Papers of Franta Belsky

Scope and Content

This collection of archive material contains photographs, negatives, correspondence, postcards, sculpture contracts, drawings, portfolios, source material, architectural plans, and newspaper cuttings relating to Franta Belsky's work in sculpture throughout his career, including a great deal of visual and written material on his major commissions of Sir Winston Churchill, Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham and The Earl Mountbatten of Burma. The files relating to Churchill include transcripts for "Making a statue: The sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill for the Churchill Memorial and Library at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri in the United States", by George Whittet and Franta Belsky [2001.94/D/1/11]. His portrait work is documented in many photographs and also relate to his portraits of four generations of the Royal family, notable figures in the arts, individuals in business and children.Belsky's early work is represented by memorials, for example to the Czechoslovakian army who were present in Britain, Cholmondeley, Cheshire, 1940, and a memorial to Czech paratroopers in Prague, 1947, his carvings from 1943 onwards and also his Royal College of Art Diploma show in 1950. Photographs document Belsky's first public commission for the Dome of Discovery in the "Festival of Britain" in 1951 [2001.94/C/4]. His public sculptures and fountains, such as 'Lesson', 1955-56 and 'Shell Fountain', 1961-1962, are documented with preparatory drawings, photographs of Belsky's involvement in construction and publicity photographs. There are many photographs of Belsky working in his studios in London and Oxfordshire. The process of sculpture making is well documented in the photographs, which show works in progress during production in the studio and foundry, and their installation and exhibition. For example the unusual construction of 'Triga', 1958, from building materials is well documented in photographs of Belsky at work in Knightsbridge, London [2001.94/F/3].His drawings include preparatory sketches for sculpture ideas, and many drawings of plants. Belsky's collection of source material is in the form of photographs and published images relating to fountains and public sculpture, and many photographs for use as life studies.Correspondence relating to Belsky's work includes papers relating to the setting up of Franta Belsky Limited in order to financially manage work abroad, contracts for sculpture commissions, 1964-1990 [2001.94/I/2], and letters between Belsky and foundries such as the Meridian Bronze Company, 1978-1988.Written material by Belsky includes a draft transcript and photographs for an unpublished monograph, which includes biographical details and commentaries on many of his sculptures [2001.94/J/3].Belsky's involvement in arts societies is represented in correspondence, minutes, reports and exhibition catalogues from the Royal Society of British Sculptors, 1951-1994, as Belsky was a long-standing founder member. There are further papers relating to the Oxford Art Society due to exhibitions Belsky was involved in organising.His personal papers include a photograph of Belsky as a boy in 1929, cartoons by his wife Margaret Belsky and letters between them during Belsky's trip to America in 1971. There are also papers related to Belsky's residential properties in London and Oxfordshire, and a property in Tuscany, Italy.

The collection arrangement of this archive reflects some of the basics of Franta Belsky's own filing system, for example, he created files for portraits in terms of male, female and children and created a series of files relating to the Churchill and Mountbatten commissions and many of the fountain sculptures. However, there were also many miscellaneous photographs which have been placed within the most appropriate sections. All sections of the collection, and files within sections, are arranged in chronological order. Sections have been created for groups of files where no original order was evident, and these contain memorials, public sculpture and commemorative statues other than Mountbatten and Churchill. The section relating to carvings, Belsky's Diploma show and work in the "Festival of Britain" has been created to group a series of files together which seem to demonstrate much of his early work. Files containing drawings and source material were created by grouping Belsky's original files together, however the material was difficult to date. Belsky kept some correspondence files separate from specific commission files although the correspondence relates to his work, for example, a file of sculpture contracts were kept separate from the commission files. The collection arrangement is in keeping with this. There are several files which consist of written material on Belsky, and include draft and published articles and preparatory material for an unpublished monograph. The section that relates to societies consists of files of correspondence, minutes and reports, which are grouped in the way that Belsky had files them. His personal papers relate to his first wife Margaret Belsky, and properties in England and Italy.

The collection consists of:

  • Section A: Portraits, [1939-1990]
  • Section B: Memorials, [1940-1993]
  • Section C: Carvings and Belsky's early exhibitions, [1943-1983]
  • Section D: Commemorative statues, [1940-1993]
  • Section E: Fountains, [1949-1991]
  • Section F: Public and architectural sculpture, [1951-1993]
  • Section G: Sketches and drawings, n.d. [1940s-1990s]
  • Section H: Source material and photographs, [1940s-1970s]
  • Section I: Correspondence and contracts relating to commissions, 1957-1990
  • Section J: Material on Franta Belsky, 1930-1992
  • Section K: Societies, 1951-1994
  • Section L: Personal papers, 1929-1992

Administrative / Biographical History

Born, Frantisek Ernest Belsky (6 April 1921), in Brno, former Czechoslovakia, son of Joseph Belsky (d.1963) an economist and Martha Grunbaum (d.1973). He grew up in Prague and became known as Franta Belsky. At sixteen years of age he won first prize in a student sculpture exhibition, and at seventeen years of age commenced part-time studies at a commercial art school. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 the Belsky family fled to England, where he studied sculpture and pottery at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. Belsky volunteered for the Czechoslovak Army in 1939 and was sent to France in the spring of 1940. He met Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) during inspections of Czech soldiers in Warwickshire on their repatriation to England. Czech troops camped at Cholmondeley Park, Cheshire, where Belsky carved a stone monument to mark their presence in Britain [2001.94/B/1]. The unveiling took place on 28 December 1940 by the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk (1886-1948). During this time he also carved a crucifix for the chapel at Cholmondeley. Successive commanders stated in his army records that he was, 'More an artist than a soldier' [2001.94/J/3/1(1)]. Before the war, Belsky had won a place at the Royal College of Art, and in 1941 a scheme to return soldiers to essential studies allowed him to attend art college for two terms. The RCA was then evacuated to Ambleside, Cumbria, where he was taught by Richard Garbe (1876-1957) and where he met his future wife Margaret Constance Owen (1919-1989), a fellow student.

During the Second World War Belsky served as a gunner in the Artillery, and took part in the Normandy landings. He carved 'Weasel' [2001.94/C/1(1)] while on night duty and sent it to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, as his first exhibit in 1943. On 20 June 1944 he married Margaret in Newport, Monmouthshire, just before going to Normandy. She became the successful cartoonist 'Belsky' [2001.94/L/2/1(3)]. During the war Belsky sent his wife sketches, which she added to and had published along with her own cartoons in "Lilliput" magazine in December 1944. Belsky received a number of Czech decorations for bravery including an Order of Merit and was mentioned twice in dispatches, one for continuing to repair a telephone line while under heavy fire. Belsky served under Field Marshal Montgomery (1887-1976), and General Patton (1885-1945) whilst in France with the Czechoslovak Army.

Belsky demobbed in Czechoslovakia, and began studies at the Prague Academy of Fine Art for a three-year course in History of Art, History of Style, Anatomy and Geometry. He also studied under the sculptor Otakar Spaniel (1881-1955), a specialist in portrait sculpture and medals. On his return to Prague, he found that twenty-two of his Jewish relations on his father's side had been killed by the Nazi's. Belsky and his wife earned a living as freelance graphic artists for newspapers and publishing houses. Belsky also produced the 'Paratroop Memorial' in Prague, 1948 [2001.94/B/2] and designed a medal in honour of the Czech Olympic athlete Emil Zatopek (1922-2000) before having to leave Czechoslovakia again following the Communist takover in 1948.

On his return to London in 1948 he continued at the RCA, achieving an Honours Diploma in 1950 [2001.94/C/3], and studied under Frank Dobson (1887-1963) and John Skeaping (1901-1980). Belsky concentrated on the study of fountains for his thesis. He exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and his first public commission was for the "Festival of Britain" in 1951, followed by a string of commissions of considerable diversity throughout his career. In 1955 he was awarded the Bronze medal for sculpture at the Paris Salon, and the following year he won the Silver. He worked prolifically in abstract and figurative forms with a commitment to making sculpture for specific environments to enhance the lives of ordinary people. In a presentation portfolio, Belsky states; 'My reasons for submitting work are that since student days I looked for chances to make sculpture in a social context, for real, living environments. That is why I never worked with galleries and dealers nor ever wanted a one-man exhibition. I manage to get my work from direct commissions or by participating in limited competitions. I find nothing more enjoyable - and testing - than designing for a specific site and letting the locality, its use and the life in it, condition my sculptural decisions', 1990 [2001.94/F/2/6(6)]. He produced fifteen public sculptures in London and modelled four generations of the Royal family.

Belsky also taught part-time in art schools in Gravesend, Maidstone and Colchester, 1950-1955. He was a founder member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1953, a council member between 1958-1992, and twice President of the Society of Portrait Sculptors, 1963-1968, 1994-1999. He was also a governor at Saint Martin's School of Art, 1967-1988, until he resigned in protest at the reorganisation of London art colleges. He began to establish an international reputation with his statue of Cecil Rhodes for Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), but it was 'Lesson', 1956-1957 [2001.94/F/2], and then 'Joy-Ride', 1958 [2001.94/F/1/4], that brought him to the fore in England. Belsky exhibited in the "Holland Park Exhibition" 1957, and "Internationale Bienale", Middelheim, Antwerp, 1959. In 1978 he received the Jean Masson Davidson Award for Distinction in Portrait Sculpture, and was included in "British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century" at Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1981-1982.

In 1969 Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, United States of America, commissioned Belsky to create an eight-foot bronze statue of Churchill [2001.94/D/1/7] to mark the 25th anniversary of his 'Iron Curtain Speech', 5 March 1946. After the Velvet Revolution Belsky returned to Prague in 1989, when his army rank was promoted to Colonel along with other Czech soldiers, and he was asked to produce a statue of Churchill for the British Embassy in Prague. He also sculpted other portrait busts of Churchill, including one of the Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, 1969-1970, and the Churchill Hotel, Portman Square, London, 1970.

Belsky was an industrious sculptor and his work is in the National Portrait Gallery, numerous County Council collections, industrial shipping and private companies, education authorities and collections in America and Europe. His work also includes: 'Kore', 1949; 'Cock', 1950; 'Pegasus Seated', 1952; 'Constellation', Colchester, 1953; 'Girl', 1955; 'Tigra', Knightsbridge, London, 1958; 'Shell Fountain', South Bank, London, 1961; 'Astronomer Herschel Memorial', Slough, 1969; 'Totem', Manchester, 1975; 'Lovers', 1983; 'Leap', Jamestown Harbour, London, 1988. Portraits include: Cecil Day Lewis, 1952; Peter Ustinov, 1952; Ann Clegg, 1958; Madame Dimitrios Constantinides, 1961; Elizabeth, Queen Mother, 1962; Elizabeth II, 1981; Prince Andrew, 1963 and 1984; Prince Philip, 1979; Prince William, 1985; Harry S. Truman, 1975; Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Horse Guards Parade, London, 1983; Sally Korda, 1983; John Piper, 1987. Belsky was known for placing a Guinness bottle inside his sculptures containing the front page from a newspaper, a coin of that year and a note stating that he was the sculptor and who the sculpture was commissioned for [2001.94/J/3/1(5)]. His last major work was a memorial to Czech and Slovak airmen serving with the Royal Air Force who died during the Second World War. This memorial was commissioned for Prague and unveiled by President Vaclav Havel on 8 May 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Czech Republic's liberation.

Franta Belsky and his first wife, Margaret, lived in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, and previously at Pembroke Studios, Kensington, London. Margaret died in 1989 after having lung cancer, and in 1996 Belsky married the emigre sculptor Irena Sedlecka (b.1928), who he had known as a fellow student in Prague. Belsky had an interest in archaeology and was passionate for skiing. In 1999 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit by President Vaclav Havel. Franta Belsky died on 5 July 2000 aged seventy-nine, in Abingdon Hospital, Oxfordshire, after having prostate cancer.

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Archivist's Note

Archives Hub description created by Katie Gilliland

Related Material

'Lesson', 1955, in the Leeds Museums and Galleries sculpture collection.