Vanity Fair's 1932 photograph of Winston S. Churchill, signed and dated by Churchill in December 1940 and with compelling wartime provenance
New York: Vanity Fair (original publication), 1932. Photograph. This is Edward Steichen’s portrait photograph of Winston S. Churchill, signed and dated by Churchill in December 1940.
We almost passed on acquiring this photograph. While we have confidence in the signature, it is a notable portrait, and the signature is early Second World War, condition is a little wanting. But this signed photo came with a story that more than excuses imperfection.
The gracious gentleman from whom we acquired this photograph informed us "It belonged to my great-grandfather who owned a free house. It hung over the bar and was an object of veneration to him and his customers throughout WWII." Intrigued, we asked for further detail and were told: "My great- grandfather owned a free house (a pub) in Hull, England down by the docks. It was called the Honest Lawyer and the window said "The only Honest Lawyer in England". Hull was badly bombed by the Germans and Churchill came to view the damage. He saw the pub (which was one of the few undamaged structures), was intrigued by the name and came in out of the rain. This was England after all. The place was filled with locals who were all avid Churchill supporters and who all swore to fight to the death against the Nazi. Churchill stayed in the pub for half an hour. Before he left he asked my great-grandfather what he could do for him. He asked for a photo to hang in the pub which you now have. Seven months later Hull was bombed again and the pub destroyed. The only thing saved was this photo."
The print, measuring 7.625 x 5.813 inches (19.37 x 14.77 cm) is mounted on contemporary heavy card measuring 9.375 x 6.4375 inches (23.81 x 16.35 cm). The card was long framed, evidenced by a thin border of differential toning corresponding to matting. Churchill signed the mount directly below the photograph in two lines: “Winston S. Churchill | December 1940”. The ink is mildly toned and slightly spread, consonant with the age and material. The photograph’s surface is a little scruffy, superficial stains and scuffs clearly visible under raking light. The appearance is that the surface was perhaps slightly exposed to moisture and then wiped inexpertly with a cloth, leaving the stains a little smeared and light abrasions. Additionally, there are two small dents to the left of Churchill’s head. The damage seems consonant with the story of the photo’s travails and rescue. The image is now housed in a removable, archival mylar sleeve within a rigid, crimson cloth folder
This image was originally published on page 24 of the April 1932 issue of Vanity Fair, beside a brief paragraph billing Churchill as “One of the most capable figures English politics has ever known” but also noting “Today, he holds no official position in England…” Photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973) captured this in New York in early 1932, during Churchill’s North American lecture tour, at the start of which he was struck by a car and nearly killed. Near corporeal death was followed by near political death. Steichen captured Churchill at the beginning of the decade he would spend out of power and out of favor, frequently at odds with both his own political party and prevailing public sentiment. How fitting, then, that Churchill signed this copy at his hour of terrible vindication – the first, fraught months of his wartime premiership.
Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield called photographer Edward Steichen “the greatest of living portrait photographers.” From 1923-1937, Steichen snapped some of his most iconic shots while working for the magazine. Steichen’s approach to photography had been informed by his First World War service in aerial photography. During the Second World War, Steichen would compile a photographic record of the U.S. in the Pacific.
In their 1932 presentation of this image, Vanity Fair also noted of Churchill “none of his gifts surpasses his own prodigious appetite for life.” That appetite is conveyed in this image – and manifest in the story that accompanies this particular signed copy. Item #006947