June 12, 2016

Finest Hour 172, Spring 2016

Page 39

Review by Paul Addison

Max Arthur, Churchill, The Life: An Authorised Pictorial Biography, Cassell Illustrated, 2015, 272 pages, £25.00. ISBN 978-1844038596

Churchill BiographyChurchill’s life was extraordinarily rich in visual imagery. He loved the camera and the camera loved him, as did cartoonists and portrait painters. His face exhibited a range of deep emotions that others preferred to conceal behind a stiff upper lip. His eccentricities of dress and theatrical gestures were the work of a great actor who could play Falstaff one day and Henry V the next. It is no wonder that his life has always lent itself to pictorial treatment, nor that so many photographs and portraits of him have achieved iconic status over the past fifty years. Most readers of Finest Hour will therefore probably be familiar with the majority of pictures in Max Arthur’s new compilation. He has, however, been at pains to vary the menu by including a number of hitherto unpublished pictures together with reproductions of original documents and a bonus item: specially commissioned shots of such Churchill memorabilia as his gramophone record of HMS Pinafore. He has also embedded the pictures, which are beautifully produced, in the text of a brief biography.
Head-KariArthur is best known as an oral historian collecting the “lost voices” of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the two world wars. He normally writes about history “from below,” with little reference to Whitehall and Westminster, and his comparative lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of politics does reveal itself from time to time. He confuses Churchill’s maiden speech with his subsequent attack on the government’s proposals for Army reform (56). Thomas Jones was not as he claims (160) a member of Baldwin’s Cabinet. There are virtually no political cartoons here, no photograph of the Churchill War Cabinet, no glimpse of the General Election of 1945. The admirals, generals, air marshals, and chiefs of staff are almost as elusive. As a chronicle of his military and political life Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Photographic Portrait (1973) is more satisfactory.

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Arthur puts more of an emphasis on Churchill’s life beyond Whitehall and Westminster. His family life and leisure activities feature strongly. The pictures of him with Clementine and the children convey a charming if exaggerated impression of a domesticated husband and father. His painting and bricklaying, holidays and travels, polo playing, and love of animals reveal a broad hinterland of humanity that makes him easier for most of us to relate to than the Olympian statesman. As we gaze at photos of him feeding a kangaroo at the London zoo or a deer in Richmond Park, it is easy to forget that this tender-hearted old gentleman was at about the same period contemplating a nuclear strike against Russia. Churchill’s darker moods were rarely captured on camera. Nevertheless this fine portrait gallery captures one of the essential truths about Churchill, the protean character (to quote John Dryden) of “a man so various that he seemed to be not one, but all mankind’s epitome.”

Paul Addison is emeritus Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of several books about Churchill, including Churchill on the Home Front (1995).

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