Saturday 17th April 1982 …
It was the spring of 1982. Argentinian troops had invaded the Falkland Islands and a British Task Force had set sail to the South Atlantic. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was taking the country to war.
Hector Laing, my wife’s uncle had earlier that year suggested to the Prime Minister that he would like to give her a present of a painting of Chequers. I had the year before painted a picture of his house, Dunphail in Morayshire, which Mrs Thatcher had seen and admired. A meeting was subsequently arranged and I received an invitation to lunch at Chequers on Saturday 17th April to discuss the project.
I travelled down to London the day before expecting at any time to be told that the lunch date had been cancelled because Mrs Thatcher was unable to fulfill her private engagements owing to the worsening international situation.
I remember listening to Radio 4 as I ate my breakfast that morning. The media was reporting the Prime Minister's movements on an hourly basis. The country was holding its breath and tension filled the airways. I heard the Broadcaster say “The PM is going to Chequers for lunch, then returning to Whitehall for a Cobra meeting ” hellop his voice triggered a surreal moment of realization “How extraordinary ” I thought, “I am going to be at lunch too.”
Meeting up with Hector and his wife Marion, I climbed into the back of his Bentley. The highly polished car gleamed like a concert piano and we set off bowling through the Buckinghamshire countryside in the spring sunshine. Sweeping up the drive, the car eased its way towards the famous house.
The landscape was looking its best, bluebells were getting ready to chime in the woods and the leafy buds on the lime trees in the Park were the size of a mouse’s ear. The optimism of spring was all about, just what was needed in the circumstances. Small wonder I thought that our lunch date had been kept.
The jolly expression of the Police on the barrier was in contrast to the lethal paraphernalia that hung about them. Our passes were checked and the barrier swung open. Continuing our journey towards the house, the car swept round the turning circle up to the front door. As the engine was turned off, a member of staff in an RAF uniform opened the door and Mr & Mrs Thatcher stepped out onto the doorstep.
The Laing’s were friends with the Thatchers, which the welcome they gave each other reflected. Mrs Thatcher was dressed predominately in blue, and her thick hair perfectly framed her carefully made-up face. Her greeting, although formal was forthcoming. I detected though a dry-eyed expression of tiredness.
Denis Thatcher wore a lively tweed coat and bore a more open countenance than his wife; with a cheery manner he ushered us into the hall and on into the drawing room. The room seemed oddly familiar, perhaps because it was decorated like the Set of a William Douglas-Home play. We were given drinks and I observed with interest that Mrs Thatcher already had a glass of whisky in her hand, (with two more to follow before lunch). She immediately engaged Hector and Marion by the fire while I took my drink to the window seat and sat next to Denis. The room filled with animated conversation, led by both our host and hostess. From one side talk of finance and politics, from the other, the difference between Bermuda grass and Rye grass on the golf course. We were called to lunch. As we crossed the hall to the dinning room, Mrs T. could not resist making a quip concerning Edward Heath’s legacy to the Prime Minister's country retreat, in the form of some rather in her opinion, dubious interior decoration. (Bleached paneling in the hall).
The dining room was surprisingly intimate. We sat closely together on a round table. The food was traditional. As we sat down I remember having to overcome a hot moment of panic due to my extreme proximity to the Prime Minister. Calm returned when I remembered that I had one conversational card up my sleeve, which I could play once her attention turned my way. Turn the conversation did, and got off to a good start as I managed to make her laugh. I seem to remember making a gentle joke connecting the well-roasted bird with the vegetables. It had something to do with mining, gold, carets and digging in. Mrs Thatcher asked me about my experience as an art student, whether I had been trained or let loose. Unhelpfully I intimated it was a combination of the two. She then made some sort of comment about the cost of student education and the liberal Arts and I remember the conversation faltering for a moment. Not to lose her attention I chose then to play my hand. I told her that my Grandfather Victor Bruntisfield had been the Member of Parliament for Grantham when she had been Chairman of the Young Conservatives; pound coins rather than pennies began to drop and we were away. She remembered Sir Victor as he was then, well, recalling him rather as one might a glamorous older school prefect. She was delighted to know he was still alive aged 83, fit and well and living in Gstaad, Switzerland. She asked me for his address which I sent to number 10. Later that year, while on holiday herself, she went to see him, meeting again after 40 years. She the Prime Minister, and he Queen Victoria’s Godson, who as a young man acting as an interpreter, had met Lenin.
Lunch ended in high spirits, matters of War and Peace had been put to one side and gossip, good food, and plenty to drink had made up the weft and warp of the conversation. Mrs T. invited me to accompany her into the garden to find a view of the house from which a pleasing picture could be found. As we pottered slowly across the terrace she turned to me and said quietly, “This house is not very pretty is it … but at least it isn't as ugly as Dunphail!” A risky remark under the circumstances.
The afternoon was warm, the pleasures of lunch had relaxed my companion, and there was for a moment a chance to find the less sophisticated side of this curiously uneven character. Rather surprisingly she was not wearing stockings and her feet were becoming hot. She became amusingly self-conscious almost childlike. After each measured step the heel of her shoe sank into the soft lawn. As she raised her foot, her warm sole left its platform releasing a seductive kissing sound. This noise of heavy petting accompanied our progression. It raised eyebrows to begin with and laughter towards the end. It was a lighthearted almost flirtatious moment.
Together we found a viewpoint, under a tulip tree opposite the front door. The search was over.
As we returned to the house she asked me about the rest of my family, in particular my Father. I amused her by saying that as a consequence of ‘a good war’ he had found domestic responsibilities and worldly ambitions hard to grasp. “You see”, I said, “the thing about my Father is, that he has always been able to afford the grocer's bill!”
The air was cooling, the Spring warmth from earlier in the day had lifted letting in a cool draft. By the time we reached the house she had put her armour back on, and the iron lady entered the hall. Hector, Marion and Dennis had gathered, there was urgency in their manner, clearly it was time to take our leave. We said our ‘Goodbye's’ and as I did so, I noticed a door ajar. I could just see into the room where there were banks of Computers with staff in attendance. We stood in silence for a moment, regretting the party was over, as reality returned to knaw at our ankles. Mrs T. turned towards the computer room and pushing the door open, said “And now I must see what is happening in those bloody Islands.”
As the Bentley pulled away, Denis stood alone on the doorstep, waving goodbye.
I returned to Chequers in May that year. Nature had begun to tailor its summer suit and the scene earlier identified was looking a picture. I spent three weeks painting there, leaving the place to its tenants for the weekend. Those warm ripening days of early summer in Buckinghamshire were a contrast to the cold dangers of the life threatening events that were playing out at the same time in the Falkland Islands. What an irony it was for me, that at the same time as Mrs Thatcher handed the historians a pen, she handed me a brush.
Now, 30 years later, the impressions both the Thatchers made that day remain vivid.