Churchill painted the chapel during one of his Coastal visitsMillions of words have been devoted to describing and analysing the character and achievements of Winston Churchill. The historian Martin Gilbert has given his entire adult life to the task. What has always struck me about the man is how he stands apart from so many modern politicians in the depth and complexity of his “hinterland” – the word Denis Healy has used for those personal interests and talents which go beyond the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall.
He came because of that amazing light
When I sat down recently with Celia Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, I immediately went off at a tangent to ask about an aspect of his personality that has always fascinated me: his close and often very emotional rapport with animals. There are many stories about this such as his having his dog, recently injured and with a bandaged paw, brought to sit up at the lunch table at Chartwell, much to the amazement of Ribbentrop, a guest and at that time Hitler’s envoy in London. Rather to my surprise, Mrs Sandys told me that his affections could be closely engaged by birds: “I often travelled with him in his later years and he hated to go anywhere without his budgerigar Toby. One day when we were staying at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco Toby flew out of the window and never came back. My grandfather was very distressed.”
Celia Sandys, along with her aunt Mary Soames (now in her ninetieth year), was here to lead a cruise-based tour – Chasing Churchill – which was visiting the places where he had been during his many stays in France: “His first visit was in the 1880s when he was sent to stay in Versailles with a French teacher from Harrow. He wasn’t happy.” But he liked France? “Very much so and especially this region. Whenever he could he would go to Paris, take the train bleu and wake up in the often sunny south.” But how good was his French? During the war he made a famous broadcast which opened with the words, “C’est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle.” “Well, he wasn’t a natural linguist but there were always people ready to help him.” Indeed: I recalled that Jacques Médecin claimed that as a young man he had been recruited to act as Churchill’s interpreter when he was staying on Cap Ferrat.
What brought him here? “Over the years many things. Before the war it was often a social matter, as when he stayed with the Windsors in Antibes. And then a few years later, in 1944, he watched the American landings on Pampelonne beach from the USS Kimberly. In the Fifties he was a guest at the Villa Mauresque but not with Maugham who’d lent the place to Rab Butler. Above all, of course, like so many painters, he came here because of that amazing light which so inspires artists.” Why did he enjoy painting so much? “Well, he was quite good at it but above all he found it wonderfully relaxing – he liked to call it his ‘stress-buster’. You know, people often ask how he rebounded from the terrible shock, as it was, of listening to the election results that July day in 1945 when Labour ended with a majority of 146 and he was out of Number 10. In fact, he came to realise there was a positive side to that. He’d had five gruelling years as a war leader. By the summer of ’45 he needed the chance to rest and he got it. For one thing, he could spend more time with his brushes and when he got back to Downing Street in 1951 – aged 77 – he was refreshed and ready for the fray, at least to start with.”
Churchill’s painting forays along the Coast extended from Cassis to Monaco. Among his favourite places to set up his easel were Antibes and Roquebrune. But what about Mougins? Explained Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, who also accompanied the party: “It seems to have been a one off. He was in the area, heard about the Chapel, came to have a look and decided to paint it.” Eric Sauri, from the mairie in Mougins, who showed me round, pointed out that the site of Notre Dame de Vie is very ancient: “The Romans were here 2000 years ago. The Chapel dates back to the 13th century although only the bell tower survives from that time. The building we see today is mainly from the 1700s. However, well into the last century Notre Dame de Vie had a major role in local life. One curious fact: as late as 1930 the custom remained of bringing still-born babies here in the belief that they would come to life for a few seconds, time enough to baptise them so they could go to heaven rather than limbo. In recent decades the Chapel has been looked after although it still needs a lot of work. The other buildings, though, are in disrepair. That’s going to change. Meanwhile, we are proud to have Sir Winston’s painting as part of our heritage.”
Celia Sandys’ book Chasing Churchill: The Travels with Winston Churchill (UK: HarperCollins) recounts her grandfather’s worldwide travels.