Vilem Kreibich

Engine by Kreibich

When still in operation, Czech steam locomotives won international acclaim in the world of railways. Although their technical data and construction parametres are generally known, their real creators mostly remain anonymous. Our Czech in History this week is one of them, someone who not only designed locomotives but painted them in an outstanding manner as well. His name was Vilem Kreibich.

It was in the Skoda Works in the West Bohemian city of Plzen, where the unusual cooperation started between local locomotive designers and the academic painter Vilem Kreibich, who gradually participated in the construction of locomotives which were not only highly efficient, but also beautiful. Vilem Kreibich was born in 1884 in the small town of Zdice west of Prague, into a railway man's family - his father was an engine driver for the Czech Western Railways. And as we hear from Karel Zeithammer from the National Technical Museum in Prague, railways became Kreibich's life-long love:

"During his studies, Kreibich used to come back to his native Zdice very often, and he naturally went there by train. After he finished his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he started to make his living by painting portraits of mostly members of rich Prague families. But in his leisure time he devoted himself to his most beloved hobby - steam engines. During WWI he received his first big order from the Skoda Works in Plzen, the biggest producer of locomotives in the Czech Lands - namely to paint a whole view of the works and complement it with a series of pictures depicting individual production halls."

At this very moment, Kreibich's cooperation with the Skoda Works started, which lasted till the end of his life. A milestone in his career was the end of the 1920s, when he got acquainted with a young, ambitious construction engineer, Vlastimil Mares, who at that time was offered a job at the Railways Ministry in Prague. Before that, he was an employee of Czechoslovak State Railways' workshops in the Moravian city of Ostrava. A life-long friendship - and a very fruitful one - started between the two men. Its first tangible result was the creation of a new colour scheme of Czech fast-train locomotives operating between the wars.

"The new fast-train mountain engine, which was produced at the Skoda Works in 1934, was the first locomotive of the Czechoslovak State Railways which was green with red sides, decorated with brass stripes. This was something new, as by then, all engines had always been black. Bus since that time, all engines produced either in Skoda Works in Plzen or at the Kolben-Danek Works in Prague were painted in green and red. Engines, which were originally black, were re-painted in the new colours on the very first occasion when being overhauled."

The peak of Kreibich's creative activities came after WWII. At that time, Vlastimil Mares became the director of the Machinery Department at the Ministry of Railways, which meant that he was the person who decided about all orders of the Czechoslovak State Railways. After consultations with Mares, Kreibich created a new look of post-war fast-train engines:

"He created the new engine in a completely new way: he first painted the model, and thanks to Mares's influence, the construction engineers at the Skoda Works were assigned with the task of realizing Kreibich's design, strictly complying with all the parametres he gave. That was a completely reverse process than the one practiced before. It was then that the locomotive 498.0 came into being, which in addition to its new design was given a new colour scheme again: the green colour was replaced by a blue one, only the wheels remained red and along the whole length of the engine there was a stripe painted in a creamy-white."

The new engines also had white roof above the driver's cabin. This new engine in fact started to dictate the post-war architecture of fast-train engines, which was soon projected into locomotives of goods-trains as well. Unfortunately, with the beginning of the cold war in the early 1950s, there was no further development of steam engines for fast and passenger trains - all projects for locomotives of the 4th generation, to which Kreibich contributed significantly, were halted, and the green light was given to Kriegslokomotives, following the practice of Hitler's Germany.

Kreibich was an expert on the construction of engines - that's why his designs always reflected the function of the engine. Kreibich's designs were not just superstitious paintings, but precisely worked-out models respecting all the construction rules.

Czechoslovak locomotives at that time were highly respected in the world of railways, but as we hear from Mr. Zeithammer, Kreibich's contacts abroad were not rich:

"As far as we know, Kreibich did not have many contacts abroad, but Vlastimil Mares did. We know of Mares's contacts with French construction-engineer, Andre Chapellon, the famous creator of French fast-train engines. He also knew all construction engineers working for the German Reich Railways, a fact that found no appreciation at all in the post-war years. Mares maintained rich correspondence with them, and all their letters have been preserved."

This does not mean, however, that Kreibich did not travel abroad at all. Although he did not maintain international contacts he used to travel, and his travels are documented on his pictures. Known are for instance his pictures from the French Northern and State Railways, and there's quite a famous picture painted at a railway station in Vienna, called The Departure of Train for Trieste. Naturally, Kreibich always paid great attention to locomotives, wherever he was.

Recently, the National Technical Museum in Prague organized an exhibition of Kreibich's pictures of locomotives. Mr. Zeithammer, the curator of the exhibition, told me that following a few minor exhibitions of Kreibich's works before WWII, the exhibition at his museum was the only known one, presenting most of his pictures at one time. In the circles of art historians, the name of Vilem Kreibich is not widely known; an example of this - and a quite ironical one - is the fact that the National Gallery in Prague owns only one picture by him, under a wrong name of Vaclav Kreibich. According to Mr. Zeithammer, this is mostly due to the fact that people from art circles simply do not understand technique. At present, most of Kreibich's pictures are in private collections, especially his early portraits, but engines as well, some can be found in the National Technical Museum in Prague, and there are several pictures owned by the Skoda Works in Plzen. However, Kreibich's pictures are highly valued abroad, and it sometimes happens that people in the know buy Kreibich's works at Czech antiquity shops and sell them at high prices to foreign collectors.