Architectural historian Barbara Peacock: in Britain we had no idea about the richness of the Czech cultural heritage

Uherčice chateau, photo: Podzemnik, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

British architectural historian Barbara Peacock was recently honoured with a Point of Light Award by Prime Minister Theresa May for her work in helping to repair, preserve and enhance the Czech Republic’s rich architectural heritage. Following a visit to the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, Ms. Peacock set up The Friends of Czech Heritage fund, winning over British and Czech volunteers to help restore historic buildings, gardens and landmarks around the country. Jiří Hošek, Czech Radio’s correspondent in the UK, met up with Barbara Peacock to talk about her work and began by asking what sparked her interest in the Czech Republic.

Barbara Peacock,  photo: archive of Friends of Czech Heritage
“Well, my main interest is in the development of the country house and I’ve worked a lot on country houses in Britain, but I had heard that there were these wonderful houses in the Czech Republic. So after 1989, when it was easier to travel, I came over and I was absolutely amazed by the quality and number of wonderful houses in the Czech Republic. I hadn’t expected that there would be so many marvelous places in such a relatively small area. So I traveled all over the Czech Republic during the next years, seeing as many houses as I could and I grew to love the countryside and the people and the way that - even in the most difficult conditions, in houses that were very derelict - they were trying, bit by bit, to restore them. It might be just a few windows one year, or a little bit of roof, and I was so full of admiration about this.”

So you could see the forty years of communism written into brick and mortar….

“Absolutely. I mean there were these marvelous buildings, so many of them …decaying. I went to see a lot of them, there were those that had been opened as museums during the communist period, but I went to see a lot of those that were closed, that had been turned into farms, orphanages and so on ..and the dreadful state they were in. Obviously I found that very depressing, very sad and so over the years I felt I would very much like to do something to try and help in some small way. Part of my job is to take people interested in architecture to look at buildings – I run tours – and I thought it would be great to bring out groups from England to see these houses, because in England we had no idea, people had no idea about the richness of the Czech cultural heritage and when I brought these people they were absolutely amazed and very moved as well.”

Do you remember your very first trip? Was it 1990-1991?

“It would be about 1991 and at that time I was mainly in Bohemia, in Prague and in Bohemia, and I realized too that if there was any information about these buildings it was either in Russian, Czech or German –and I spoke German – but I thought it would be so good to try and make them more accessible to English people by writing about them and as I said, bringing people over.”

How did you actually move around the country at that time? Did you hire a car and make your own plans or did you have a Czech friend to help you out?

“I came across it almost by chance at the end of the day –this huge house with its Renaissance gables looking just wonderful in the evening sun.”

“Not at that time. Initially I had a car and I had a map, a wonderful map which had all the houses that were open to the public marked in red and all the ones that were not open in yellow. And so I decided, first of all, to go and see all those in red and then as many of the yellow ones as possible. But I had an immense stroke of luck back then. I had an interview –this was about three or four years after I had started visiting the Czech Republic – with the curator of the great Jindřichuv Hradec chateau. Now this had been a blackened, derelict looking building, a very sad looking building and in about three years he had turned it around, he had had it painted and made it look attractive. So I very much wanted to talk to him. The interview was arranged and he introduced me to a young Czech girl who spoke excellent English and who took me around the chateau. When I went back to my car I found that it had been clamped by the police for parking in the wrong place. And of course, I didn’t know what to do but, fortunately, I had this very nice young girl with me. We had to call the police and a very tall, fierce-looking policeman came along and this young girl, who is very slight, argued with him for about half an hour and gradually I saw his face soften and he got out his keys and undid the chains and I was released. And I thought to myself afterwards, after I took this young girl Renata back to her home village, if she can do this with a fierce-looking policeman then surely she could help me bring out people to the Czech Republic, because at that time I had no contacts really at all. And so that’s how I started with Renata, we had no email, I had a fax machine, she had a fax in her aunt’s factory to which she had access about twice a week and somehow or other – looking back I don’t know quite how we did it – we arranged our first tour which took place in 2,000 and I brought the first group of about 25 people over. ”

So looking back over those sixteen years from this first tour in 2,000 – what do you feel most proud of – what single achievement?

Uherčice chateau,  photo: Podzemnik,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“I feel most proud of what we have been able to achieve at the great Zámek of Uherčice (south Moravia). When I was travelling around the countryside looking at buildings with my map of red and yellow dots one evening I came across Uherčice which is very close to the Austrian border, deep in the countryside. I came across it almost by chance at the end of the day –this huge house with its Renaissance gables looking just wonderful in the evening sun, but there was no access, the doors were all locked and padlocked and there were dogs growling behind the wall and the only way I could photograph it was to stand on the roof of my car and take photos over the top of the wall, but I was determined to try and find out more about this house. And the next year I arranged with the NPU (National Heritage Institute) in Brno to come over and see it with an interpreter and I was taken all over this house which was a Renaissance building that had been added to in the Baroque period, in the Neo-classical period –a wonderful house, but in the most dreadful state, it had been used as barracks for the border guards during the communist period, it had been used as a women’s reformatory, the plaster was falling off the walls, there had been wonderful painted ceilings but it was all in a very bad state. So every time I brought a group over I would take them to Uherčice so they could see not only the wonderful restored buildings –the showpieces – but also the terrific problems that the Czechs faced in restoring so many of their buildings with very little funds (this was before the EU and any funding from the EU). And again, they were very moved by the plight of these buildings and many of these people whom I took then subsequently became the core supporters of The Friends. And once The Friends had started we invested the first spurt of money that we had in the restoration of a Baroque statue from the garden.”

“It is wonderful to see how as more money is coming into the country so many of these houses are coming back to life again.”

“After that, we were incredibly lucky, because one of the people who had come on our very first tour became the executor of two wealthy men who in their will made a provision for their money to be used for musical purposes –they were very, very keen musicians themselves with a great love for classical music. And so this gentleman rang me up and said can you think of anywhere in the Czech Republic where we could do something musically and I could give you a grant from this will for this purpose. So I immediately thought of Uherčice which has this wonderful early-19th century ballroom which could be used for concerts, but which was in a bad state. It had very good acoustics which were tested subsequently by two musicians from Znojmo. We couldn’t, of course, afford to do the whole thing, but with this grant from this gentleman we were able to finance largely the restoration of the plaster ceiling which was falling down so that concerts and other fundraising activities could be held there.”

Being Czech and knowing one or two things about Czech bureaucracy what kind of reception did you get from the NPU and other organizations in the Czech Republic –when a group of Brits came over and knocked on their door –were they suspicious at the very beginning?

Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International
“No I think they were very, very helpful and we had no problems with bureaucracy at all. Not all our projects were projects were the NPU was involved for example at Žďár nad Sázavou where there was this wonderful basilica, there we were working with the Church, it was a great church- a medieval church remodeled by Santini-Aichel in the Baroque period, and the priest Father Vladimir and the people in the parish had worked tremendously hard because the church, obviously after all those years of communism, was in a bad state. The work that’s been done there by the community in the last ten, fifteen years has been amazing with a lot of them volunteering their time for free and the church now looks wonderful.”

Do you think that the award Point of Light may open one or two doors, that people will think - this must be a success story so why not support it?

“Well that would be wonderful. It would be the best thing that could possibly come out of this award. If we could get more funding we could widen the scope of our activities and there is still so much to do in the country, with so many houses. And I felt moved too by the families who had owned these great houses, many of whom had been exiled in the communist era and who had come back to find their house in a very bad state and who had to start from scratch restoring it very often with very little money and so as well as helping state-owned properties I think it would be very good if we could also help some of the old nobility who were exiled or who stayed in the Czech Republic and who had a very difficult time.”

And the satisfaction you get is the positive change when you see a very derelict building transformed –that makes it all worthwhile?

“Oh indeed, and one sees enormous changes in the country now compared to when I first came. And it is wonderful to see how as more money is coming into the country through for example EU grants and Iceland and Norway, how so many of these houses are coming back to life again.

“There’s also a different attitude in the way the curators present the houses, which I find very interesting. In the past there was no mention of the family who lived in the house at all –that was taboo – but now curators not only encourage the guides to talk about the families, they have photographs of them and when there are photographs of the interiors as they were for example in the 1920s or 1930s they have been putting the furniture back as it was –where they can – to give a more faithful idea of what the buildings were like and what the rooms were actually used for. And this has proved – according to the curators I have spoken to tremendously popular with the public, it has made the houses more personal and much less just empty museums. ”

Uherčice chateau | Photo: Podzemnik,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“And you just feel that there is a new confidence that the buildings are coming back to life and a pride in the country and its wonderful cultural history. It is wonderful to see, to follow the progress in some of the buildings that were huge and you’d think almost impossible to tackle, places that in England we might have just demolished as white elephants because they were in such bad state. What I admire so much is that here –bit by bit –over these last twenty years these places have been restored or are being restored and in another ten years’ time the country will look completely different with these beautiful buildings in their landscape settings and I think that is an achievement the Czechs should be very proud of. ”