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( Originally Published 1913 )
I was in France when news arrived that the Brussels Exhibition, and particularly the British Section, was flaming, and I searched the French newspapers for details in vain. English newspapers were hardly more explicit as to the destruction done upon the exhibits of old treasures, and one could only imagine what conflagration of antiques and uniques had occurred. When details of the disaster became available, it was clear that nothing so hard upon British collections and collectors had occurred since 1873, when the Alexandra Palace flamed to the sky.
"Shutting the Stable Door." To say that precious originals should never be exhibited in temporary structures is to be wise after the event; to say that fire services on the Continent are often unready and hysterical, is to say what every experienced traveller knows. Fireproof buildings, without a shred of wood in them, ought to be insisted on before any exhibitor consents to send his treasures to a temporary exhibition. The Alexandra Palace was supposed to be a permanent structure, safe enough "safe as houses" but a light falling upon shavings was all that was needed to set the "permanent structure" ablaze. In a few moments the flaming roof had crashed down upon the first and finest collection of old English china and earthenware ever got together, before or since. Lovely and unreplaceable specimens were smashed, fused, coagulated, triturated, long before aid could arrive.
Done for at Brussels. The Brussels disaster was more grievous than even the one at the Alexandra Palace. Listen: a splendid Chippendale china-cabinet, enshrining rare "Chelsea" and "Worcester" - four thousand pounds' worth gone at a puff ! Listen again : another collection, containing close on a hundred choice examples of old furniture and porcelain-burnt to the last item.
An array of fifty-six rare old Toby-jugs, some of them unique, the pride and joy of their owner, and the triumph of many collecting years-soon bis-cuit, twice baked, and cracked into potsherds. A superb great panel of Mortlake tapestry, one of the few which England can set against the boast of the Gobelins and Flemish looms-mere dust. A group of fine seventeenth and eighteenth century English chairs, screens, and cabinets-embers. An Elizabethan room, of carved oak; an Elizabethan house, made up, but every component of it genuinely antique; two panelled rooms complete with contemporary furniture, one of them adorned with Grinling Gibbons' carving -ashes. Part of the Old Wedgwood Museum from Etruriafini ! A "Chinese Chippendale" collection, delicate woodwork almost inconceivably fine-smoke! Rare " Adam mantelpieces in Carrara marble-mere carbon again. Jacobean candelabra-melted. Tudor bedsteads, Cromwellian chairs, gate-leg tables, brocade settees But the catalogue is too grievous to complete.
Compensations. The insurance money was paid, but could not equal the values destroyed; the finest antiques go up in worth by leaps and bounds year by year. And it is always difficult to assess values alley a fire. The chief compensation seemed to be the fine effect upon Belgian and other Continental opinion produced by the spectacle of British fortitude, pluck, and enterprise in reconstituting the British Section which had come to so tragic an end, and by the grace and generosity shown in not claiming damages from the Belgian Government. "Ah, ces Anglais!" people abroad have said, with envy and admiration this time, in place of the satirical emphasis so often put upon those words. But what can compensate the private collectors, whose pride and joy in their treasures is gone ?