Franta Belsky (1921-2000)
The Duke of Edinburgh was delighted with this portrait type and invited Belsky to a lunch at Buckingham Palace...
This commanding head-type of Prince Philip was executed after sittings taken from life by Czech sculptor Franta Belsky in 1979. The artist was commissioned by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, London and the finished sculpture was then cast in bronze in an edition of only five. The present work is number three from this edition and number one is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery [NPG 5268].
The commission was a huge success and the National Portrait Gallery subsequently decided to commission a companion head of the Queen from the artist. The Duke of Edinburgh was, too, delighted with the image, inviting its sculptor to a lunch at Buckingham Palace. An amateur artist himself, for the Duke to have prized this head so highly was no mean honour. The Duke had encountered Belsky before; in 1970, he unveiled Belsky’s head-and-shoulders bust of Admiral Cunningham in Trafalgar Square, the first commission executed by a foreign-born artist for Britain’s foremost civic space. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Duke welcomed the opportunity of sitting for Belsky so gladly.
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 includes the Mountbatten Memorial in Horse Guards’ Parade.
Sculpted in the year of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory and but two years before the marriage of his son, Prince Charles, to Diana, Princess of Wales, this portrait shows Prince Philip at a turning-point both in his own life and that of the twentieth-century Royal Family. As portrayed by Belsky, the Prince seems simultaneously to reflect, mid-career, on the achievements of his youth and on the changes that are heralded by the future with a mixture of sagacity and wit which are so characteristic.
A portrait that shows both the Prince’s effortlessly-authoritative visage but is also possessed of his famously mischievous sense of humour, this head captures Prince Philip’s multifaceted personality on an intimate level that is attested by the Prince’s signature alongside that of the artist.
 D. Nathan, “Franta Belsky: Obituary”, in The Guardian, 6 July 2000