It was do or die back in December, 1941. World War II had been raging on for three years now since the Nazi invasion of Poland. Continental Europe had all but been swallowed whole by Fascism and Hitler’s blitzkrieg machine. The USSR was being destroyed on the Eastern Front, the Netherlands had fallen, Belgium had fallen, Denmark had fallen, and so did the Czech Republic, Norway, and France. And, Britain was all alone.
Winston Churchill had seen it coming. He had opposed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement long before the outbreak of the war. And now the British Army was being commanded by Churchill himself. He had led them through the Dunkirk evacuation by offering his blood, toil, sweat and tears, announcing Brits would defend their island whatever the cost may be. During the following months, the Luftwaffe had carried out attacks on cities, civilians, women, children, all. Yet, Britain still stood.
“Look at the Londoners”, he said addressing the Canadian House of Commons on December 30, 1941. “The Cockneys, look at what they have stood up to. Grim and gay with their cry ‘We can take it,’ and their war-time mood of ‘What is good enough for anybody is good enough for us.’ We have not asked that the rules of the game should be modified. We shall never descend to the German and Japanese level, but if anybody likes to play rough we can play rough too.”
Right there and then he would also recall the words of French Marshal Philippe Pétain, future leader of the collaborationist Vichy French, who convinced that Germany would successfully invade Britain, jawed at Churchill that in three weeks Britain would “have its neck wrung like a chicken.” Yet years later, Britain still stood. And Churchill would quip: “Some Chicken, some neck”.
An Armenian-Canadian photographer by the name of Yousuf Karsh, who had began to make a local reputation for himself, was present at the House of Commons at the request of Canadian Prime Minister McKenzie King. Karsh had found the speech “electrifying”.
He waited in the Speaker’s Chamber where, the evening before, he had set up his lights and camera.
King led Churchill into the room so Karsh switched on his floodlights; a surprised Churchill growled, ‘What’s this, what’s this?’ No one had the courage to explain. Karsh nervously approached Churchill and said, ‘Sir, I hope I will be fortunate enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.’
Churchill glanced at Karsh and demanded, ‘Why was I not told?’ He lit a fresh cigar. Karsh felt he puffed at it with a mischievous air. And then Churchill uttered, “You may take one.”
But Churchill’s cigar was too much in the frame and Karsh, fearing that smoking might be “out of role” in dark hour where victory had not yet been achieved and war was far from over, asked him to remove the cigar, but he would not hear of it.
“I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited.”
Without further attempt on his part or thought, totally spontaneous, Karsh then stepped toward him and said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and snatched 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 that I took the photograph.”
Photo by © Yousuf Karsh
Then Churchill said ever so eloquently “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
Afterwards, Churchill appeared to be relaxed and allowed Karsh to take a second one. This one, a more pleasant photo of Churchill smiling showed him as someone “affable”.
Photo by © Yousuf Karsh
But the first one –a picture for wartime– said indomitable. They don’t make portraits the way they used to, do they?
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