British Embassy remembers Jan Palach with 1969 UK painting

Nick Archer shows the work of Joe Tilson ‘Jan Palach: Suicide by Fire’, photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

It is not just Czechs who are currently remembering Jan Palach’s radical protest in January 1969 and the impact his sacrifice helped create. The British ambassador to the Czech Republic, Nick Archer, has had a painting by a UK artist – created right after Palach’s death – installed at his country’s historic embassy building in Prague. He explains the background to the acquisition.

Nick Archer shows the work of Joe Tilson ‘Jan Palach: Suicide by Fire’,  photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
“The British Government art collection has got hundreds, thousands of pictures all around the world. What I do before I go to a new embassy is go and see what they have got that is not already out in the Embassy. Very often you will find works that maybe did not appeal to your predecessor or maybe were forgotten. So we went through the catalogue together and we spotted a work called ‘Jan Palach: Suicide by Fire’. It turned out to be in a government office, I think in the Department of Transport Office in a midlands town. I think that was Derby. We agreed instantly that [the Embassy] was a better home for it.”

The painting does not just feature images relating to Jan Palach. What is its overarching theme?

“I am hesitant to speak on behalf of the artist. That is a very dangerous game. But what you see is in it is that very famous passport photograph of Palach clipped to a background, which is made up of two press images in that very typical pop art way that Tilton has chosen and then to some extent modified. So one image is of tanks and it is pretty clear that these are Soviet tanks in the streets of a Czechoslovak city, probably Prague I guess. The other image is of demonstrators, clearly African, with a line of some kind of security force and I guess those were borrowed at the same time from the coverage of some kind of African demonstration and I guess therefore that what we have here are two images of a struggle for freedom.”

What's your sense of how well Jan Palach is known in the UK?

“What is interesting is that when Joe Tilson made this image soon after Palach’s suicide, there was clearly a lot of coverage. My suspicion is that over all those intervening years people have retained the name in their heads, but I wonder if you asked people how many would be able to describe what it was he did and when. Because of course, if we think back to the protests late 1989, they were driven by a memory of Palach’s sacrifice and it is easy for people in Prague to keep the sequencing clear in their heads. I suspect that people in Britain may sometimes get confused and say: ‘Was he involved in the Velvet Revolution?’ So what I think is great about this anniversary, the 50th anniversary, is that it gives us a chance to maybe sharpen people’s memories.”