The Story Behind the Photograph: A Portrait of Winston Churchill

This iconic portrait of Winston Churchill was taken after an impassioned speech the Prime Minister delivered at the Canadian House of Commons in 1941, as England stood alone against the onslaught of the Nazi regime. Yousuf Karsh, a young photographer at the time, recounted that just minutes after the speech ended Churchill came striding into the room holding out his hands, into which someone quickly placed brandy and a Cuban cigar. 

Yousuf Karsh, Winston Churchill, silver print, 1941, printed 1980s.

Knowing that the cigar would obstruct the picture being made, Karsh recalled: “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 photograph captures Churchill, known both for his gruff defiance and his deeply-felt emotions, on a precipice. Four years later the image would grace the cover of LIFE magazine in celebration of the end of World War II. The photograph went on to become, by some accounts, the most widely reproduced portrait in history. 

Sunday, January 24, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. He lay in state at Westminster, where 300,000 people filed past his Union Jack-draped coffin. His body was then paraded through the London streets and up the Thames, where construction cranes were bowed ceremoniously one by one as the barge passed.

Thanks to Swann’s Associate Director of Photographs & Photobooks, Deborah Rogal, for contributing this post. Swann’s Fine Photographs auction on February 19 features both the 1941 Karsh portrait of Churchill and an Alfred Eisenstaedt image of Churchill in Liverpool in 1951.