100 years since birth of royal sculptor František Bělský

Bust of Winston Churchill, Malá Strana, Prague, photo: Dudva, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tuesday marks 100 years since the birth of sculptor František Bělský who is known for creating the busts of Queen Elizabeth II and several other members of the British royal family. Before becoming a famous sculptor, Bělský served as a soldier in World War II and escaped both Communist and Nazi occupation.

Statue of Lord Louis Mountbatten,  Horse Guards Parade,  London,  photo: Prioryman,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Born on April 6, 1921 in Brno, Bělský escaped to Great Britain after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. He served in the Battle of France, was twice mentioned in the dispatches during the war and saw Winston Churchill at an inspection after the evacuation at Dunkirk. The experience left a deep impression on him, as he recalled years later to the BBC.

“One day Winston Churchill came. He reviewed the troops in an entirely different manner. He cut through the red tape. When we were lined up ceremonially, he ignored it completely. He started a little walk around the huge field on which we were lined up. He stopped in front of each soldier, looking deep in their eyes as if he were hypnotising them, studying their innards. He was hunched forward, leaning on his stick, sidestepping from soldier to soldier. He came to me and it seemed like ages that we spent in that moment, him looking at me and me looking at him. It was a very inspiring and thrilling experience. I thought one day, perhaps, I will make a statue of this man, who deserves to be recorded for posterity, as well as I can.”

Bust of Andrew Browne Cunningham,  Trafalgar Square,  London  (1967),  photo: Tagishsimon,  CC BY 2.5

After the war, Bělský returned to Czechoslovakia and studied sculpting. However, his studies were disrupted when Bělský escaped Czechoslovakia a second time after the Communist coup d’etat in 1948, but he soon found himself learning again, this time at the Royal College of Art in London. The artist’s first major commission came at the Festival of Britain in 1951. He would go on to win the bronze and silver medals for sculpture at the Salon d'Automne exhibits in 1955 and 1956 respectively.

Bělský would go on to produce the sculptures of other iconic figures of 20th century Britain, among them the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, the bust of Admiral Cuningham on Trafalgar Square and the bust of US president Harry Truman.

In 1968, František Bělský finally got the chance to create a bust of Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, where the great British statesman made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech warning of the Soviet Union.

Most famously, Bělský became the official sculptor of the royal family, creating the busts of Queen Elizabeth II, as well as of the princes Philip, William, Andrew and the queen mother.

Torsion,  Shelll Centre,  London  (1957),  photo: elyob,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite his stellar career in the United Kingdom,  Bělský returned to Prague in 1990. There he crafted two monumental works. Namely, another statue of Winston Churchill, which stands in front of the British Embassy, and the memorial to the Czechoslovaks who served with the Royal Air Force.

Bělský was awarded the Medal of Merit by Czech president Václav Havel in 1999. He died a year later at the age of 79. While he had returned twice to Czechoslovakia during his lifetime, his body lies buried in his adopted home of Great Britain.

Although he is known predominantly for sculpting historical figures, František Bělský also authored several abstract sculptures, such as the Torsion fountain at the Shell Centre in London.