Calling all Czechs! Jirkov seeks photos of famous Kludský circus caravan to help restore it to original glory

V maringotce Karla Kludského, foto: Jan Beneš, archiv ČRo

All but forgotten today, the travelling Czech circus of Karel Kludský was once among the biggest in the whole of Europe. The Kludský dynasty, in fact, was the inspiration for the novel Circus Humberto by Eduard Bass, who was captivated by the acrobats, lion-tamers, knife-throwers, and tightrope walkers, living in some 200 caravans. Now, Kludský’s hometown is looking to restore his private luxury caravan to its original glory. And it is asking the Czech public for help.

Photo: Jan Beneš, Czech Radio

For some forty years, Karel Kludský’s historic caravan sat slowly decaying in the Prague garden of a private owner, exposed to the elements. Last year, it was purchased – or rather rescued – by the northern Bohemian town of Jirkov, where the circus owner lived all his life in the off-season, and was laid to rest in 1927.

To call Karel Kludský’s personal quarters a “caravan” belies the luxury and attention to detail within the unique 10-metre long structure. It has five rooms in all, including a library resplendent with inlaid wood fittings, a grand entrance featuring a retractable terrace, and enough space for a piano.

Photo: Jan Beneš, Czech Radio

Still, its heft came as a surprise, professional mover František Kašpar told Czech Radio.

“We underestimated the weight a bit. We thought it was maybe seven tons, but in the end we found it weighed 10 tons. It was good that we loaded it with a proper crane. We had to make a special fitting with six bases to stop it from falling apart.”

Photo: Stanislava Brádlová, Czech Radio

The Neo Baroque bedroom, library and even piano from Kludský’s caravan are largely intact. But his hometown of Jirkov is searching for period photographs so that the exterior and interior can be fully, faithfully restored, says Eliška Broumská, the town hall’s cultural officer:

Photo: Jan Beneš, Czech Radio

“If anyone has been to the Kludský circus, especially inside the caravan, and has the photos, that would be a great help. Many people have offered us items they say were in the caravan; for example, a man came by with an antique ceiling lamp. But without photos, we can’t be certain.”

Apart from in the Eduard Bass novel, the majesty of the Kludský circus is captured in one of Josef Lada’s famous ‘Mikeš the tomcat’ adventures, set under its Big Top. At its peak, the circus menagerie comprised 700 animals and performances drew audiences of up to 10,000. Regional historian Michal Bečvář:

Photo: Jan Beneš, Czech Radio

“After the First World War, most circus families fell on hard times. But in 1920, Karel Kludský bought a villa in Jirkov. He decorated the gates with majestic sculptures of lions and erected a circus tent in the garden to train animals – giraffes and his favourites, the elephants, some 26 of them.

“The original circus shuttered in 1934. But Karel Kludský Jr. and his wife Elsa stayed in Jirkov until they were forcibly evicted from the villa in the 1950s and the Army moved in. The [Communist] authorities assigned them a flat on the outskirts of a neighbouring village. Karel Jr. was proud and refused to live there. He spent the rest of his life in the caravan, only going into the house to use the kitchen.”

Karel Kludský, photo: Stanislava Brádlová, Czech Radio