english  česky 

Advanced search
Photo: MFA CZ, Ambassador Marie Chatardová and Brig. Gen. Vratislav Beran with the painting

A story of two friends and a mysterious painting

In June 2021, the Embassy received a letter from Mr Anthony Shorter, living in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, with a very unusual request. Anthony had decided to donate a historical painting to us, to which he holds a very strong emotional bond. Besides Europe, Anthony’s work took him to North America and Australia and the painting always traveled with him, literary around the whole world. Given his respectable age, he felt the Embassy was the best place to help him share the painting and its story with the right audience.

Anthony received the painting as a gift from his now deceased mother Mrs Joan Antoinette Valerie Simon, who herself received it during WWII from her friend, and potentially secret love, Czechoslovak pilot „Josef“. Supposedly, his mother worked as a nurse during the war and met Josef while taking care of him in a hospital. Their bond was so strong that they remained in contact even after the War, when she was already married to Anthony‘s father. Anthony asked us to find the best use for the painting and help him discover more information about Josef and the painting itself.  

This was not much information to begin with, but a close examination of the painting helped us discover two important indicators. On the front part of the painting, we found a date and a signature of its author – V. Kučera,  24. X. 39. The backside was hiding a personal message: “To máš ode mě od Ježíška, Josefe. Vláďa Kučera” - “This is my Christmas gift for you Josef, Vláďa Kučera”. With the help of historian Dr. Jiří Rajlich from the Military History Institute in Prague and Czechoslovak RAF pilots expert Tom Doležal from the Free Czechoslovak Air Force association, we conducted intensive research for several weeks and in the end, we were able to combine all the small pieces to put together a comprehensive story of the two friends and the mysterious painting.

The author of the painting proved to be Vladimír Kučera, born on 7th May 1911 in Malá Čermná, in the former Austrian Hungarian Empire, today’s Czech Republic. Vladimír left Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation in 1939 and joined the French Armée de l'Air (Air Force) to serve at the military airfield in Tours.

Josef’s full name was Josef Richter and he was born just 9 days after Vladimír, on 16th May 1911 in then Austro-Hungarian, today a Czech town of Žižice. Similar to Vladimír, he left Czechoslovakia and made it to France via Poland. He joined the air force unit in Tours on 10th October 1939, 14 days before Vladimír finished his beautiful painting of a woman with a hypnotic look, hiding her face in a shadow.

The two young Czechoslovak airmen supposedly became close friends, as at Christmas 1939, Vladimir decided to give his painting to Josef as a gift.

Sadly though, Christmas 1939 was also to be Vladimír’s last. He was transferred to undergo a training to become war pilot at École de Pilotage in Étampes, about 35 km South from Paris, where on 14th May 1940, just seven days after his 29th birthday, he met his end. Returning from a training flight and preparing to land, his parasol wing Morane-Saulnier MS.230 monoplane lost speed and at 11:30, Vladimír’s aircraft crashed to the ground. His colleagues extricated him from the debris almost immediately, but he did not manage to survive the journey to the hospital and passed away in the arms of his comrade, Jiří Hartman. He was buried at the Notre Dame Cimentiere in Étampes on 16th May 1940 at 0:30am.

Vladimír thus did not live through the French capitulation to Nazi Germany, which came just 25 days later on 22nd June 1940. Josef managed to escape France on 19th June via Boredeaux aboard the Ary Schaeffer, most likely carrying the painting in his suitcase, and arrived to the shores of England in Falmouth on 23rd June. He joined the RAF on 2nd August 1940 in Honington.

From 1940 to 1941, Josef served as navigator on Wellington planes with the 311. Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron, moving to administrative functions with the 313. Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron in 1941-1942 and shortly working as a radar operator at Boston Havoc planes at the British 605 Night Fighter Squadron in 1942. Later in years 1944-1945, he served as flight dispatcher at various airfields with different Czechoslovak squadrons.

During one of the night flights from 16th to 17th October 1940, he successfully parachuted himself from Wellington N2773 (KX-K) aircraft near to Nottingham, when returning from a mission over Germany, due to damage caused by bad weather and insufficient fuel reserve.

Injuries suffered during his RAF service probably brought him to a hospital in Chigwell, Essex, where Anthony’s mother Joan supposedly worked as a nurse and took care of him as of one of her patients. It was most likely when their relationship started and maybe out of love or gratitude, Josef gave her the painting he got from his friend Vladimír in France, and which was following him on his journey ever since.

Josef managed to live through the war and returned back to free Czechoslovakia in 1945. Still, he managed to visit Anthony’s mother in England in 1946, where this iconic photograph of all three of them was taken. After the communist putsch in February 1948, he escaped Czechoslovakia into the American Zone of Germany on 10 April 1948,  where he ended up at a Displaced Person Camp. His choice of countries to emigrate to were Africa, England, South America, USA and Canada. Nevertheless, he returned to the United Kingdom where he re-joined the RAF and on 17th May 1953 was naturalised British. 

Around 1957, he left to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where he became a wealthy tobacco farmer and regularly visited the UK, the last known time was 1985. Back in Rhodesia, he subsequently had a stroke which caused his remaining life to be spent in a Care Home and he died there on 6th December 1989, just few week after the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.      

The remnants of Vladimír Kučera can be now found at the Czechoslovak military cemetery in La Target, France, where they were transferred more than 20 years after his death.

The painting was officially introduced to the public by Ambassador Marie Chatardová during Remembrance Day reception on 15th November 2021 and can be viewed during social events organized at the building of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in London.

Disclaimer: This story is a hypothesis currently based upon historical documents and might not 100% correspond with reality.


A story of two friends and a mysterious painting