Josef Lada's paintings an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas

Josef Lada

For many readers around the world, Josef Lada's illustrations of the Good Soldier Svejk are inextricably linked to the famous character created by Jaroslav Hasek. But Josef Lada did far more than illustrate Hasek's novel, and his idealized paintings of carol singers and family gatherings are for many in this country an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas.

Josef Lada was born just outside Prague in 1887, in the tiny village of Hrusice. His father was a cobbler and the family were poor, and little Josef lost an eye when he fell out of his cradle and landed on one of his father's knives. But Lada seems to have had a happy childhood, and loved Christmas. Years later he recalled with relish the traditional foods his family prepared, and said he loved their small and modestly decorated Christmas trees more than wealthier boys whose trees reached the ceiling.

Josef Lada was sent to Prague to be an apprentice, but art was his passion, and he was paid the princely sum of 20 crowns when, at just 17, his first illustrations were published by a magazine called Maj.

Two years later he had his fateful first meeting with Jaroslav Hasek. Decades later, Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War" would be most people's first introduction to Lada's distinctive art, at least outside the Czech Republic.

In this country, however, many people associate Josef Lada with his wonderful Christmas paintings, many of which have been appearing on Czech Christmas cards for generations. Typical images include large families in simple but cosy rooms; the men smoke pipes, while rosy-faced children marvel at Nativity scenes.

Other typical Lada Christmas figures include carol singers, and children building snowmen or sledging. Invariably there is snow all around, and while it may be dark the village looks calm and pretty, and the wooden houses warm and welcoming.

Lada's Christmas paintings remained popular during the Communist era, but sometimes the authorities censored their Christian imagery. His grandson, also called Josef, says in the 1970s there were Lada calendars in which religious figures were removed and replaced by for instance a bowl of apples.

Now, however, all of his wonderful Christmas illustrations are exactly as he painted them. And the chances are that if you receive a Christmas card from the Czech Republic it may well feature one of Josef Lada's timeless images.