White House Churchill bust: the history behind the controversial sculpture that Biden removed

Boris Johnson suggested Barack Obama’s removal of statue was ‘snub to Britain’

Louise Hall
Thursday 21 January 2021 14:00 EST
<p>George W Bush received the bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the British Ambassador in 2001</p>

George W Bush received the bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the British Ambassador in 2001

As Joe Biden took up residence in his newly decorated Oval Office, observers were quick to point out that the new administration had once again removed a bust of Winston Churchill reinstated by Donald Trump.

The bust, loaned to the White House by the UK government in 2001, features a head and shoulders sculpture of Churchill.

Former President Barack Obama became the first president to remove the bust from the Oval Office upon his inauguration, which later prompted comments from then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2016.

In an article for The Sun, Mr Johnson, who was at the time also spearheading the Vote Leave campaign for the UK in the EU referendum, said that the move was a “snub to Britain.”

“Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” he wrote.

Mr Obama responded to the comments saying he had moved the head-and-shoulders statue to replace it with one of Martin Luther King and had instead put the Churchill bust outside the Treaty Room in his private quarters.

Mr Obama said it was “appropriate” that as the first African American president he would have a bust of Martin Luther King in his office in response to the dig from Mr Johnson.

The controversy came amid tensions with the Leave campaign over Mr Obama’s expression that he would have preferred the UK remained in the bloc and his statement that a unilateral free-trade deal between the two countries would not be a priority.

In 2017, when Donald Trump took over the White House, he reinstated the bust back to the Oval Office.

On Wednesday, Mr Biden once again removed the bust from the office in line with his Democratic predecessor’s choice to do so.

The Oval Office under Mr Biden now contains statues of civil rights heroes King, Robert Kennedy, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, as well as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mr Biden has also decorated the office with a large portrait of former President Franklin D Roosevelt and paintings of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington.

In a starkly different response to his 2016 reaction, Mr Johnson, now prime minister, has said that it is up to the new US president whether he wishes to keep a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the Oval Office.

“The Oval Office is the president’s private office and it is up to the president to decorate it as he wishes,” Mr Johnson said during a daily Westminster press briefing.

Both the US and the UK saw weeks of civil unrest following the death of George Flloyd in May 2020, prompting an outcry against racial injustice in both countries and a reexamination of cultural monuments. 

During the protests, a statue of Sir Winston Churchill erected in London’s Parliament Square became a frequent target of vandalism.

Some criticised the “mindless vandalism” of the statue, calling it “disgraceful”. Critics of the statue said that the memorial reflected a glorification of British colonialism.

The uproar prompted authorities across both countries to re-examine and in some cases to remove controversial monuments of figures with links to colonialism or the slave trade.

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