As a child, Edwina Sandys loved to stand behind her grandfather’s easel and watch while he painted at his country home. “He was the first artist I ever knew, and I was fascinated that he could put these landscapes on canvas in front of my very eyes,” she says. “It seemed a miracle.”
Winston Churchill’s granddaughter is an artist who fashions her own miracles these days. Unlike Sir Winston, however, Sandys, 44, prefers the puckish to the pastoral. Her works have a witty exuberance that marks her as a modern; her New York pied-à-terre is a showcase for cartoonish marble silhouettes and offbeat bronzes (one depicts a woman applying mascara), and for boldly colored canvases influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec.
Despite her enduring interest in Churchill’s painting, Sandys (pronounced “sands”) didn’t launch her career as an artist until 13 years ago. As the daughter of Cabinet Minister Duncan Sandys and Diana Churchill (who committed suicide when Edwina was 24), she followed the path prescribed for upper-class Englishwomen: Graduation from a genteel girls’ school was followed by a sojourn in Paris, a job “answering the doorbell” for a dress designer, and a stint as a secretary. Marriage to Piers Dixon—whose father was the British Ambassador to France—came when she was 22, and sons Mark and Hugo were born in quick succession.
Sandys had a go at the family business (serving as a London borough councillor) before deciding that her nascent political career posed a threat to her husband’s. In 1974 she visited a friend who was taking a sculpture class in London. “It looked like great fun, and I decided then and there to do sculpture. The boys joined me at it in the last five years.” Mark, 20, who now works for a London ad agency, and 19-year-old Hugo, a student at Oxford, accompany their mother on her yearly trips to Carrara, Italy; there they work on their own projects while she fashions her marble silhouettes.
Now divorced and dividing her time among New York City, Carrara and London, the self-taught artist devotes her prodigious energy to projects ranging from the current $3.5 million “Britain Salutes New York Arts Festival”—which she helped organize—to a $50,000 bronze she wants to place next to a restaurant in Queens. “It will be very simple—two people joined together with a big heart cut out of the center, through which you can see the most beautiful view of Manhattan. It will be the ultimate New York sculpture.”
Another of Sandys’ labors of love—this one shared with her younger sister, Celia—is the current American tour of her grandfather’s paintings under the auspices of the Royal Oak Foundation in New York. The exhibit will travel to Albany, N.Y. and Washington, D.C. over the next four months. In writing the text for the catalog, Sandys rediscovered Churchill. “People always ask what it was like growing up in the shadow of a great man. I tell them, ‘It wasn’t like being in his shadow—it was like basking in his sunshine.’ ”