London: Sport & General Press Agency, 11 August 1959. Photograph. There is a deliciously ironic, and even improbable, convergence of history and symbols in this original press photograph of Sir Winston S. Churchill being driven through Istanbul by Aristotle Onassis on 10 August 1959. This image measures 7.25 x 10 in (18.4 x 25.4 cm) on glossy photo paper. Condition is good. There is some wear along the edges, original crop markings, some cockling to the paper, creased corners, some soiling, and light scuffing visible under raking light. This image features original, hand-applied retouching to Churchill’s face and suit, and Churchill has been isolated with airbrushing.
The verso bears the copyright stamp of “Sport & General Press Agency”, a received stamp of The Daily Telegraph from 11 August 1959, a published stamp of the Sunday Telegraph from 21 May 1995, a typed caption, handwritten printing notations, and a clipping of the closely cropped photo and caption as it was printed in the newspaper. The original caption is titled: “SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL… ON THE ONASSIS YACHT “CHRISTINA” AS THE GUEST OF MR. ONASSIS, PHOTOGRAPHED DURING HIS VISIT TO ISTANBUL, TURKEY”. The caption further reads: “Sir Winston Churchill, wearing a naval cap gives his famous “V” sign to the people of Istanbul as he is driven through the town by Mr. Onassis.”
Churchill’s official biographer records that “On the evening of August 4, Christina sailed through the Dardanelles, past the Gallipoli peninsula, to the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul… after Churchill had gone to bed ‘because’, as Nonie Montague Browne later recalled, ‘they knew it would upset him’. (Gilbert, Vol. VIII, pp.1297-98) Churchill’s demeanor in this image indicates that his notional upset may have been less than anticipated.
Arguably few places in the world were less appropriate for Churchill to give his famous victory sign. During the First World War, in 1915, Churchill had been forced from his Cabinet post as First Lord of the Admiralty over Britain’s humiliating failure to force the Dardanelles and the subsequent slaughter at Gallipoli. So great was his fall that Churchill went from the Cabinet to the Front, serving as a lieutenant colonel leading a battalion in the trenches. By the war's end, Churchill was officially exonerated, but the stigma of the Dardanelles lingered for decades.
Years later, during the Second World War, Churchill repeatedly presumed that he would bring Turkey into the war on the side of the Allies – and failed to do so. Perhaps one factor among many was the fact that Churchill, as wartime Prime Minister, had aggressively – and ultimately disastrously – advocated British military support for Greece, Turkey’s bitter enemy. Perhaps another was the fact that Churchill would not even linguistically recognize “Istanbul”. In April 1945, then-Prime Minister Churchill had told the Foreign Office: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts… Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…” (Roberts, Walking with Destiny, p.872)
In this image, Churchill seems comfortably oblivious to all of this history. Perhaps not so the archetypally Greek Aristotle Onassis, who wears a serious expression and dark sunglasses, slightly hunched and intent over the steering wheel. Churchill first met Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975), then one of the world’s richest men, at a dinner party at La Pausa in January of 1956. One month later, Churchill would board the Christina for the first time and was met with “a swarm of photographers and newsmen [who] were there to get their pictures and file their stories, touching off the legend of a remarkable friendship”. (Ibid., 1180) Churchill would ultimately take eight substantial cruises aboard Christina. Churchill’s regard for Onassis was such that Onassis would become a member of Churchill’s beloved Other Club. Item #005405