Franta Belsky (1921-2000)
When this portrait type was commissioned by the trustees of the Gallery in 1979 it was exceptionally rare for the gallery to commission a portrait...
Of all the likenesses that have been made of the Queen, there are but fifteen portrait busts and none of these has the distinction of having been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, London, but one. Sculpted from life in 1981, this forceful head-type of the Queen was taken in the year of Prince Charles’s ill-fated marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, and, thus, shows her at a pivotal moment in her life and that of the twentieth-century Royal Family. The head-type produced during the life sittings in 1981 was subsequently cast in bronze in an edition of just nine. Number one from the edition is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery and the present work is number four.
When this head-type was commissioned by the trustees of the Gallery in 1979 it was exceptionally rare for the gallery to commission a portrait. Given the unrivalled importance of the institution in establishing the historical iconography of British sitters, the decision to choose Belsky to sculpt this most iconic of subjects is not one that would have been taken lightly. However, such was the quality of the likeness that Belsky had made of the sitter’s husband, Prince Philip, in the same year as the present commission that the gallery’s trustees unanimously decided to commission as head from the same artist showing the Queen and her husband at the same point in their lives.
Queen’s diary being what it is, artists wishing to depict Her Majesty have to be scheduled as many as several years in advance of the sittings. Letters from the Director of the National Portrait Gallery to the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Philip Moore, reiterating the importance of the commission, however, allowed Belsky to gain priority over his fellow artists. Writing to Moore before the sittings, which took place in November 1981, Belsky boasts of the speed of his working method and also stresses the comfort of sitting for the sculptor, who can produce and image of the sitter at greater ease than the painter. In a Times interview of 1981, Belsky underlines this, saying that he does ‘not need or expect people to sit stiff’ but can ‘see her moving, and from all angles, and gain some extra knowledge. A sculpture is a likeness from any angle and in any light’. He also speaks admiringly of the Queen’s ‘strong head, with tremendous natural dignity and poise, linked always with a deep humanity’, qualities that are strikingly apparent in the present head.
Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Franta Belsky, whose father was Jewish, fled with his family to England in 1939. Following the outbreak of war in the same year, he joined the Czech army and saw distinguished military service in France, winning a decoration for bravery. His monument to Sir Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, is based on a vividly-recollected encounter with the great wartime leader at an inspection of Belsky’s Czech battalion. Upon his return to England, Belsky became a major force in British sculpture, creating five likenesses, three of the Royal Family, that are now in the National Portrait Gallery and fifteen public commissions in London alone, which include his bust of Admiral Cunningham, the first commissioned work by a foreign-born artist in Trafalgar Square, and the Mountbatten Memorial in Horse Guards’ Parade.
An artist who depicted four generations of royalty, that this vividly conjured likeness is signed not only by Belsky but also by the Queen attests to the rapport between artist and sitter and represents a highly significant landmark in the Queen’s iconography.
 The Times, 4 December 1981
 D. Nathan, “Franta Belsky: Obituary”, in The Guardian, 6 July 2000