A record of Czech and Slovak individuals who made their home in Britain and left a legacy here plus those that made it possible for them to do so.
KAREL BRUŠÁK (born 2 July 1913 Prague, died 3 June 2004 London)
Karel Brušák studied at Charles University faculty of philosophy under Jan Mukarovsky who advised him to specialise in the theory of the theatre and introduced him to the Prague Linguistic Centre. As a young man he sympathised with communism and went to Spain during the civil war. In 1938 after the Munich Agreement Brušák took up a scholarship in France to study anthropology at the Sorbonne. He escaped to Britain in 1940 where he served in Air Raid Precaution building shelters and later helped during air raids. In 1942 Brušák became an editor and commentator in the BBC’s broadcast service for Czechoslovakia and also joined the press department of the Czechoslovak government in exile.
After the war Karel Brušák remained in Britain, became a British citizen and continued to work at the BBC. He became an external student at London University and obtained an MA in Czech and French. In 1962 Brušák was appointed associate lecturer teaching Czech and Slovak language and literature in the Slavonic department at Cambridge University where he remained until its closure in 1989.
Among his students was Greg Hands MP, who remembered his teacher in a debate about the BBC World Service in 2008. “The man who taught me Czech at Cambridge was the late Karel Brusak, who frequently broadcast on the Czech service. At various times, he dominated the Czech language service. He worked as a news commentator; he wrote original radio plays and adaptations, and a satirical review about communist Czechoslovakia; and he reviewed books, films, theatre and the latest achievements of science and technology. In every sense, he was a genuine all rounder. I lived in Prague for a summer during communist times, and the Czech service was invaluable in allowing me to keep up with the outside world. Indeed, it was a rather strange experience being able to listen to one’s own teacher on the radio almost every day.”
BCS Review interview with Zuzana Slobodova
DORRIT DEKK (born Dorothy Karoline Fuhrmann 18 May 1917 Brno, died 29 December London 2014)
Dorrit trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Vienna from 1936 to 1938 where she was taught by Otto Niedermoser, the stage designer, and contributed to designs for the theatre and for film director Max Reinhardt. Following the Anschluss in 1938 she escaped to London and took up a place at the Reimann School of commercial art (which had recently relocated itself from Berlin) through a scholarship arranged by Niedermoser and specialised in graphic design.
Following the closure of the Reimann School in 1940 she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) and became a radio intelligence officer listening to U-boat communications. As a Y-station ‘listener’ Dorrit intercepted coded messages sent to German naval forces; her hand-written transcripts were then sent to Bletchley Park for deciphering.
After the war, she joined the design studio of the Central Office of Information, working under Reginald Mount. Adopting the name Dorrit Dekk, she designed numerous government posters including the iconic Ministry of Health posters ‘trap the germs by using your handkerchief’.
In 1950 she established herself as a freelance designer. Dorritt often used collage in her design and advertising work for clients that included London Transport, British Rail and the Post Office Savings Bank as well as P&O, Penguin Books and Tatler magazine. As a designer for the 1951 Festival of Britain’s Land Travelling Exhibition she created the mural ‘British Sports and Games’, subsequently displayed in cities across the midlands and the north of England. Dorrit was made a Fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists in 1956.
A woman who never gave up
A personal recollection by Dr Jana Buresova
Festival of Britain
Dorrit Dekk obituary The Guardian
University of Brighton design archives
Designing Women | RUTH ARTMONSKY includes a chapter about Dorritt
JAN KAPLICKÝ (born 18 April 1937 Prague, died 13 January 2009 Prague)
Kaplický was born in Prague in 1937 to Josef Kaplický, artist and sculptor, professor at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and Jiřina Kaplická (Florová), illustrator. The family lived in a house at Prague Ořechovka. Jan attended schools on Národní, Charvátová and Panská in the Prague centre and at Prague Pohořelec.
From 1956 and 1962 Jan studied architecture at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. He opened his own one-man design studio in Czechoslovakia between 1956 and 1968 working on several private commissions including a Franz Kafka plaque and design for a house and studio for František Dvořák in Braník. In September 1968 Kaplický escaped to Britain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Kaplický settled in London and found work with Denys Lasdun and Partners from 1969 to 1971 working on the construction drawings of National Theatre. He then joined the studio of Richard and Su Rogers designing an extension for Design Research Unit. From 1977 until 1983 Kaplický worked at Foster Associates mainly on developing the design for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong. In 1969 Jan met Eva Jiřičná whom he had already known from Prague. They lived and worked together until 1979.
In 1979, together with a Yorkshireman, David Nixon, he established his own practice, Future Systems. In 1991 Jan married Amanda Levete who also became his professional partner. In 2007 following his divorce with Amanda Jan married Eliška Fuchsová in Prague.
Future Systems designed and built the Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London (1994-99), Floating Pedestrian Bridge in London Canary Wharf (1994), houses in London and Pembrokeshire, store fronts and interiors in London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York, the Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham (1999) and the Ferrari Museum in Modena (2004-12). In 2007 the practice won the National Library Competition in Prague, which remains unbuilt till the present time. In 1999, in addition to several important awards already received, Future Systems won the prestigious Stirling Prize for the Media Centre building.
Jan also taught at the Architectural Association in London between 1982 and 1988 and lectured widely at many schools and universities throughout the world. Future Systems exhibited their projects at numerous venues during the practice’s existence. Jan published a number of influential books such as For Inspiration Only, More For Inspiration Only, Sketches, Confessions, and Czech Inspiration. Jan died in Prague on January 14, 2009.
Jan Kaplický a Czech giant in Britain BCS Review by Milan Kocourek
Radical architect Jan Kaplický dies The Guardian
Jan Kaplicky Drawings – Design Museum Shop
Major new book commemorates “genius designer” Jan Kaplický | Radio Prague International
IRENA SEDLECKÁ (born 7 September 1928 Plzeň died 4 August 2020)
From 1945 Irena studied sculpture at the Academy of Arts in Prague and graduated in 1949. Subsequent state commissions, all in the socialist realist style, included a memorial for the victims of the Nazi regime in Moravia and a statue of Julius Fučík in Plzeň. Together with her first husband, Ludwig Kodym, Irena executed all of the reliefs for the walls and the stone figures on the roof of the new Lenin Museum in Prague. In 1966 she escaped by car from communist Czechoslovakia with her second husband, Stefan Drexler, and three children via Yugoslavia and Italy to France. After a difficult time settling in Britain they divorced.
Irena became involved in a series of “talking heads” for marketing purposes which involved projecting film on a sculpted head. Through this she met many personalities for whom she then sculpted busts. These included Lord Lichfield, Jackie Stewart, Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Kenneth Williams, Nicolas Parsons, Ken Dodd, Jimmy Edwards, David Bellamy and Gordon Kay.
Among her larger full-length statues is one of Beau Brummel in Jermyn Street, London and those of Conan Doyle and Emily Dickinson commissioned by Felix Dennis. Irena is also known for a three-metre statue of Freddie Mercury, singer in the band Queen that stands overlooking Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland.
In 1996 Irena married Franta Bělský [see separate entry], a Czech sculptor who had emigrated to England in 1948 and introduced her to the Royal Society of Sculptors. After the Velvet Revolution, Sedlecká and Bělský became regular visitors to Prague where she created pieces for the National Theatre. However, the end of communism led to some of her early works being melted down, including the Fučík statue, while those on the Lenin Museum were sold overseas as garden ornaments.
Jarmila Karas recollected in the BCS Review “For all the fame and constant demand for her work, Irena was a very private, humble woman, generous to a fault with a wonderful sense of humour.”
A personal tribute by Peter Cannon-Brookes
Aleksandra Mir – Freddie on the Plinth – Irena’s Story
The Franta Belsky and Irena Sedlecka Atelier Sculpture sale – 25th April 2017 (Mallams Oxford)
VILÉM TAUSKÝ CBE FGSM
(born 20 July 1910 in Přerov, Moravia, died 16 March 2004 Bromley, London)
Drawn to music from an early age, Tausky studied at the Brno Conservatoire, where he was influenced by the elderly Leoš Janáček.
He arrived in England in 1940 from France with the Free Czechoslovak Forces in which he had been military band leader and continued his musical activities throughout the war. A detailed account is available here.
From 1945 to 1949 he was musical director of the Carl Rosa Opera Company. In 1951 became music director of Welsh National Opera. From 1956 to 1966 he was principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and regularly appeared on the radio show “Friday Night is Music Night”. He then became director of opera and head of conducting at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama until 1992.
In 1979 he published his memoirs under the title Vilem Tausky Tells his Story which his wife Peggy Mallett co-authored.
Annette Percy of the Dvořák Society recollects that Vilém Tauský went back to Czechoslovakia twice in the 1970s, both times with her husband Alexander Percy-Holeček. On his first visit in 1974 Vilém conducted three operas, one in Brno, one in Ostrava and one in Olomouc. He also visited his native town of Přerov and was delighted to be reunited with some old friends from his army days in Brno. The following year he conducted Košice Philharmonic three times in various towns in Slovakia. Vilém visited the Czech Republic just twice after the Revolution. Brenda Rayson was instrumental in arranging for Vilém’s ashes to be interred in Ustřední hřbitov in Brno where his grave is between those of the Brno conductor Jiři Pinkas and the prima ballerina Zora Šemberová who danced Juliet in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in Brno in 1938.
Vilem Tausky obituary The Guardian
VILEM TAUSKY C.B.E. F.G.S.M. (b. 1910) (musicweb-international.com)
The Dvořák Society published Vilém Tauský CBE FGSM 1910-2004, edited by Richard Beith in 2007 as one of its Occasional Publications. This 286 page book covers Tauský’s life in music in great detail. Vilém Tauský CBE FGSM 1910–2004 | The Dvořák Society (dvorak-society.org)
GERTA VRBOVÁ-HILTON MD, DSc
(born 28 November 1926 Trnava, Slovakia, died 2 October 2020 London)
When in 1939 12-year-old Gerta was excluded from school because she was Jewish, Rudi Vrba, an old school friend who was two years her senior, helped with her studies. At the end of the war they were reunited and moved to Prague, where she read medicine at Charles University and he studied chemistry. They were married in 1947 and had two daughters but divorced. In 1957 Gerta met Sidney Hilton, a British physiologist, at a conference in Prague but the Czechs would not allow them to marry.
The following year in order to attend a conference in Warsaw, Gerta had mistakenly been issued with a visa that allowed her to return to Prague via any other country. After the meetings she walked through the Tatra mountains into Czechoslovakia to a rendezvous with her two daughters, then aged six and four. Together they walked back to Poland where a friend drove them to Warsaw from where they flew to Copenhagen and on to London.
Despite having a job offer from the Royal Free Medical School in London, Gerta had no visa and they were deported to Denmark which granted them asylum. In 1959 she was allowed to return to London providing that she and Hilton married within seven days. They had a son Peter and daughter Caroline. Gerta undertook research on muscle properties at the Royal Free and King’s College London and later ground-breaking work on the interaction between nerves and muscles at University College London.
In her latter years Gerta wrote about her life in two volumes. “The burden of my past, the memories of my loving family who perished in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and the story of my survival are now haunting me and demanding that they be written down so that they should not be irretrievably lost.”
Our first international meeting in Prague BCSA writing competition 2010
A woman with nerves of steel BCS Review by Edward Peacock
Gerta Vrbova obituary The Guardian by her daughter Caroline
The story of a that love could not survive the horrors of the the Holocaust – Mirror Online
Trust and Deceit , Vallentine Mitchell (vmbooksuk.com)
A continuation of Gerta’s autobiography Betrayed Generation: Shattered Hopes and Disillusion in Post War Czechoslovakia is available on Kindle