“Everything started with the Queen Mother”: How sculptor Bělský found unparalleled success in UK

Bohumil Vostal

František Bělský is largely unknown in his native country. However, the Czech, who was born in 1921, achieved great success in his adopted UK, becoming the only sculptor ever to create busts of four generations of the royal family. Bělský’s remarkable life and career are the subject of a new book by journalist Bohumil Vostal, who first reported on his legacy while serving as Czech Television’s London correspondent.

Bělský was from a Jewish family and went with his family to the UK in 1938. Is that correct?

“He was born into a middle class, rich family in Prague. His father was one of the directors at the Anglo-Czechoslovak Bank here in Prague, so they were quite rich.

“And it was immediately after the German invasion when the chief of Prague police told Franta Bělský’s father, You have to go away immediately – the Gestapo is going after you.

“The rest of his family which stayed in Czechoslovakia died during the Holocaust.”

“So they had, I believe, one or two days to escape. It was very dramatic.

“And because his father was this prominent economist, a very well-connected man in Prague high society, he managed to get visas at the British Embassy and he was saved, he saved his life.

“So they arrived in London and they were really lucky, because the rest of his family which stayed in Czechoslovakia – more than 20 people – died during the Holocaust; they were murdered by the Nazis.

František Bělský  (in the middle) with his parents | Photo: ČT24

“And Franta Bělský, together with his two half-brothers and his father, they decided that they were going to fight for Czechoslovakia, and for France. They were ready to die.

“They asked the Czechoslovak Embassy in London if they could be transferred to France.

“They said the father was too old but that the three sons could go.

“So they were transported to France, but he couldn’t fight, because the fall of France came before they could even get to the front lines.

“Then they were saved by ships which were sent for the rest of the Czech Army by Winston Churchill.

“It was a very dramatic escape and he arrived in Liverpool with the rest of the Czech Army. And he arrived at the first camp of the Czech Army, in Cholmondeley Park.

“So this is where career as an artist-soldier, artist-student also started.”

After the war he and his wife Margaret briefly came here to Prague?

“Margaret Bělský – and this is how she’s remembered now in Britain – was the only female among cartoonists in the 1950s and 1960s who had her herself, as a woman, the front page of a daily newspaper with mass circulation [The Daily Herald, under the name Belsky].

“So that was something.

“Margaret joined him after the Second World War in Prague, so they spent almost three years in Prague.”

“She met Franta as a student at the Royal Academy of Art, when they were studying during the war years – Franta had really one or two years to study sculpture.

“He met Margaret and it was love at first sight.

“In the end he managed to get to the frontlines and after D-Day he was part of the Czech Army, under British and American command.

“So she joined him after the Second World War in Prague, so they spent almost three years in Prague.

“But they had to escape, in 1948, after the coup d’état, the Communist takeover.

Margaret Bělský | Photo: ČT24

“They understood, and I think it was another very, very hard moment for Franta Bělský… After he realised that almost the whole of his family was murdered by the Nazis he was not allowed to work as an artist in Prague, where the Communists had come to power.

“The book which he and Margaret wanted to publish [Svět za kanálem, The World Beyond the Channel] was censored, they couldn’t publish it.

Bohumil Vostal with the unpublished book The World Beyond the Channel | Photo: ČT24

“Even if it was full of cartoons and jokes, it was forbidden.

“The authorities told them they either had to put propaganda against England in it or forget it – We will end up in court and we’ll see who wins.

“This is the moment when they realised, OK, we want to live in freedom, we are freedom-loving artists, so they moved again to England.

“They had to return.”

In your book you refer to many very well-known people in England who the Bělskýs knew, including for instance Peter Ustinov, the actor, and Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate. Also of course he won the respect of the British royal family. How did this Czech immigrant enter high society in London?

He Portraited the Queen of England | Photo: Argo

“He managed to finish the prestigious art school the Royal College of Art in London, so he was among professional sculptors.

“His wife was a very successful cartoonist. And they moved to Pembroke Studios, which is in Kensington, and they met there the stars of the 1950s.

“And one of those stars was Ronald Searle. He was, I would say, the most prominent cartoonist, illustrator, visual artist, who influenced many current cartoonists in Britain.

“He became a very good friend of Franta’s.

“He was promoting his work, he introduced Franta into high society.

“The same applied to Margaret. She was a British female cartoonist, so there was a lot of attention towards her among journalists; she was even interviewed by BBC television, and so on.

“They were a very handsome, good-looking couple, charismatic, young and with a dramatic story.”

“She was able to speak in a fluent British accent.

“Also both of them, Franta and Margaret, were a very handsome, good-looking couple, charismatic, young and with a dramatic story.

Margaret and František Bělský | Photo: ČT24

“What happened then was that Cecil Day-Lewis came to Pembroke Studios, a professor of poetry and also one of the stars of poetry from the 1930s.

“He came there with his new lover, a famous actress, and Franta offered to all of them that he would portrait them – he would be delighted if he could model their heads.

“So he was able to exhibit them.

“This is how he became kind of a young, aspiring sculptor, because he met all these famous names – this is how career started.”

The book is entitled He Portraited the Queen of England and he also of course did busts of other generations of the royal family. But I’d like to ask you, what were his interactions with Queen Elizabeth like?

“We must start with the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother. Everything started with her.

“She came to Pembroke Studios to also be portrayed, for a Birmingham hospital.

“They had a good relationship – her, Franta and Margaret. She came to his studios without a bodyguard, just with a driver.

František Bělský photo portraits of the Queen Mother | Photo: ČT24

“They were listening to songs and dancing together and she was even coming to his soirees and parties. And then she gave him a commission for a portrait of the young Prince Andrew.

“Then in 1969 Franta became the first foreign-born sculptor who was commissioned to have a work on London’s Trafalgar Square, which was something – it’s an almost iconic square for the British nation.

“He was commissioned to do a post-mortem bust of Admiral Cunningham, a naval hero of the Second World War, and it was unveiled by Prince Philip.

“And when Cecil Day-Lewis died Franta Bělský managed to get his bust of Cecil Day-Lewis into the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

“That is how it all happened. After that he was able to say, Now I am in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and I would like to offer you a bust of the Queen Mother.

“He approached the director of the National Portrait Gallery. He met Margaret and said, Actually, we would love to have a head of Prince Philip.

“That was also very dramatic – how he managed to be commissioned to prepare a portrait head of Prince Philip for the National Portrait Gallery.

“Prince Philip, I think, had a very nice relationship with Franta, because they had wonderful… we can say now wonderful, but these terrible experiences from the war – and it connected them.

František Bělský with the Queen Mother | Photo: ČT24

“And they had the same kind of cynical, sarcastic jokes.

“This is also how he managed to get to the Queen. That was also commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

“I can even quote from one of the note that Franta Bělský left.

“He says, ‘It was a very great pleasure, because we talked about just everything. The Queen was bubbling over with humour and friendliness’.

“This all happened immediately after the wedding of Princess Diana to Prince Charles, the current King Charles III.

“So you can imagine also from the point of view of Czech culture and the history of Czech portrait sculpture it’s an extraordinary moment, I think – and we didn’t know enough about it.”

There are works by Bělský in Prague. For example at the church on Resslova, the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, where he did a memorial just after the war [to the heroes of Operation Anthropoid]. Also there’s a monument to RAF aviators in Prague 6. And near the British Embassy there’s a bust he did of Churchill, which I guess was almost like coming full circle, because he had met Churchill during the war, with Beneš?

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

“That’s absolutely true. And what’s interesting about the story of the bust of Churchill in front of the British Embassy – and this is in my book – is that the daughter of Churchill was not very happy with the result, by contrast with his grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames; he was very pleased with the result.

“It was an iconic moment for Bělský, because he returned after the fall of communism to Prague and finally he could put Churchill’s head in the Old Town.

“And don’t forget, there is something bigger, which is that he did a larger than life statue of Winston Churchill for America's National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.

Memorial to the Battle of Britain pilots by František Bělský in Westminster Abbey | Photo: ČT24

“That is the very place where he first uttered the sentence about the ‘iron curtain’.

“As a Czech, I can say it’s not just a statue of Winston Churchill; it is a statue of Churchill in the pose that Bělský saw him in as a soldier.”

He’s kind of leaning forward?

A sketch of the Monument to RAF aviators in Prague 6 | Photo: ČT24

“Absolutely. But as a soldier of the Czech Western army in exile in England.

“So it’s from the perspective of a Czech soldier in England in the most important hours of Czech history, and also of British history, when a German invasion was imminent.

“So he always managed in a way to hide these symbols of Czech pride and values and, I would say, the ideals of the First Republic into his statues in the Western world.”

Monument to RAF aviators in Prague 6 | Photo: ČT24

You’ve done so much great work in this book, researching the life of Franta Bělský. How you like the reader to view him? What would you like them to take away from the book?

“He became the only sculptor ever who had a chance to model four generations of the royal family.”

“I feel like we owe it to him. We didn’t have a critical debate about his art legacy.

“Either people will love his statues or hate them – I don’t mind.

“I hope some of the readers will laugh, because they see a lot of cartoons [by Margaret] and jokes. Some may cry at the last chapter.

František Bělský in Prague in 1995 | Photo: ČT24

“Maybe some of them will feel a little bit guilty about what we did to him, that we ignored him for so many decades because of Communist censorship.

“Some of them maybe will be happy that finally we can all share this story of a very romantic young Czech Jewish boy who was always dreaming of becoming a sculptor.

“And then, what did he manage to do? He became the only sculptor ever who had a chance to model four generations of the royal family.

“So I think it’s something that we can celebrate.”