Artist and sculptor Edwina Sandys has led a very full life. Growing up as the granddaughter of Winston Churchill she was surrounded by the wealthy, famous and the very smart. Edwina herself never went to college. She married young, bore two sons, and for the first three and a half decades did what she was supposed to do as a proper British lady. Clearly that wasn’t enough for this energetic, creative woman. She started to draw with no formal art lessons. It was always in her (Winston Churchill was a serious painter) and once she started, she forged ahead, eventually moving to New York. New Yorkers will have seen her giant blossom sculptures along Park Avenue and they would be typical of the exuberant but also somewhat subversive nature of much of her work. She is thoughtful and measured in conversation but a hint of her liveliness emerged when we talked about giving dinner parties—“It’s fun! But you have to take a firm hand otherwise the party gets out of what you planned!’ More of a New Yorker now than a Londoner, she lives in a vast Soho loft with her architect husband, Richard Kaplan surrounded by her art. When I went to see her she was busy preparing for the opening of her current retrospective at the Alexandre Gertsman Gallery (running through December 10th at 652 Broadway) and she has just published a book, “Edwina Sandys, Art”(Gliterati Press).
How did you decide that you were going to become an artist? It sounds like it came into your life after your first marriage, in a fuller sense.
Yes, well I always liked drawing and then towards the end of my first marriage I was sketching people and then one or two of [the sketches] looked quite good and then I got too many to hang in the house so I had a little show and sold them. At the time I was writing. I had written a novel and I had a column in the Sunday Telegraph in London. But then it seemed to be much more spontaneous. An individual picture can stand on its own whereas one chapter in a book could spoil the whole thing.
It seems like it was a point in your life where you probably needed a big change in your life emotionally—I read that you ran for Parliament.
I didn’t run. I was going to run and it was choice between whether my husband would and should I support him—and he was further ahead in his career. And at the time I didn’t want to be beholden to him or spoil his career. And probably it would have been a bit too early for me to try to do that because I think I was far more frivolous then. It was better to be in writing or in art.
It must have been really frustrating to give up something that you wanted to do because it interfered with your husband’s career …
Well, in those days women were mostly …
Well they had women’s lib in America but it took a little while to get to England. I think it wasn’t just expected but we were brought up that way and we thought that was what would happen. That we would be helping a very wonderful man in his career … behind the man, or beside the man—but I wanted to do something for myself. It was a very happy choice to do the painting and it was very compatible with having my sons and anywhere I was I could do it. I suppose because one got divorced … and it became more important to make it more central rather than something nice to do.
Expressing yourself visually is very different from expressing yourself in words.
Yes, it is very different. It is partly spontaneous but also you keep it in rein with your brain. You can splash out on the canvas but at the same time I toggle back and forth between both sides of the brain. You want it to have its own way – at the same time you have got some direction. The main thing is when you’re doing one thing that is working well, one thing leads to another. When you get one good idea, many, many others come from it
How do you know it’s a good idea?
Well sometimes you do. Don’t you know sometimes when you do that perfect dive? Sometimes you know: “It’s all right!” It’s with people too—sometimes you know when you can ask them something.
Obviously I can’t interview you without asking you about your background, which is a pretty amazing background. Can you talk a little bit about growing up and how you were influenced by the way you grew up and bringing it through to the way you are today—I mean you had a really astonishing childhood growing up during the war.
Well, I was quite young. I think it was a time when nobody was spoilt. We weren’t spoilt children …
Were you even aware at the time that your grandfather was who he was? [Winston Churchill]
At first not so much but then I think when I first went to school I do remember the teacher coming in with some parents, and I knew I was being pointed out [says in a whisper “That’s Winston Churchill’s grand-daughter”] In those days I blushed scarlet. At the end of the war I was little but we went out into The Mall by Buckingham Palace and the king and the queen came out of the balcony and my grandfather also came out on the balcony—you’ve seen it in The King’s Speech—so that sort of thing. One of his great things is that he pretty well loved every bit of life and I think he lived very much in the moment so when we were at their home—you know when he was in Parliament, he was in Parliament doing his speeches—but when he was at home he was painting or we would go for walks. He was interested in everything that was happening immediately. He was an immediate person.
Was he a fun grandfather?
Oh he was. He would recite poetry and get tears in his eyes. He was very emotional. He was an all-round man. Wherever he was, he had his own world around him. My grandmother, of course was very important—if he had married the wrong woman the world would be a different place. She was very strong, very beautiful, very wise and you know … a headstrong man. It’s like a racehorse … they don’t just run. They need a partnership.
It doesn’t sound it was like that with your parents.
No. Maybe at the beginning. There was a love. I don’t know. They were both redheads.
How old were you when your parents got divorced?
I was seventeen. But it was brewing for a very long time.
And then your mother took her own life when she was just 54.
Yes … that was a great shame. I was just 23, expecting my second baby. I was cushioned in a way because I had others that needed me. It was really a shame because I think if she had got through that period, that difficult time, she would have come through and been full of life again.
At one point in your book you say that your mother has been with you for the past 40 years. I mean parents even if they pass away don’t leave you in spirit.
Well, first of all you are half of them. And then there are things, you know, I just look at my sister and I would say, “Mother would say that about that.” I know her personality and what she would think about things. I wish she could see what I’m doing now because I’m wasn’t doing the painting then.
Quite a bit of your work is about women and their place in society, about being a mother—when did you start focusing on those issues?
I think really you see things from your own point of view and I was a mother. The very first paintings I did, did reflect what was going on in my life because I was getting separated and then divorced, so a lot of those are about conflict between a man and a woman. I don’t know if this is in the book but there’s a [painting] of two people sitting in chairs on a beach and it seems like they’re together but they’re both facing away from each other. I didn’t think, “I’m portraying my own life” but obviously I was.
You did a piece [entitled], “Christa” – a female Christ. Are you religious?
Not specifically. We like the idea of “spiritual” – whatever that is. Of course I was brought up as Church of England, Christian and that is a wonderful thing to be brought up in a religion and to be unquestioning about it. If you are questioning, you can question later but it’s lovely to be brought up with the traditions. When I did “Christa” it was using the idea of Christ and turning it into a woman and feeling that women should be included in the most important image, in a way, Jesus on the cross. I did it very, very quickly. It just came out. I was working in a studio in London and there were other people working in the studio. One woman came out and said, “Hmm, there’s a lot of women like that,” – suffering women. It was to show the suffering of women as well.
You are self-taught. You didn’t graduate college …
I didn’t go to college! I’m sure I would have graduated if I had gone! But people didn’t go so much then.
So you started out doing it instinctively?
Yes, and I think that’s great. Sometimes I think some people, when they go to art school, they go too young. They learn everything perfectly—they can do anything they want but then how to decide? I mean, for writing – you didn’t go to writing school [then]. You may have got a few tips. [Even now] it won’t teach you to be a poet but it could help you to structure something. You can learn a lot in art school—probably it would have been wonderful if I had gone to art school but after you get to be a full-grown person with all your ideas, you may not want to go back to school and undo what you’ve started to do.
Your work is very cheerful, even if you’re dealing with very dark subjects … are you a cheerful person?
[Long silence then she calls to, her assistant Mary??] Am I a cheerful person, Mary? Mostly I am. [Mary says: “She has an extraordinary sort of joy.”]. I have a very cheerful husband—most of the time.
What effect did moving to New York have on your or your work? It’s so different to England.
It did make me think that the scale could be bigger. Things are smaller in England. People always think I came here to get away from the constraints of England but I didn’t. I came here to get something extra. I came to add another string to my bow.
So what do you do when you’re not painting or making sculpture? Do you cook?
I love cooking! And I love having dinner parties. I love the sort of spirit of people getting together. It’s a bit like being a conductor of an orchestra. Richard [her husband] is a wonderful host and the host and hostess set the tone. The guests take their cue from them. There’s the clash of the cymbal … sometimes you do have to rev it up … you have to take a firm hand otherwise the party gets out of what you planned. I mean I don’t boss everybody around all the time …