Founded in 1808 in the modest Frascati café, the Agricultural and Botanical Society of Ghent celebrated its centenary in 1908 with one of its five-yearly exhibitions, which are universally renowned.
Modest in its beginnings, it organised an exhibition in 1809, which brought together fifty plants, arranged around the bust of Napoleon. Each exhibitor could only send two plants; the date of the exhibition coincided with the feast of Saint Dorothea, patron saint of gardeners.
Later, the Floralies were held in other places, at the "Sodalité", rue du Marais, at the Flora room, rue de la Caverne, at the Hôtel de ville, and in the peristyle room of the University; in 1834, the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Society suggested to its members the idea of having a garden and premises large enough to hold the flower exhibitions. The Molenberg, along the Canal de la Coupure, was chosen; the acquisition of several other properties enabled the garden and the buildings to be given the importance they have retained and which was further increased in 1868 by the construction of the large three-nave hall, in which the triennial Salons des Beaux-Arts and the quinquennial Floralies have since been held.
The first of these was held in 1839, and the following ones followed with a constant increase in importance and success. In 1912, the number of greenhouses was estimated at fifteen thousand, most of which were located around the city. The horticultural industry in Ghent and its suburbs employed at least 25,000 people and exported 20 million francs, more than a tenth of which went to the United States of America. No industry combines to such a complete degree the type of the family work site with the union of the factory and the domestic home.
Statistics show the expansion of the five-yearly Floralies; in 1820, 750 plants were exhibited instead of the 50 of the Estaminet Frascati; in 1830, the figure rose to 1400; it reached 10,000 in 1873; in 1893, it rose to 13,000, to be increased again in 1898 and in 1913. The number of competitions rose from 240 in 1868, to 660 in 1883, to 750 in 1908, to 841 in 1913.
These figures speak for themselves and attest to the greatness of the progress made and the magnificent growth of the Royal Society for Agriculture and Botany. Its distinguished president has rightly said that the gardeners gathered in Frascati in 1808, if they were given to contemplate the efflorescence of their enterprise, would have some difficulty in recognising it.
The organisers of the 1913 Universal Exhibition were right to associate the world-renowned five-yearly Floralies with their work. From the very beginning of their studies, they established as a principle the coincidence of the two events; the City of Flowers had to associate them with its valiant effort; they had to serve as an ornament in the eyes of the nations invited to bring their products and to visit its fairy palaces.
Anxious to give this event exceptional splendour, the Executive Committee took the bold initiative of building a palace covering an area of more than 27,000 m2 to organise successively the Spring, Summer and Autumn Floralies. This was the immense Festival Palace, designed by the general managers in collaboration with the architect Oscar Van de Voorde; the name of Flower Palace would have better expressed the initial thought behind this vast construction, built on the site of the inner courtyard of the old citadel built under Napoleon.
As soon as the first openings were made, the Royal Society of Agriculture and Botany eagerly welcomed the proposals made to it by Messrs. Casier and de Smet de Naeyer on behalf of the Executive Committee; an agreement was promptly drawn up and signed by the board of directors of the Society organising the Floralies and by the delegates of the Society of the Universal Exhibition; on the stipulated date, the palace was ready and placed at the disposal of the horticulturists. For four years, they had already been preparing the work with method, the fruit of long experience. The public, enjoying a grandiose spectacle, does not think of the toil, the fatigue, and the concerns of all kinds that the enterprise, whose marvellous success they have witnessed, has entailed. The five-yearly exhibition of 1913 was the apotheosis of Belgian horticulture; its unprecedented success is largely due to the organising committee of the Floralies, appointed by the Board of Directors of the Royal Horticultural and Botanical Society.
Chaired by Mr. Alexis Callier, public prosecutor at the Ghent Court of Appeal, the board also included, among its members, Mr. Albert Ceuterick, vice-president; Fucien de Cock, general secretary; R. Delmotte, assistant secretary; Maurice Duquesnoy, treasurer; Mr. Heursel, librarian; B. de Cock, Count de Kerchove de Denterghem, Arthur de Smet, Romain de Smet, Charles Pynaert, Fouis Van Houtte and Kdg. Wartel. Many of these names are reminiscent of the founders of the largest horticultural establishments in the Ghent region; their participation ensured the success of the flower shows.
But it would be unfair not to pay an outstanding tribute to the organising committee, chaired by Mr. Bdgard Wartel and composed of Messrs. Fucien de Cock, R. Delmotte, Fr. Burvenich père, Arthur de Smet, the distinguished president of the Higher Horticultural Council, Romain de Smet and Victor Heursel. Those who saw these valiant workers at work pay sincere tribute to their high competence, their tireless activity, their tenacious energy and their total dedication to the common interests of horticulture and the country. Thanks to them, the Ghent Universal Exhibition opened with a floral symphony and a dreamlike wonderment that were crowned with resounding success; for eight days, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to Ghent; during the last days, the crowds had to be refused entry to the ticket offices; the orchid halls had to be closed in order to protect the stands from dangerous throngs.
The exceptional success of the 1913 Floralies was justified by the abundance of contributions, the surrounding setting and the artistic layout of the cold and hot greenhouses and the orchid lounges.
The view was breathtaking and kept the eyes of the visitors enthralled for a long time. In the large hall of more than 14,000 square metres, Mr. Burvenich Sr., the talented landscape architect, had laid out a French-style garden that was skilfully designed to showcase the work of each horticulturist and to provide overall views that were as attractive in harmony as they were in colour variety. This arrangement satisfied the technicians; it charmed the visitors; the extreme walls of the room were decorated with paintings in which the artists had painted parks planted with large trees and whose paths were lost in the distance. Between the parterres in the centre and the severe-looking landscapes, the experienced planner had created clever transitions. In the centre, beds of azaleas in a variety of colours were combined with large carnations of a fine tone; further on, the rhododendrons accentuated their deep, mauve note; elsewhere, the strong reds of the begonias responded to the whole varied range of Indian roses and azaleas; they intermingled with the soft purplish grey of the heliotropes, as well as the pearly whites of the hydrangeas.
Opposite the rhododendrons, a beautiful diorama painted by Joseph Bertrand framed the remarkable, perhaps unique, collection of Mr. Firmin de Smet. In another annex, Mad. Osterrieth had exhibited a variety of plants in an enchanting garden; between the flowers of Japan, Brazil, Congo and the shores of the Mediterranean, a winding path led the visitor to the ruins of a Greek temple.
Next to the huge hall devoted to flowers, the 6,000 square metre hot greenhouse was reserved for palms, crotons and all varieties of plants with variegated foliage.
The plan of this hall was the work of Mr. Charles Pynaert, head of one of the great horticultural establishments. The irregular layout gave the visitor the impression of a walk through the most beautiful winter garden; at the back of the hall, the most formidable collection of palms that one has ever seen in an exhibition was the contribution of the Ghent Horticultural Society; the Van Houtte establishment, the Jules de Cock firm, the de Smet brothers, F. Spae, Flanders, in short, the entire horticultural aristocracy, had given their all.
One critic wrongly said: on the one hand, too many flowers; on the other, too much greenery. The organisers are to be commended for having adopted this division, which is in keeping with the climatic requirements of both palms and flowers. From the point of view of the impression to be produced, it was profitable to create an opposition between the high and strong masses of tropical plants and the fine and delicate shades of flowers such as azaleas and roses; each of the two rooms had a different character and this opposition aroused the visitor's interest.
It was also with a very refined sense of delicate enjoyment that the organisers had reserved for cut flowers and orchids the salons surrounding the concert hall on both floors. Is the orchid really the spoiled daughter of fashion, as was said after the 1913 Floralies? Whatever one thinks of this joke, no one has disputed the superiority of the considerable effort made by Belgian orchid lovers. The result was a complete success; elsewhere, notably in London, more numerous collections could be seen; no exhibition was richer in rare varieties.
Considered as a whole, the Spring Floralies once again consecrated the supremacy of Belgian horticulture; this was attested by the importance of a programme comprising more than a thousand competitions judged by representatives of the main countries of Europe and America, by the quality of the products exhibited and their exceptionally grandiose presentation. A foreign horticulturist acknowledged that this event definitively established Belgium's superiority in the acclimatisation and perfect cultivation of plants and flowers.
This exceptional success honours the Royal Society of Agriculture and Botany of Ghent; by grouping the efforts of horticulturists, it has accomplished a noble patriotic mission. The sentiment that inspires it finds its expression in its motto: Veneficia mea, quintes, haec sunt. May it continue to organise the victory of Belgian horticulture for many years to come! The Ghent Spring Floralies are a patriotic institution that cannot disappear; their continuation must be ensured; in this respect we have faith in those who lead the destiny of this enterprise and who, in 1913, gave indisputable proof of their activity, their competence and their untiring devotion.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle & Internationale de Gand 1913