A marriage of art, culture and politics: the collection of The Earl and Countess of Avon
Anthony Eden, Prime Minister of the UK from 1955 to 1957, and his wife Clarissa, the niece of Winston Churchill, rubbed shoulders with the great political and cultural figures of their day. They also shared a love of the arts, from French paintings to English furniture
Anthony and Clarissa Eden, The Earl and Countess of Avon, shared a passion for art, literature and culture. ‘She was an exceptionally beautiful woman with sparkling intelligence and notably exquisite taste,’ recalls the broadcaster and royal biographer Hugo Vickers, a close friend of Lady Avon. ‘Eden was not only one of the most distinguished politicians of the 20th century, but a man of high artistic and aesthetic discrimination.’
Over the course of 80 years, the Edens assembled an eclectic collection of artworks and objects, ranging from Antiquities and Chinese Works of Art to French paintings, Islamic Art, English Furniture, Silver and Books and Manuscripts.
Many of these works graced 10 Downing Street during their residence there, as well as the Edens’ two country houses in Wiltshire. They were then relocated to Lady Avon’s London apartment on Bryanston Square, to which she moved after Lord Avon died in 1977, and where she continued to live until her death in 2021, aged 101.
Superb works from the couple’s collection are now being offered for sale in Churchill to Eden: The Collection of The Earl and Countess of Avon on 21 October at Christie’s in London.
For Christie’s specialist Benedict Winter, the collection offers an evocative insight into an almost vanished world of 20th-century political and aristocratic society.
‘The Edens’ lives are reflected in every lot in the collection, with many pieces having been acquired directly from the artists,’ he says.
Born in 1920, Clarissa Spencer-Churchill grew up in South Kensington in London. Though born into the Churchill dynasty — her father was Winston Churchill’s younger brother — she was more attracted to the artistic and intellectual milieu of her mother, Lady Gwendeline Bertie, than to life in politics.
Gwendeline, known to friends as Goonie, had ‘a sense of enchantment’ that did not depend on conventional ‘beauty or dramatic colouring’. It was this striking quality, it seems, that captivated Sir John Lavery, who painted Lady Gwendeline on numerous occasions throughout his career.
Coming to auction are three of these portraits, including a lively sketch of Gwendeline dressed as an attendant of Portia in The Merchant of Venice (below left).
At 16, Clarissa was sent to Paris to be ‘finished off’. Instead, she mingled with Parisian café society and discovered the French avant-garde. ‘Paris was like the opening of a window on life,’ she wrote in her memoir, From Churchill to Eden. ‘One of my most vivid memories was the shock and thrill of going to the Braque exhibition.’
Among the highlights of the works coming to auction is Verre et huîtres by Georges Braque (below), a gift from Anthony to Clarissa. It was painted in 1939, one of the most innovative years of Braque’s career, while he was living in Varengeville, a village in Normandy, with Joan Miró. The geometric forms, flattened perspective and vivid palette are all telling signs of Braque’s post-Cubist interpretation of a well-established subject.
In 1940 Clarissa moved to Oxford to study philosophy. Though not an undergraduate, she mixed with the likes of Maurice Bowra, Cecil Beaton — who later sketched Lord Avon — and Evelyn Waugh. During the Second World War she worked for the Foreign Office and at the Ministry of Information, regularly visiting her uncle at Downing Street. Afterwards, she landed a job as an arts reviewer for Vogue, before taking on a role as a publicist for the film director and producer Alexander Korda.
She met Anthony Eden, then deputy leader of the Conservative party, at a dinner in 1947. A popular and respected politician, Eden was also a man of letters, with a finely tuned cultural sensibility.
Born in 1897, he had been immersed in the arts from childhood. His father, Sir William Eden, was a respected collector and painter, who exhibited with the New English Art Club.
At Oxford, Anthony studied Oriental languages, co-founded the Uffizi Society and wrote a well-received paper on Cézanne. He started his own art collection at a young age, buying a Constable in Munich in 1921 for £200. He had an affinity for French art, later acquiring works by Picasso, Degas, Laurencin and Corot, among others.
Anthony and Clarissa married in 1952 and had their reception at 10 Downing Street, hosted by Winston and Clementine Churchill. In 1955 Eden succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, and Clarissa was thrust onto the world stage.
The Edens met global leaders ranging from Charles de Gaulle to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and rubbed shoulders with royalty. When the late Queen Elizabeth II visited the Edens’ villa in Barbados in 1966, she presented the couple with a view of Barbados by Nicholas Pocock.
Clarissa considered Greta Garbo and the Welsh artist David Jones close friends. She was sketched by Jean Hugo, the great-grandson of Victor Hugo, and photographed by Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst. Later in life she was painted by Lucian Freud.
The Edens’ library included numerous volumes presented as gifts by leading cultural and political figures of the era. Coming to auction are signed works from Evelyn Waugh, Lord Berners and Cecil Beaton, as well as volumes signed by Field Marshal Montgomery, De Gaulle and Winston Churchill.
Also offered for sale are two important paintings by Churchill: The Canal at St-Georges-Motel and Still Life, Silver at Chartwell.
The former was painted in the 1930s, during a summer holiday at the Normandy chateau owned by his former cousin-in-law, Consuelo Balsan (née Vanderbilt), and her industrialist husband Jacques.
‘It is a delightfully atmospheric work and testament to Churchill’s expressive handling of his medium,’ says Christie’s specialist Elizabeth Comba. ‘Your eyes are immediately drawn to the way in which he captures the gentle ripples and reflections in the water, while his skilful handling of light and colour is evident in the passages of warm oranges and bright yellows that are layered together, dramatically illuminating the scene.’
Still Life, Silver at Chartwell, meanwhile, was painted at Churchill’s family home in Kent. Its balanced composition and soft tones of thinly applied paint reveal the influence of Sir William Nicholson.
Nicholson stayed at Chartwell regularly during the 1930s and became a significant artistic mentor to Churchill. The pair would paint views of the grounds, as well as still-life compositions when poor weather kept them indoors. Still life, Silver at Chartwell is an example of the latter. A similar work by Nicholson, Silver, is now in the Tate collection.
Eden’s retirement from politics in 1957, following the Suez Crisis, afforded the couple more time to indulge their shared interest in the arts. Summers were spent at their home in Wiltshire, winters in the Caribbean. As Eden’s health deteriorated, Clarissa devoted herself to his care. After his death in 1977, she travelled widely — even taking up scuba diving — and re-entered the London social scene.
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As well as commissioning two authorised biographies of Eden, Clarissa published her own memoir in 2007. She also continued to expand her art collection, acquiring everything from French silver to modern British sculpture, until her death in November 2021.
‘This sale represents a very particular and considered taste,’ notes Vickers. ‘It is one of the most special collections to come to auction for many years.’