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Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill and his family for 40 years, appears today as if the Churchills had just gone out for an afternoon drive and will return soon to resume their activities.

The flowers that decorate the house are fresh from the garden. All the current day's London newspapers are laid out in the drawing room, just as Churchill liked them.

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The dining room table is set for afternoon tea. A Georgian mahogany card table in the drawing room is set for a game of bezique. On cool days, cheery fires burn in all the grates.

The study, which Churchill considered to be his workshop and where he spent so many productive writing hours, is essentially just as he left it for the last time in October of 1964. Even a ginger cat is always kept on the premises to continue the tradition of Sir Winston's famous cat, Jock.

Hundreds of volumes on crowded shelves reveal his lifelong fascination with books and his own broad reading interests. ''Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library,'' he believed.

In the art studio, separate from the house, one of the statesman's unfinished canvases stands on his easel, and an array of partially used tubes of paint are arranged beside it. Numerous other incomplete canvases line the walls, and Churchill's painter's smock is flung casually over the back of a chair.

A stroll through the garden reveals the extensive kitchen-garden walls, rockeries, waterworks, and pool that Churchill built with his own hands during the 10 years after 1929 that he was out of office - projects that enabled him to comment, ''I never had a dull or idle moment.''

Americans have been particularly reminded of Chartwell in recent months, because of the exhibition entitled ''Winston S. Churchill: Painting as a Pastime ,'' which drew thousands to the National Academy of Design in New York in May, June, and July. The same exhibit of 51 paintings, many of them painted at and of Chartwell, will be shown at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington from Sept. 2l to Nov. 2.

Amateur painters, say museum officials, respond to the enthusiasm and obvious competence with which another amateur painter attacked his canvases. History and political buffs stand in awe of the fact that a man who was a prime minister, statesman, author, historian, and member of Parliament also found time to paint over 500 pictures after the age of 40.

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Numerous paintings borrowed from the walls of Chartwell will return to the house in early winter. Meanwhile, other exuberant Churchill paintings of landscapes, still lifes, family members, friends, and homes are filling their places.

The ''muse of painting'' was Churchill's favorite diversion for almost the last 50 years of his life. ''Painting,'' he once commented, ''is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.''

Chartwell, which overlooks the lush Kent countryside 20 miles from London, is beloved by English and foreign visitors alike. It is now the most visited house of all the British National Trust properties, attracting about 165,000 visitors a year.

It is not a stately home in the sense of the Leeds Castle that has over 300, 000 visitors a year. Chartwell does not have great architectural grandeur, nor is it furnished with priceless antiques. It is a small house, as English country houses go. But it strongly evokes the life and times of a great man, and it has charm and intimacy. Its numerous associations for visitors are impelling and satisfying.

Churchill paid 5,000 British pounds for the ungainly Victorian farmhouse and 800 surrounding acres; another 18,000 pounds transformed it into the comfortable house in which he and his family lived from 1924 to 1965. Architect Philip Tilden, who drew up the plans of the renovation, noted Churchill's special relationship with his house and recalled years later, ''No client that I have had has ever spent more time, trouble, or interest in the making of his home.''

Churchill's choice of furnishings was eclectic to say the least, encompassing many periods. As Robin Fedden points out in the little book ''Churchill and Chartwell,'' Churchill was uninfluenced by contemporary taste. Thus, he writes, ''Chartwell has proved impervious to passing fashion. Never following the mode of the moment, it could not become outmoded.'' Rather, it has the timeless quality of a house designed practically and distinctly for the life and work and entertaining style of the Churchill family.

So Chartwell today is the same delightful medley of personal mementos, gifts, family heirlooms, assorted chintzes, and comfortable furnishings that it was when the Churchills lived here.

Chartwell's refreshing lived-in look is due largely to the fact that after Churchill's death, Lady Churchill ensured that most of the contents of the house would be retained at Chartwell. To make sure the character of the house remained unchanged, she and her daughter, Lady Soames, restored certain rooms to their appearance in the years before World War II, when the house was at its height as a family home.

After the war, when Churchill was thinking of selling Chartwell, a group of friends purchased the house and gave it to the National Trust with the understanding that Churchill should live here during his lifetime. The house was later opened to the public as a memorial to the statesman in 1966.

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