My daughter and the king

The king died suddenly, aged 62, on 31 July 1993, on holiday in Spain. He is affectionately but not deeply remembered in a country where people are generally positive but unenthusiastic about the monarchy. A modest man, there are not many things named after him, apart from the country’s major football stadium and the canal from Bruges to Zeebrugge.

There is one small corner of land dedicated to his memory. Hoegaarden, 40 km east of Brussels, is most famous for its distinctive white beer. Like many small Belgian towns, it was originally a settlement around a monastery. The monks were kicked out in the late eighteenth century revolutionary period, and the chapterhouse with its gardens sold to a local family. The last of the family died in 1980 (murdered by his gardener, as it happens) and the municipality took over the property, renting out the gardens to the Flemish Show Garden Association from 1991. They weren’t able to maintain it in the long term, and management has now reverted back to the municipality.

A number of small show gardens were set up in the park in the 1990s, and a year after the king died, a special patch was created in his honour, a prize-winning design by Ingrid Garcia Fernandez. In 1998 a terracotta bust of the late monarch was unveiled, produced by local artist Karel Hadermann. The king’s dovecote was moved to be near the bust and garden, but unfortunately the doves were all eaten by stone martens and the dovecote itself was allowed to decay. It has now been demolished and there is a new entrance to the park at the corner of Elst and Maagdenblokstraat, opening straight onto the memorial garden.

My daughters live close to Hoegaarden, and it’s one of the places I sometimes take my older daughter B when I visit. The first couple of times that we went, I got the feeling that she didn’t really like it that much, and then in the summer of 2016 she spotted the king, and fell in love.

I don’t bring her all that often – you don’t want the charm to wear off – but I take her one a year or so. Here she is in 2018, getting up close to the king.

In 2020 I got a short video of her interaction with him.

And we went back again last weekend, where I took the picture at the top of this post.

I think that for someone like B, people are fundamentally puzzling and not always attractive to engage with. She often likes to get up close and stare into people’s faces. The king doesn’t mind her doing that, and he doesn’t mind her poking him with her fingers. Looking at these pictures again, I think she’s also interested by the way his body merges with the plinth. He has a somewhat enigmatic and intriguing expression, which on the other hand is not at all threatening. (Here’s a better shot of his face, with F beside him.)

So, if you’re in the Hoegaarden area, do pop by and visit the king; and say hi from me and B.

Edited to add:

I sent this post to the sculptor. He replied:

Dear Nicholas Whyte,

I was very moved by your email and the information on the webpage.  The statue of King Boudewijn was my first commissioned statue.  King Boudewijn was not a very happy man.  He loved children very much but did not succeeded in having one of his own.  He was very young and rather unprepared when he was put upon the throne after the abdication of his father King Leopold III.  So I gave him that look that is at the same time worrying and friendly.  I have since that statue evolved in the use of techniques and materials.  Your daughter demonstrates exactly what I think that art should do.  It cannot make the world a better place but when it succeeds – even for a short moment – to bring joy (or another emotion) to a person it has fulfilled his goal.  Many thanks for sharing this with me.

Greetings to you and your daughter,