A 'Retrospective' of Brussels Exhibitions.


Stanley K Hunter.

The abandonment of our plans to visit Seville came at the very last moment. I was already in London for the Annual Convention - complete with passport and holiday cash! Pity about that engraving at the Crystal Palace Foundation Museum - temporarily on loan to the Seville Expo!

A brief word with a Time Out travel Agent at Victoria and I was considering spending the week in Brussels. I had been at Expo '58 and had not been there since. It might be interesting to see what was left - apart from the Atomium, of course.

Thanks to Bill and Nancy Tonkin, I caught an early Monday flight to Brussels. I always like to do a little research on any Expo expeditions. This time I had a small Berlitz and a hazy memory of Fletcher & Brooks, part II. The train journey from the airport gave a glimpse of the Atomium. At least that was still there!

I had been building up an outline stamp and postcard collection on Belgium Expositions, but as yet, had done no research wHatsoever. I wasn't even sure how to get to the Atomium from my hotel in the Chausee de Mons.

The first major Belgium exhibition had been staged to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Kingdom, in 1880. A Jubilee Park was laid out in Brussels, east of the city centre. A triumphal arch was erected, linking various exhibition buildings. It can be discerned on a panoramic view of the city on a 1989 stamp.

In my first visit to Brussels in 1955 this was one of the sights we visited. We were taken to the Army Museum. It was still there (and still free). The World Wars exhibits, however, were awaiting a move into the adjoining Bordiau Hall. This steel and glass hall dates from 1880 and was designed by the architect responsible for the Liege Exposition of 1905. It had required a good deal of restoration, including financial support from the government which had studied appeals for its continued use.

Also adjoining is the huge hall devoted to the section on air and space. In the balloon section on the first floor is Piccard's historic balloon, featured on a set of Belgian stamps of 1932. The space was labelled - temporarily on loan to the Seville Expo!

The linked complex now includes, opposite, a permanent auto exhibition Autoworld (free) and the Royal Museum of Art & History (free). Some stained glass from this museum appeared on a 1969 postage stamp. I have labels for the Culinary Art Exhibition, held 8 - 16 October, 1900 and the 2nd Agricultural & Dairy Exhibition held in the Jubilee Palais, 12 - 21 March, 1910. I haven't traced a stamp for Autoworld, although there was a BT phonecard (priced now at £10).

A later check on Glasgow's Mitchell Library collection only revealed a detailed 32 page foolscap report (with a further 17 pages of line plates) prepared for the Indian Government on the Brussels International Lifesaving Exhibition of 1876. There was also a pamphlet about Uruguay for the 1910 International Exposition. Prior research in this field might not have been worth too much!

I did know, however that there had been an international in Brussels in 1888. Brief details appear in contemporary copies of The Illustrated London News. I had come across these in my research on the Glasgow International of 1888. King Leopold II was apparently put out that the Brussels Exhibition was behind schedule. According to the I.L.N., the only major pavilion ready on time in May, was the 'British Empire Section' (which the I.L.N. quaintly called 'England'). The British Commissioner- General was S. Lee Babty, who was to organise the 1890 Edinburgh International Exhibition. The President of the organising committee was the Lord Mayor of London - by chance, a native of Belgium!

The Grand Concours International des Sciences & de l'Industries, staged in 220 acres in the old Champ de Mars, opened in stages up to June. Leopold slipped over to Scotland in August and visited the Glasgow International Exhibition (where he bought a suite of furniture). His response to finding that he had arrived on a temperance day was gleefully recorded by a local amateur poet!

The Card Research Centre of the Belgian Postcard Federation (C.R.C.) records a Brussels Commercial and Industrial Exposition in 1889 but I have no records on this. The first stamps issued for a Brussels Exhibition were for the 1897 International and Colonial Exposition, attended by 6 million visitors. These show two versions of the city's patron, St. Michael, and incorporate the 'Do not deliver on Sunday' bandalette labels.

The 'Fetes diverses & Attractions' and Colonial Section was held outside Brussels in Parc de Tervueren, an eastern suburb. The exhibits were held to form a Congo Museum. In 1905-10, a new building was erected to house the present Royal Central African Museum at Tervueren. Museum postcards are not uncommon. Ern. Thill produced 12-card booklets of cards with the NELS motif. A 1966 stamp shows a Kasai head from the collection while the museum itself is seen on a 1979 stamp. Statues from 1897 apparently still appear in the park.

The 1897 Exhibition resulted in a good number of labels. One series showed a character surveying a skyline of Brussels. This design was adapted for use as the official label for the 1901 Glasgow International

Exhibition, but lithographed locally by Carter & Pratt. The official Glasgow postcards were designed by Henri Cassiers and published by Dietrich of Brussels. The Glasgow archive minutes on these cards are still extant.

In 1910 Brussels staged several exhibitions. The major one was the Universelle & Internationale, attended by 13 million. This was held in an awkward shaped area of 220 acres adjoining the eastern edge of the north pocket of the Bois de la Cambre, which itself extends south to the field of Waterloo.

The exposition site was already being built over. Much of the site is now occupied by housing and the (French-language) Free University of Belgium (ULB). The 150th anniversary of the ULB was marked by a stamp in 1984. I could see few survivals of the 1910 Exhibition but there are still tram stops called Brazil, Uruguay, etc. A set of four TB charity stamps portraying St. Martin, was issued in 1910 in two styles and then overprinted '1911' the following year. In June they were additionally overprinted 'Charleroi', highlighting its exposition.

Valentine's produced official postcards. As I have already shown, a number of these cards actually portray visitors to the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition at Great White City, London in 1908, glued down to Brussels views. These cutout figures also appeared at the 1911 Imperial International Exhibition at White City, and in Glasgow the same year at the Scottish Exhibition staged at Kelvingrove.

I am not recording the various Brussels philatelic exhibitions here as I feel that there is room for a specialist account of these. Similarly, I have ignored the various congress and convention events. After 1935, these would probably be staged in the pavilions at the Heysel. I do have however a single label for the National Stamp Exhibition of 1931. This was held in the Hotel des Invalides in the rue Joseph II, 18-21 July. This was marked by a stamp issue. The 2nd International Textile Exhibition (with a stamp in 1955) and the 50th Auto Salon (marked by a stamp in 1971) were probably held in the Grand Palais at Heysel.

The Parc des Expositions at Heysel, in the north of the city, was my principal goal. I was soon below the great Atomium. In 1958, I had travelled through the Atomium by cable-car. Entry to the attraction itself had either been too expensive or too busy.

309 acres of the park had been used for the 1935 International, which attracted 20 million visitors. A permanent series of linked buildings was erected, the Centenary Hall or Grand Palais, and these survive (although a special facade was added for EXPO '58). A set of stamps was issued in 1934 showing the Grand Palais, the Brussels Palace, the Congo Palace and the 'Old Brussels' attraction. To mark the opening in April 1935, a further set of three stamps was issued showing a 'mail diligence'.

Again labels were issued while W D & H O Wills issued a cigarette card (No. 39) in its series 'Our King & Queen'. This showed 'At the Brussels Exhibition, 1935', with the Duke & Duchess of York (King George VI & Queen Elizabeth), visiting the exposition to open the British Pavilion.

On my latest visit, the complex was being used for the 33rd Salon of Computer and Office Equipment Bureau 92. On payment of a reasonable fee, I entered the complex and visited Palaces 4-6 and 8-10 and the Patio. The post office was located in Palace No. 4 (but was closed for lunch).

The Atomium was built (privately) for EXPO '58 and is still operated as a franchise. Postcards are by SOMINEX although the early cards (still on sale) are by BEATIC. There is a shop with a wide range of Atomium souvenirs (no access cards accepted). I acquired a 1958 board-game sheet and the VHS video but the Expo slides were sold out. On request postcards were cacheted 'as posted at the Atomium'. Does a checklist of these cachets exist?

After going up the Atomium (by stair and escalator) and examining the current exhibition, I got a good view of the park. I could see the Heysel Stadium, the 1935 permanent Grand Palais buildings and Bruparck. This includes the largest cinema complex in the world, a 'village' of restaurants and shops and 'Mini Europe'. This display (joint fee with Atomium, if desired) is an excellent collection of models and animations of sites of the European Community on a scale of 1:25.

Comparing plans, it would seem that the present bars and shops occupy the 'Merry Belgium' Folklore section of the 1958 Exhibition, which I found so enjoyable. Included now is a Metro (subway) and pre-Metro (tram) terminus. The city centre is only minutes away. The area also includes the New Planetarium which appears on a 1974 Historic Building stamp. The Heysel Stadium is a major point of interest and I managed a wee refreshment in the integral bar of the Sporting Club Heysel. The stadium first appeared on a 1950 European Athletics set of stamps.

I took a leisurely walk through the Parc which has few other visible signs of 1935 or 1958. Almost 41 million visited the 500 acre site in 1958. To ease the large influx of foreign visitors, a special team of hostesses/guides was formed in Brussels. The 20th anniversary of this service was marked by a stamp in 1978.

My visit in 1958 had been organised by the W(R)VS for British servicemen stationed in West Germany. We bussed it to Brussels and were billeted in a temporary hostel, over a long weekend, which was OK for us, although I cannot recall where it was located.

One semi-derelict concrete area at the far end of the old avenue des Nations seemed rather familiar. The empty fountain and surviving building appeared to be the survival of the vast American Pavilion. Part seemed to have been used as a cinema or something similar and as a store.

The outfitter NEXT has shown two mounted prints of pavilions of the Paris 1900 Exposition, architects 'water colours' of the China and Japan pavilions. Walking into the Royal Domain of Laeken from the site of the American pavilion leads to seeing the actual oriental buildings. In reality, however, these were reconstructed on the orders of Leopold II. On completion, the buildings were handed over to the nation.

While I was there the Chinese Pagoda was closed to the public for restoration. It was opened here in 1906 and it is not easy to discover how much of it was the original 1900 design. The two buildings are separated by a busy main road and access to the Japanese Tower is made by an underground entrance located near the Pagoda. The Tower housed an exhibition of Chinese and Japanese porcelain as well as gifts from the Mikado to King Leopold. It is difficult to believe that the building was intended to be a restaurant (on the same basis as the pagoda in the Tivoli in Copenhagen).

I was now in quite a whirl of exhibitions. What I needed was to marshal my various experiences . Was there some central display of Brussels exhibitions? I visited the city museum in the Grand Place (seen on several stamps) but could only see a medal certificate for 1910. In the Urban Brussels Transport Museum (open weekdays only, fee), in the Avenue de Tervueren are a number of destination boards for trams en route to EXPO '58 (there is also a popular postcard of buses, including one going to the exhibition).

While examining a Brussels bookshop, I spotted a new poster. Entirely in Flemish, I found I could read it perfectly! 'WERELD-TENTOONSTELLINGEN TE BRUSSEL'. It announced an exhibition of archives of Brussels exhibitions from 1897 to 1958. It was being held in the Archive & Museum of Flemish Life in Brussels.

This turned out to be a very discreet museum near the city centre, in Visverkoperstraat. The exhibition, however, proved to be well worth searching out. While concentrating on paper records there were also some material of general interest, beermats, matchbox covers, etc. There was a rather worn 1935 tin, alongside a 1935 chocolate tin, depicting the Cote d'or chocolates stand. The tin was in mint condition and must surely have been acquired for the archives?

The display included organising letters, telegrams, etc., along with copies of the official publications and all the major magazine supplements, maps, labels etc., plus some marvellous posters. Included were details of the Flemish protest against EXPO '58. There were plenty of postcards, particularly the 1910 and 1935. There was also a wide range of leaflets issued by various pavilions.

There was no catalogue for this exhibition (which apparently only included a small part of the exposition archives) but the poster was available at 40p, thanks to the finances provided by the National Lottery and the Culture Ministry. The exhibition filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of Brussels exhibitions. I had been acquiring as many modern postcards showing the Atomium, the 1935 buildings, and the Chinese Pagoda and Japanese Tower as I could. Poster cards are available and I got a nice modern Thill Paris 1900 Exposition card advertising excursions to Brussels (820/4), 5th Salon du Cycle, Brussels, 1897 (820/6), and 1910 Universelle & Internationale (820/50).

I then asked about EXPO '58 cards and was usually offered around 200 cards to choose from, at 40p each. I also acquired an exhibition plan (from a postcard dealer). Having a base to work on, I have managed to make some sense of the SOMINEX system of postcard numbering and hope to show preliminary results in the Newsletter in due course.

At the airport I thought I'd bring back some Belgian chocolate. There I saw a fine 800gr tin of Cote d'Or 1935 Exposition toffees, yes, exactly the same as in the exhibition! I too have a mint tin.

Immediately on my return home, I got a call from a dealer friend. He had acquired a rather solid Atomium, stainless steel atoms on a heavy marble 1958 mounting. Was I interested? He also had three metallic buttonhole Atomium pin back badges.

As a final souvenir of Seville, there is the 20+5 peso Spanish stamp issued in 1989 depicting the Atomium and entitled 'Bruselas 1958' as part of a series showing the 1851 Crystal Palace, the 1889 Eiffel Tower, and Osaka 1970. In return Belgium issued a stamp to mark the Spanish Expo.

In 1958, the only stamps showing the Atomium were issued (apart from Belgium) by Haiti and San Marino.

Belgium has reproduced the Atomium several times on its stamps, I have noted 1983 (24th International Periodical Press Federation World Congress) and 1989 (Direct Elections).

Do readers know of any others?

© Exhibition Study Group 1992