Long forgotten photographs recall a lost Czech world

Some of the best things come about by chance, and that is certainly the case with an exhibition that opens on 27th September in the beautiful Baroque Clam-Gallas Palace in Prague's Husova Street. The show includes dozens of photographs from the turn of the century, by a photographer who for nearly 90 years has been almost completely forgotten. Over nearly four decades Karel Kruis (1851-1917) took thousands of photographs. Some are portraits of public figures, others depict country people going about their lives, and many record a rural Czech landscape that was rapidly disappearing.

Karolina Vocadlo
Karolina Vocadlo has a very personal reason for being interested in Karel Kruis.

"He was my great-grandfather on my grandmother's side. He died about ten years before my father was born, but we were always aware of his existence, mostly through his photographs. We have some of them in our villa in the countryside in Sedlejovice, which Karel Kruis bought. It's quite near Sychrov Castle in North Bohemia. I've always seen these photographs at the house and we were always amazed. They're simply enchanting."

Miroslav Kotesovec
The seeds of the exhibition were sewn when Karolina was approached by the young archivist Miroslav Kotesovec.

"It really is thanks to Miroslav, who contacted me one day a few years ago to tell me that he was planning to publish a book about my great-grandfather, and wanted to know if I had any glass plates. He had discovered hundreds of them at the National Technical Museum, and he knew that we also had some in our family.

"I'm so glad that someone has taken an interest, because I've discovered so many things about my great-grandfather that my father and I didn't know. We were brought up in England. My father moved to England in the late '40s and we lost contact a lot with the Czech side of our family. Since I've come back I've been re-establishing all sorts of contacts."

Until a few years ago Miroslav Kotesovec had himself never heard of Karel Kruis.

"I came across Karel Kruis's work about eight years ago. I was doing some pretty run-of-the-mill archive work at Prague Technical Museum. I was sitting at a computer and wanted to stretch my legs, but found myself kicking into some crates under the table. I pulled them out and saw that they were full of photographs by Karel Kruis"

It was immediately clear to Miroslav that the photographs and plates he had discovered were not just family snaps. He found out from his research, and later with help from Karolina and her family, that Karel Kruis had been a very well known Czech scientist at the turn of the century. His circle included some of the most prominent figures in Czech public life at the time, including the greatest of all Czech composers, Antonin Dvorak.

His photograph of one original Dvorak manuscript is an important element in the exhibition:

"It is in fact a song called 'Vzpominani' (reminiscences). The song covers about two A4 sheets of manuscript. It's quite short, but it is the only document we have that this song ever existed with its Czech words. The Dvorak Museum in Prague does have copies of the song with German words, and also two copies without any words at all. So the only document we have that he wrote this song with Czech words is thanks to great-grandfather's photograph."

Karel Kruis was a chemist, and his knowledge of chemistry is reflected in the exquisite technical quality of his photographs.

"He was a perfectionist and this can be seen in his photographs. We can also see how his photographs gradually improved, and by the end of his life he had become a real master of landscape photography."

As well as his landscapes, Kruis also made many portraits, some of which are very modern in their composition and their attempt to express the personality of the subject. One of my favourites is a three-quarter length portrait from 1910, showing the agriculture minister of the time, Antonin Rezek. But the photographs that will probably most appeal to visitors are Kruis's images of Czech rural life, including the village where his great-granddaughter lives to this day:

"My favourites are the photographs of our village Sedlejovice, and my very favourite is the one of our villa. It hasn't changed except for the fact that now there are trees grown up all around. The house is on a hill, and it does look very imposing, the way that great-grandfather Kruis has photographed it. Then there are the photographs of the neighbours in Sedlejovice. Some of the families are still there, and we also have a photograph of the local council. That's something we still have, albeit with a different make-up! They are just enchanting. You get the atmosphere of the village at that time. There are thatched roofs. Unfortunately the last house with a thatched roof has been replaced by a normal roof, but you can see from the photograph that they were wonderful."

The Prague exhitibion is the result of years of research and detective work, and Karolina Vocadlo is delighted that it has at last become a reality.

Karolina Vocadlo with Miroslav Kotesovec and the bust of Karel Kruis
"I didn't think it would come to that. I was contacted by Miroslav two or three years ago, but I didn't have enough information for him. I gave him a contact to my father, who was able to give him a lot of details. Then, after the long, cold winter, when we weren't able to look in the attic in great detail, Miroslav came over in the spring and we did find a lot of interesting things. Especially we found a selection of glass plates, which the National Technical Museum didn't have. They were compementary to the many boxes that are at the museum, and Miroslav was very excited about this, because it made the extremely large collection complete, and there are extremely well documented lists of who the people are, when they were taken, the materials, the paper that was used."

Thanks to all this detective work, and to the lucky chance that so much of his work survives, Karel Kruis can once again take his place in the history of Czech photography. The exhitibition opens on 27th September at the Clam-Gallas Palace at 20 Husova Street, Prague 1, and runs until 29th October.