Auctions | March 3, 2014

At Bonhams: Superb Signed Photo of Churchill Visiting HMS <i>Victory</i>


A photograph depicting Sir Winston Churchill descending the gangplank of HMS Victory, during a January 1941 tour of the bomb-damaged Portsmouth docks, is offered in the Books, Manuscripts, and Photographs sale on March 19th in Bonhams Knightsbridge salerooms.

The vintage gelatin silver print, estimate £3,000-4,000, was signed by Churchill for Captain W.T. Horton, the official War Office photographer who had taken the shot.  It shows Churchill against the background of the looming ship, followed closely by Sir William Milbourne James, Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth, the pair watched by sailors standing at the railings and peering through the gun ports. The signature in blue ink of “Winston S. Churchill/1941” is in the bottom left-hand corner of the photo.

Churchill made his visit to Portsmouth and its dockyard on 31 January 1941, following the devastating air raid on the city on the night of 10/11 January. It was on this occasion that he proclaimed: “We shall come through. We cannot tell when. We cannot tell how. But we shall come through.”

Admiral Sir William Milbourne James, Churchill’s companion on the gangplank, was the grandson of celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. During the First World War, after commanding the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet, he served as deputy to Admiral Hall at ‘Room 40’. The headquarters of Naval Intelligence at the time, ‘Room 40’ was forerunner to the later Bletchley Park and Government Communications Headquarters. Among its intercepts were telegrams sent to Germany by Sir Roger Casement, hoping for German assistance in an uprising to gain Irish independence from Britain; for this plotting Casement was hanged in 1916.

Captain W.T. Horton, in whose family this photograph has remained, had worked as a staff photographer at the Times, before joining the War Department as an official photographer. Horton accompanied Churchill as his photographer on his travels through wartime Britain, as well as to the Atlantic Conference, where in August 1941 Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt drafted a joint declaration, prior to the U.S. officially entering the war the following December.

Professor Christopher M. Bell, author of Churchill and Sea Power (2012), has written of this image: “There are many photos to connect Churchill and the Royal Navy during the twentieth century, but it’s hard to imagine a single image that could more effectively link him to Britain’s long and glorious naval past.”

Image courtesy of Bonhams.