London: Photographic News Agencies Ltd., 26 July 1943. Photograph. This original wartime press photograph of Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill captures him feeding “his” lion, Rota, at the London Zoo on 26 July 1943. The gelatin silver print on matte photo paper measures 6 x 8.125 in (15.3 x 20.6 cm). Condition is very good. The paper is crisp, clean, and free of scuffing with some edge wear and slight warping to the paper at the right edge. The verso bears the copyright stamp of “Photographic News Agencies Ltd.” and an original typed caption reading “MR. AND MRS. CHURCHILL TODAY PAID A SURPRISE VISIT TO THE LONDON ZOO, REGENTS PARK, AND RECEIVED A GREAT WELCOME FROM VISITING HOLIDAY AT HOME CROWDS.”
The symbolism is manifest. The lion has been ubiquitous in British heraldry for the better part of a thousand years. The association with Churchill’s rumbling oratory and implacably steadfast wartime leadership was perhaps inevitable. The iconic photographic portrait of Churchill taken on 30 December 1941 by Yousef Karsh – among the most famous photographic images of the twentieth century - came to be known as “The Roaring Lion”. Years later, in remarks on his 80th birthday in 1954, Churchill would remark on his legacy: “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Rota, captured in this image being fed by the Prime Minister, was not just a metaphor, but an actual lion. Winston Churchill’s lion to be exact. Churchill, “ever capable of traversing seamlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous and back” (Roberts, 783), was the recipient of innumerable honors, awards, and gifts over the course of his long and significant career; singular among these gifts was the lion, Rota. George Thomson, the evidently eccentric managing director of Rotaprint, was the original owner of the lion named Rotaprince (later shortened to Rota). Thomson made the young lion his firm’s mascot and kept him in the garden of his home in suburban Pinner. The start of the war meant the rationing of meat, and Thomson donated the lion to the better equipped London Zoo.
In celebration of victories in North Africa the Zoo gifted Rota to the lionhearted Prime Minister in February 1943. Churchill was delighted with his new pet. He wrote “I shall have much pleasure in becoming the possessor of the lion, on the condition that I do not have to feed it or take care of it, and that the Zoo makes sure that it does not get loose… I do not want the lion at the moment either at Downing Street or at Chequers, owing to the Ministerial calm which prevails there. But the Zoo is not far away, and situations may arise in which I shall have great need of it.” (Gilbert, Documents Vol. XVIII, p. 433-4) In the fourth volume of his WWII memoirs Churchill wrote of one possible use for the lion. To one assistant secretary he showed a picture of a roaring Rota and remarked, “’If there are any shortcomings in your work I shall send you to him. Meat is very short now.’ He took a serious view of this remark. He reported to the office that I was in a delirium.” (WSC, WWII Vol. IV, p. 651-652) Rota died in 1955 after siring 60 cubs. Today Rota is preserved in a perpetual roar, stuffed and on display at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.
This press photo originated from Photographic News Agencies, Ltd.. During the first half of the twentieth century, photojournalism grew as a practice, fundamentally changing the way the public interacted with current events. Newspapers assembled expansive archives, with physical copies of all photographs published or deemed useful for potential future use, their versos typically marked with ink stamps and notes providing provenance and captions. Photo departments would often take brush, paint, pencil, and marker to the surface of photographs themselves to edit them before publication. Today these photographs exist as repositories of historical memory, technological artifacts, and often striking pieces of vernacular art. Item #005233