by Tim Middleton
Most members will have been in the Palais des Beaux Arts / Paleis voor Schone Kunsten at some point. Some members will have been there many times. But few will have visited some of the parts of the building that we were privileged to discover on our expertly guided tour.
Victor Horta’s building, known for some years now simply as Bozar in all languages, has been the focal point of the Brussels arts scene for nearly a hundred years. We learned how Horta was determined to bring light, but not noise, into the building and to ensure that every performing space had the best acoustics and that, even in the large Henri Le Boeuf hall, no one felt distant from the artists.
Did you know that there is a special entrance for the royal family? You have probably walked past its doors on rue Ravenstein many times without noticing them. They open directly onto the royal salon, which in turn leads straight to the royal box. And, of course, we all had the opportunity to stand in the royal box itself and to imagine ourselves waving to the welcoming audience.
Perhaps even more exciting for those of us who never perform on a stage was the backstage part of the visit, where we were able to see the practice rooms and the corridors leading from the dressing rooms to the stage. We could stand behind the doors on the audience’s right that open onto the stage, and we could imagine a soloist standing there, nervously taking a deep breath before walking through the doors and into the gaze of the expectant audience. We took that walk that the artists take, and we stood on the stage, looking at the imagined audience below us and around us, and of course in the royal box right opposite us.
I think everyone was struck by how intimate the hall feels from the performers’ viewpoint on the stage. Even the furthest rows, and the royal box at the opposite end of the auditorium, did not seem far off. Horta really achieved that sense of closeness that he strived for.
After a coffee break in the lovely Café Victor, a short walk across the Royal Park took us to the splendid edifice that is the British Residence on rue Ducale.
A hundred years older than Bozar, the house has been in the hands of the UK government since the 1940s. For almost thirty years, it was the residence of the UK Permanent Representative to the European Union, having previously been the residence of the bilateral ambassador to Belgium. Since Brexit, it has been the residence of the ambassador to the EU. The residential part of the building is tucked away, out of public sight, but many rooms and other spaces in the building are in constant use for meetings, receptions, dinners and other events.
Martin Shearman, the bilateral ambassador, treated us to a magnificent reception. The drinks flowed, the canapés were endless, and Heather Charlton entertained us, with her usual accomplishment, with background music on the piano.
The ambassador spoke warmly of the National Trust, and Carole Ducastel replied with equal warmth, delivering words prepared by our chairman, Jan Grauls, who was unfortunately indisposed and unable to join us. The ambassador spoke informally to many of us, adding to the joy of being in that beautiful building at the start of the festive season in the delightful company of so many of our fellow members.
What a fantastic event to end the year and to lead us into the Christmas festivities! Many thanks to Jan and to André Ceulemans for organising such a successful afternoon.
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