After over a quarter of a century in the city, curator Richard Drury is a well-known face in Prague’s art world. The Englishman – who studied Czech at Cambridge – works at the Gallery of Central Bohemia and is also the head of the Fine Arts Section of Umělecká beseda, a cultural association with a history stretching back to the days of the Czech National Revival. Our tour of “Richard Drury’s Prague” begins by Bílá Hora in Prague 6 at the Hvězda game reserve, which gets its name from the star-shaped summer palace at its heart.
“Then I got a flat in Břevnov, so that was my sort of dream fulfilled. And from our flat at Břevnov we’d come up here to the Hvězda hunting park for fresh air and really to get back to nature a bit.
“Because Prague is quite green, but down in the city there’s all the noise and the trams and the tourists. And Hvězda really is that opportunity to come and enjoy a bit of tranquillity.”
How do you think Prague does parks in general? For example, London has grand parks and Paris has the most beautiful parks in the world. How does Prague do them?
“I think it does parks much better than it used to. And it’s not just about cleaning them up and making them more sort of user friendly.
“It’s also to do with this thing that the British are very used to and that’s the idea of community space.
“For the British the park is, sure, a place for rest and recreation. But it’s also a space for meeting people. You can take your picnic and stuff.
“And for the Czechs, under communism what was public space was state space, and what was state space was no-one’s space.
“So the Czechs are slowly getting used to the fact that public areas like parks belong to them and can be used by them as a dimension of community life.
“That’s what I’m really happy to see happening now.”
You mentioned that this was a hunting ground. What else do you know about the history of this place?
“Not a huge amount. Yes, of course, I could say – trying to sound wise – that it was founded in the 1530s by Ferdinand I and then the building itself, Hvězda, was built by his son Ferdinand II in the 1550s.
“Also there’s the Battle of White Mountain and that the heroic national defeat, which really brings to mind the performances of the England football team in the last 30 years: one heroic defeat after another.
“So yes, there are echoes of history. This is a park with a memory.”
You used to live here in Břevnov and now you live in Dejvice, which is nearby. How have you found living in those areas over the years?
“It’s been great, it really has. To be honest with you, my heart belongs to Břevnov.
“It’s a little village perched up on the hill behind Prague Castle and lives its own little life. And I really like it that way.
“Down in Dejvice, sure, there are beautiful buildings, it’s gone quite upmarket, it’s a lovely place to live. But there’s something about Břevnov that captured my heart back in 1987, and it’s stayed that way.
“But one thing I am following is what we’d call the gentrification of Prague 6.
“I remember the White Lion [U Bílého Lva] pub on Bělohorská St. It was a real spit and sawdust pub.
“When I went there for the first time there was this old woman sitting with her half-litre glass of beer and the glass seemed bigger than she was.
“It was just a drop of local colour. But now the place is being pushed upmarket and sterilised…”
Now it’s all hipster cafés?
“It is. It is. I enjoy a good coffee as much as the next man, but yes, it’s this kind of coffee and pastry culture seems to be pushing the more genuine sort of social features of Prague 6 kind of, ahem, to the margins.”
From Hvězda, Richard Drury and I hop on a tram down to the Újezd area at the edge of Malá Strana on the left bank of the river. There, at number 3 Besední St., is where you will find the small theatre Divadlo Na Prádle. But the spot has an older history – and one linked to a venerable institution close to my guide’s heart.
“This building, Besední dům, was built and opened in 1926 as the centre, the home of the Umělecká Beseda association.
“It was founded in 1863 as a way of bringing Czech culture up to a European standard. It was to show the rest of Europe that Czech culture was really on an equal standing.
“Umělecká Beseda is really interesting for the fact that it brings together under one roof, as it were, musicians – there’s a music section; artists – there’s a fine arts section; and literature – there’s a literature and dramatic section.
“The idea of the association was to bring people together from different artistic fields and communicate, to organise joint events together.
“So Besední Dum belonged to the association in the 1920s and ’30s and ‘40s.
“However, after the war with the nationalisation of property, our association lost this building and never got it back. It’s something similar to the Mánes association, which never got its building back either.
“We exist and work on the basis of being a prestigious, homeless community. We’re continuously looking for temporary homes.
“That isn’t a problem for the artists, because when we’re offered a venue we’ll do an exhibition there.”
What’s your role in the organisation?
“For the last eight years I’ve been the chairman of the Fine Arts Section of Umělecká Beseda, which is funny in a way because Beseda is such a Czech cultural phenomenon, so closely tied to, shall we say, the purist values of Czech culture.
“But it says something, I think, for Czech tolerance, that they took me on board and that, as a foreigner, I do my bit to promote and cultivate the artistic values here.”
If you no longer have this building, where do you typically meet?
“Our committee meetings take place in the studio of the well-known Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek.
“He’s a member of our association and was in fact the ‘mayor’ of Umělecká Beseda, the boss as it were. He’s a great supporter.
“We always meet up at his studio. He sits at the end of the table. He doesn’t hear as well as he used to, but he loves the company and the gossip and the news.
“And he always has a good bottle of slivovice. That lubricates the conversation. We always leave his studio with a sense of well-being.”
Where is his studio?
“His studio is in Salmovská St., which is just a little bit up from Charles Square.
“It’s a little world in its own right. It’s in a courtyard and Zoubek keeps all his sculptures parked outside, so you walk to his studio through a kind of forest of two-metre bronze and concrete figures.”
Very slim figures?
“Yes, that’s right. It’s a wonderful place to meet.
“It’s a misfortune that we don’t have our own official building. But it’s wonderful that we can meet up in such a special place and with such a special person at the head of the table.”
Our final port of call is also linked to the Prague arts scene. The Literární kavárna, or Literary Café, on Řetězová St. is a cosy, informal meeting place for local culture vultures of all generations. On the Friday early evening when we visit Richard Drury seems to run into one acquaintance after the other.
“It’s a place I don’t come to so often any more. But from the 1990s and after the turn of the century I used to come here a lot.
“And why? Because the gallery where I still work, which is now based in Kutná Hora, was based on Husová St.
“It was called the Czech Museum of Fine Art and now it’s called the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region.
“And after work we’d come here to the Literary Café. It’s really like a pub for the British – you come in and you see the regulars, all the people you know.
“It’s one of those classic time machines. You walk in, the sun’s shining and you’re sober. You walk out and it’s midnight and you’re not sober.
“And where did the time go? Who knows? Talking, gossiping, talking about culture.
“The idea of the Prague café is I would say a little bit more legend than substance. But in this case, with the Literary Café, there’s a lot of substance.”
For me there’s something very Czech about the name of this place. I think Czech intellectuals are proud of being intellectuals. I don’t know if the British or Irish equivalent of a place like this would ever be called the “Literary Café”.
“Definitely not. As is well known, the British have a complete phobia of intellectuals and philosophers.
“Whereas for Czechs, not having an aristocracy I think they have this kind of respect. It’s part of the national psyche, to have this intelligentsia.
“I must say in the culture sphere you find a lot of people who feel that they’re part of a special layer of society.
Apart from this place what other cafés do you like in Prague?
“To be honest with you, I’m not such a social animal – certainly not as social as I used to be.
“But I tell you what – another interesting institution that has existed, I guess, since the 1980s is the Blatnička wine bar. It really is like taking a step back into the 1980s.”
Where is that?
“That’s in Michalská, so just a stone’s throw from the Old Town Square.
“There’s a downstairs section where you see people meeting who look like they enjoyed the 1980s so much they never want to leave it.
“It’s like stepping back in time. But in a nice way.”
Have you got a favourite pub in Prague?
“I don’t really, no. I kind of have a little bit of a problem with Czech pubs. The beer is great but people do tend to shout at each other.
“The British pub with its carpets is all about people talking to each other, whereas the Czech pub with its smoke-filled air and neon lights is where people talk at each other.
“That’s not my idea of a cosy evening.”
The Umělecká Beseda exhibition V umění volnost/In Art There is Freedom runs at Prague’s Clam-Gallas Palace until January 8. Admission is free.