Zuzana Jungmanová – The girl in the portrait who built a thriving Czech school in London

Zuzana Jungmannová, photo: Ian Willoughby

You may not know the name Zuzana Jungmanová but there’s a good chance you’ve seen her face. It appeared in great detail in the striking photorealist painting Zuzana in Paris Studio, for which her artist boyfriend Hynek Martinec was a winner in the UK’s national Portrait Awards in 2007. The pair now live in London, where Jungmanová runs the flourishing Czech School Without Borders, a real hub of the city’s Czech community. When we met, I first asked her how she had ended up in the UK capital.

Zuzana Jungmanová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It’s quite an amazing story. After my studies I decided to open my eyes and to change my lifestyle and build a new future.

“My boyfriend and I moved to Paris and we lived there for two and a half years. It was amazing. We didn’t have anything.

“I had studied art and so had my boyfriend and at that time he painted my portrait. It was called Zuzana in Paris Studio.

“During this amazing process he thought, Maybe it’s time to apply for some good European award.

“He actually did it and he won the prize, a very important prize here in London.”

This was in 2007?

“Exactly. It was an amazing time because all doors were open to us. Lots of new friends asked me and Hynek, What next? They said maybe it was a good time to move to London.

“We said, No way, it’s a very expensive city, we don’t have anything and we have no support from our families.

“But by coincidence Hynek met a few very rich people and they helped us to live in London.

“It was amazing – for the first year we lived here for free because a friend supported us. It was a miracle [laughs].”

When you arrived, was it after he had won the award? And was the portrait – which is an amazing portrait of you very up close, with sunglasses – still all over the place when you first came here?

“Yes. But after this amazing portrait he started to paint another one: Zuzana in London.

“It’s a different view because Paris was about freedom and no problems. And in London we started to build our careers and make a better life. And also we were older [laughs] – maybe that’s the main point!

'Zuzana in Paris Studio',  photo: archive of Hynek Martinec
“And this [second] Zuzana is different. It’s more focused. It’s the same technique actually – hyper-realistic painting in acrylic – but my eyes are completely different. Like those of a strong, maybe ambitious woman.”

I haven’t seen the second portrait but with the first one was it strange seeing yourself everywhere? Was it for example in posters on the Tube?

“Yes. It was horrible, actually. During the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2007 my face was everywhere. Lots of people recognised me, of course. It was really strange.

“I had one really funny story. We were running in Hyde Park and somebody came up to me and said, Oh, I know you, I saw your portrait in the newspaper this morning.

“I said, Oh my God. I was completely red and it was quite embarrassing to me. I really didn’t like that at all.”

What’s your main activity today?

“I run a Czech school and this time, before Christmas, it’s quite busy. We had a very important event – the Saint Nicholas celebration.

“Also lots of projects are finishing because it’s the end of the year and we have to finish everything.

“But next year, I hope, we will have a new chapter in my work and also for my school, because we will have new spaces. And I’m so proud of us.”

Tell us about the development of the school from when it began to today. How has it changed?

“The beginning was amazing. I started with a small group, just 10 children, and we normally visited museums. The project was called Living Museums.

“Of course we were speaking Czech but we were also talking about art and lots of important things for kids. That was the beginning.

“But my activities were so successful. I was so surprised at what a miracle this city is.

'Zuzana in London',  photo: archive of Hynek Martinec
“Because this is just possible here, in London. For example, I tried to organize similar activities in Paris, but it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t with the same energy.

“When I started I met more people and lots of people supported me. Also the Czech Centre helped me a lot in the beginning.

“We started the first official classes on Saturdays at the Czech Centre. But it was in a different place compared to today – it was on Harley Street then. And it was just two groups, but we grew, grew, grew.”

You were telling me earlier you have 200 kids, which is really remarkable. What is their age range? And do many of them also speak Czech at home?

“I think in most cases they try to speak Czech at home. But the problem is they are bilingual families and sometimes the kids speak three languages fluently: their mother tongue, their father tongue and the language of the country where they were born.

“The families have to decide which way is best for their kids and it’s sometimes a problem, because they don’t know.

“And this is the time for me to explain to them that it’s really important to keep your mother language for your kids. If you do, it’s no problem for all of them to speak fluently in the future.

“Actually a lot of parents were lost. They didn’t know that. And, step by step, we have tried to build a better life for this small Czech language and Czech community.

“We started with really small kids and we now have four preschool groups. And these groups will grow up through our whole system.

“That’s the best way. They have Czech friends and they speak Czech together. This is key to success with a second language.”

What is it that the children find hardest about learning Czech?

Photo: archive of Czech School Without Borders London
“Pronunciation – and these letters č and ž and ř – is a very frequent problem. Because they don’t hear these specialties of the Czech language, and this is quite hard for them.

“Also my school has a special speech therapist and she helps my kids a lot during the teaching process.”

Do they learn to write Czech? That’s also very difficult.

“Oh yes. We opened, I think it was three years ago, a special level, a special year, which we called Zero Year. It’s between the last pre-school level and first year.

“That’s quite a danger point for kids, because they’re writing and reading properly in English but of course reading fewer words in Czech. And not doing any writing in Czech.

“So we decided to open this level for them, to start writing and reading at the same time, with the classical British system. And it’s quite successful, actually.

“It means when they start first year they are fluently writing and reading in Czech. Of course in a simple way, no complicated stuff, but they are.

“And they build it up more quickly to develop their Czech skills in the other years. It was a very good decision [to set it up], I think.”

Your school also celebrates Czech holidays. You just celebrated Mikuláš [St. Nicholas] – how did you celebrate Mikuláš here in London?

“It’s a crazy event, actually. Because we have lots of kids. If you have 200 kids plus their parents it’s like an Arsenal match [laughs].

“It’s crazy but I really love it. It’s not just a celebration for the kids. It’s also a celebration for my team, for parents, for Czech traditions.

“Classically we rent our favourite church, the lovely St. Mary Magdalene, near Holloway Road. We have an amazing relationship with people there and it’s a really strong tradition.

“We decorate the church and make some beautiful paper angels. We also have hot wine and lovely Czech foods.”

My final question is, what does the future hold for you and the Czech School Without Borders?

Photo: archive of Czech School Without Borders London
“What I need is a building. This is a very important step – the main step for me.

“We really need a building because we have a huge library and lots of other activities and we don’t have space, which is quite a problem for us with this huge community.

“In the future when I will be looking back at my past I really want to say, OK, I did this school and I made this amazing project… But I also want to be able to say, I gave this lovely London Czech community something more important.

“I think a building with all these lovely traditions is a rich present. And in the future I think this will be my present to the Czech community in London.”

Is it achievable do you think? Do you think you can actually do it?

“Everything is possible to me. Of course. Yes.”