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By the side of "The Roaring Lion" : Yousuf Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill and British/Canadian wartime relations Lesser, Rebecca

Abstract

Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was published in newspapers, magazines and books throughout the Second World War; commonly referred to as “The Roaring Lion”, it served as a symbol of the strength of the Allied forces. To this day the image is reproduced in monographs, exhibition catalogues and biographies celebrating the lives of Winston Churchill and Yousuf Karsh. In this paper I move beyond the emphasis on the sitter and the photographer in order to argue that this photographic portrait served as the visual rhetoric of British/Canadian wartime relations. My assertion, that in its reception this portrait both reflected and shaped Canada’s wartime role in the British Commonwealth, stems from consideration of an often overlooked detail in the photograph – a speech to the Canadian Parliament in Churchill’s coat pocket. My study of the Churchill portrait is framed by Roland Barthes’ reflections on the photographic pose and Max Kozloff’s arguments concerning the theatricality of formal portraiture. I begin by tracing how the story of “The Roaring Lion” has evolved since its inception, establishing that previous studies have only touched upon the significance of this portrait from the perspective of a Canadian wartime audience. I suggest that this photograph of Churchill served a purpose in appealing to both political and public desires, fulfilling the need for an image of a strong leader at this particular point in the Allied and specifically Canadian war effort. Further exploration of the broader historical context demonstrates how the nature of Canada’s wartime role may be characterized as a struggle to exercise newfound sovereignty while remaining loyally at the side of the British. Finally, I examine why Karsh’s traditional style of formal portraiture appealed to the Canadian government as a form of unobtrusive war propaganda. I compare several of Karsh’s portrait studies of Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King to that of the Churchill portrait, in order to further support my assertion that this image of the British leader contributed to the rhetoric surrounding Canada’s wartime role – by the side of “The Roaring Lion”.

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