Many Belgians doubtless still recognise this banknote, but do they know the identity of the man depicted on it? Henri Beyaert was one of the most influential architects that Belgium has ever known. With prestigious projects such as the Petit Sablon park and the Concert Noble in Brussels or Tournai station, he became decidedly famous. However, the reason for this portrait lies in his designs for the National Bank, especially the Bank’s Hotel in Brussels, the building in which the museum is housed, and the Antwerp branch of the Bank, depicted next to him on the banknote.
Over the years, the National Bank was the model for many bank buildings, even providing the inspiration for the National Bank of Japan. However, in Belgium Beyaert is best known for the fact that his studio laid the foundations for the most innovative and famous Belgian architectural movement: Art Nouveau. Victor Horta and Paul Hankar learnt from Beyaert how to make use of metal in construction and decoration, how to combine colourful materials, create patterns of flowing lines and make use of light and dark, the importance of modern comfort and, above all, the view that every building should be a work of art, down to the smallest details.
All these elements are already evident in the Bank’s Hotel, even though Beyaert was only 36 when he entered the design competition in 1860. The design that he submitted jointly with Wynand Janssens was the most rational, simple and refined. In contrast, its execution almost foundered owing to the notorious perfectionism of the architect. When the building was at last completed after 14 years, it soon proved to be too small, and Beyaert had to design an additional complex.
A surprising feature of this second phase is Beyaert’s inclusion of a representation of himself at the top of the spiral staircase in the so-called Tour Beyaert. It was sculpted by Egide Mélot, but designed by Beyaert himself. The Tour Beyaert has since gone, but the statue was preserved and put in the museum. It should not just be seen as a sign of vanity, but rather as an attempt by Beyaert to live on in his work, just like a mediaeval craftsman …
Let us take a closer look. Beyaert has a pair of compasses in his left hand – a reference to his profession or to freemasonry? – and is looking at us with amusement as well as curiosity. Unlike other images which we have of Beyaert, the architect is not wearing glasses. A sign of vanity after all? The figure’s acrobatic pose and the inscription beneath it indicate that Beyaert was able to take a very humorous view of himself. The last lines, in particular, reveal exceptional candour. As the tenth child of a bourgeois family, the young Beyaert had limited prospects. His father had intended him to pursue a career as a bank clerk, but Hendrik had a passion for architecture. In order to gain entry to the right circles, he married an older (wealthy) woman at a fairly young age. However, in 1876 – the date when he designed this statue – destiny struck. he fell in love with Athalie Dhuicque, who was 25 years younger than him, and bore him four children. Hence his plea: “Pray for his poor soul / he thinks it will be necessary“.
- W. Pluym e.a., The Hôtel of the governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Antwerp, 1995.
- J. Victoir & J. Vanderperren, Henri Beyaert. Du Classicisme à l’Art Nouveau, Sint-Martens-Latem, 1992.