Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh


It was one of the most famous portraits ever made. Some say it is the most reproduced image in history. It was on the cover of LIFE magazine when WWII ended. The photo was taken by one of the most famous portrait photographers, Yousef Karsh–known as Karsh of Ottawa–on 30 December, 1941, after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. [On the 60th anniversary of that famous speech, Canada honored Karsh and Churchill with a commemorative stamp featuring above photo.]

Karsh was hired by the Canadian government to do this portrait and knew he would have very little time to make the picture. He began by researching Churchill, taking notes on all of the prime minister’s habits, quirks, attitudes and tendencies. When he finally got Churchill seated in the chair, with lights blazing, Churchill snapped “You have two minutes. And that’s it, two minutes.” The truth was that Churchill was angry that he had not been told he was to be photographed; he lit a fresh cigar and puffed mischievously.

Karsh asked Churchill to remove the cigar in his mouth, but Churchill refused. Karsh walked up to Churchill supposedly to get a light level and casually pulled the signature cigar from the lips of Churchill and walked back toward his camera. As he walked he clicked his camera remote, capturing the ‘determined’ look on Churchill’s face, which was in fact a reflection of his indignantcy. Karsh recounted: “I stepped toward him and without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, Sir’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant I took the photograph. The silence was deafening. Then Mr Churchill, smiling benignly, said, ‘You may take another one.’ He walked toward me, shook my hand and said, ‘You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.'”

The next photo Karsh took, where Churchill was smiling, was less memorable:


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Churchill and Halifax


In this rare photo taken on 29 Mar 1938, visibly annoyed Sir Winston Churchill walks to Parliament with the Foreign Minister Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax, who at 6′ 5″ towers over Churchill. Two men were never friends–Churchill called Halifax ‘The Holy Fox’ for his political guile, while the latter called Churchill, ‘The Rogue Elephant’ for his unpredictability–but they respected each other intensely.

As Viceroy of India, Halifax’s deal with Gandhi ended the Civil Disobedience. His meeting with Hitler in 1937 was a milestone in appeasement, yet just days before Munich, Halifax repudiated the policy and demanded ‘the destruction of Nazism’. By May 1940, it was he, not Winston Churchill, who was the choice for Britain’s war leader. Church-going, fox-hunting Halifax was invited to form a government when Neville Chamberlain resigned on 10th May, hours before the German invasion of France. Although he was supported by the Tories and the Royal family, Lord Halifax turned down the post of Prime Minister because he believed Churchill was a better leader. He cited that he could not govern effectively as a member of the House of Lords. Halifax stayed on as Churchill’s foreign secretary.

As the Foreign Secretary Halifax was in favor of an armistice with Hitler’s Germany; Churchill on the other hand refused to consider an armistice. Two men clashed frequently, but Churchill needed Halifax as a moderating voice against his wild schemes. However, nine months later, when a new ambassador was needed in Washington, Halifax’s newspaper nemesis Lord Beaverbrook saw to it that Halifax be named the new ambassador. He was the last of the appeasers to leave the Cabinet, Chamberlain, Hoare and Simon having already departed.

Kaiser and Winston Churchill



Churchill’s interest in military affairs continued throughout his life. This 1909 photograph shows him attending German Army maneuvers with Kaiser Wilhelm. Churchill explained the Kaiser’s restlessness: “All he wished was to feel like Napoleon, and be like him without having had to fight his battles…If you are the summit of a volcano, the least you can do is to smoke. So he smoked, a pillar of cloud by day and the gleam of fire by night, to all who gazed from afar; and slowly and surely these perturbed observers gathered and joined themselves together for mutual protection.” Yet, Churchill observed with an eagle eye Germany’s ever increasing military preparations. Through their mutual friend, Sir Ernest Cassel, Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm II even exchanged naval laws and other important military details in the days leading to WWI. This is against the words of King Edward VII who noted that Churchill should not be “too communicative and frank with his nephew”, the Kaiser.

The desk on which the Kaiser signed the declaration of war was made out of wood from HMS Victory and is carved in the form of Nelson’s ship Victory. Along the back of the desk are flags forming Nelson’s signal: “England expects this day that every man will do his duty.” In 1930, Churchill would pay the Kaiser a compliment which was also a somber comment on the 20th Century: “Time has brought him a surprising and paradoxical revenge upon his conquerors…The greater part of Europe…would regard the Hohenzollern restoration…as a comparatively hopeful event…This is not because his own personal light burns the brighter…but because of the increasing darkness around. The victorious democracies in driving out hereditary sovereigns supposed they were moving on the path of progress. They have in fact gone further and fared worse.”

[See Churchill’s appraisal of Kaiser Wilhelm in his Great Contemporaries.]


Churchill and his portrait

Winston Chruchill

“A remarkable example of modern art” growled Churchill in the Westminster Hall when the grateful parliament presented him with a portrait for his 80th birthday in 1954, soliciting laughter from his audience, “It certainly combines force and candor,” the aging prime minister added.

Privately, he hated it. A painter himself, Churchill did not like the portrait by Graham Sutherland. Although not a vain man — he had just refused the elevation to the peerage as The Duke of London — Churchill wanted to sit for the portrait in his garter robes. The painting also, “makes me look half‐witted, which I ain’t,” he remarked.

More importantly, it had depicted him as a tired done man; Churchill had his second stroke the previous year — the full extent of which he kept from the public and from Parliament, who were told that the prime minister was suffering from exhaustion — and saw this ailment reflected by Sutherland’s brush.

The parliament greatly feared his death, and by 1954, already plans were quietly underway for a state funeral; the painting was meant to be a memorial in that way too — to hang in perpetuity in Westminster Abbey after the Prime Minister’s death. In sulk, Churchill instead took it to his country estate in Chartwell, where it promptly went into the cellars, later to be destroyed by his wife Clementine.

Churchill as an Painter


Sir Winston Churchill had never visited an art gallery before the age of 40, according to his wife. However, at the age of 40–not coincidentally, a low point in his career after having lost the position as the First Lord of the Admiralty–he suddenly found painting as a passion. It would become an important and lasting passion for him, and would played a prominent role in the last 40 years of his life. For a late starter, he was an acceptable painter–he learnt his art from his sister-in-law, Goonie Churchill.

He was an prolific painter–although no so much during the war years–but he refused to sign many paintings because he wasn’t satisfied with them. [Photo by Frank Scherschel for TIME/LIFE]