The Roaring Lion: Yousuf Karsh's Portrait of Churchill

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The Roaring Lion: Yousuf Karsh's Portrait of Churchill
Yousuf Karsh, 'Winston Churchill,' 1941
The Roaring Lion: Yousuf Karsh's Portrait of Churchill

Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is one of the most recognised photographs ever taken. Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, believes that the photograph may have influenced the course of the Second World War. Aside from the political impact of the photograph, it also catalysed Karsh’s career. ‘My portrait of Winston Churchill changed my life,’ he said. ‘I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography.’ In 1941 Churchill made trips to Washington D.C. and Ottawa to encourage the United States and Canada to devote resources to the war effort. By the time he arrived in Ottawa, Churchill was worn down after the risky Atlantic crossing, during which there was a constant threat of German U-boat attack, and after his meeting with President Roosevelt in Washington. Large crowds had greeted him at the train station and he was nervous and tense, having not slept well.

MacKenzie King had asked Karsh to photograph Churchill and to observe him whilst he addressed the Canadian Parliament. The afternoon before the speech, Karsh arranged for all the furniture to be removed from the Speaker’s Chamber, in order to make it more compatible with his camera room, and he set up his 8 x 10 inch Agfa view camera, his six floodlights, two spotlights and background light. He had been given permission to watch the speech from the press gallery and would later say that he found the inspiration for the photograph in Churchill’s reference to the French generals who had commented on Britain’s decision to fight on alone, saying, ‘in three week’s time, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken,’ and Churchill’s defiant repartee – ‘some chicken, some neck!’ Karsh was enraptured by Churchill’s speech, in which he said that Canada occupied ‘a unique position in the British Empire because of its unbreakable ties with Britain and its ever-growing friendship and intimate association with the United States’. Karsh was determined to capture the defiance and steadfast confidence of the statesman in his portrait. After the speech, the parliament sang ‘God Save the King’ and Karsh left the House to go back to the Speaker’s Chamber and prepare for Churchill’s arrival.

Churchill was relieved after the success of his speech but tired and annoyed by the constantly flashing bulbs of the press cameras. He was eager to relax during MacKenzie King’s informal dinner party that was scheduled for the evening and unaware that an official portrait had been organised. When Churchill and his entourage were directed into the Speaker’s Chamber and were met by Karsh and his equipment, he was surprised and growled, ‘what’s this, what’s this?’ King laughed nervously and Karsh explained that he hoped to make a portrait to mark the occasion, saying ‘sir, these photographs may be the ones which will serve as a constant source of hope and inspiration which you have created in the heart of the civilised world’. Churchill demanded to know why he had not been told about the photograph and his entourage started to laugh. He lit a cigar and conceded that Karsh might take a photograph. Karsh described his efforts to convince the surly prime minister to take up position in front of lights as his ‘greatest diplomatic triumph’. He tried to make Churchill discard his cigar but the prime minister refused to dispose of it in the ashtray. Karsh watched Churchill puffing on his cigar from behind his camera, waiting patiently, before stepping toward him, and saying, ‘forgive me, sir’, took the cigar out his mouth. ‘By the time I got back to my camera,’ Karsh said, ‘he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me.’ Karsh took his photograph, capturing Churchill’s penetrating stare. Impressed by the young photographer’s audacity, Churchill let Karsh take another photograph, for which he smiled this time, saying ‘you can even make a roaring lion stand still to photograph him’. The photograph is filed in Karsh archives under ‘The Roaring Lion’.

The photograph draws on the principles of Old Master painting in its pyramidal composition, dramatic contrasts and luminous highlights. Karsh later claimed that he knew immediately that it ‘was an important picture, the first really important picture that [he] made’. Newspapers and magazines worldwide published the photograph, establishing Karsh’s international reputation and making him a household name. Writing in February 1942, Madge Macbeth said that Karsh had ‘raised the art of photography... to the art of painting’. By the time of his return to England, Churchill’s popularity had increased by about 10 per cent. The photograph was reproduced as a poster size broadsheet alongside excerpts of his speech and a cropped version of the smiling image was used on a poster to encourage the British public to invest in war bonds. Karsh had defined the image of the world’s most famous politician, but also made himself into the world’s most famous portrait photographer. Writing in the Calgary Herald in February 1942, a journalist noted that ‘unless we are greatly mistaken, it will be this portrait by Karsh that will go down through the centuries to give future generations their most accurate idea of the physical appearance of Winston Churchill at the moment when three quarters of the people of the world had their hopes largely based on him’.

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