Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Idyll of Leopold & Astrid

I have quoted before from the memoirs of the Russian sculptress, Catherine Barjansky. During the 1920's and 1930's, she was a friend of the Belgian royal family. She did portraits of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, and taught the Queen the art of sculpting. She has left us touching portrayals of Albert, Elisabeth, Leopold and Astrid. Here is her description of the happy young love of Leopold and Astrid, in the early days before tragedies darkened their world...
It was during that first stay in Brussels that the Queen said to me one day, "I have a surprise for you. Tomorrow you are to start modeling my son and his wife. You know my daughter-in-law is Swedish, very tall and beautiful And my son is so handsome."

She laughed at her own maternal pride and then added; "They will expect you at eleven tomorrow in the palace in Brussels. They are very timid, so you must not wait for them to talk to you, just talk to them. They are terribly in love. We have given them an apartment in the right wing of the palace, where they are entirely alone except for one servant, Leopold's valet, who has been with them since he was a child. I didn't want to impose a lady in waiting on Astrid when she was just married."

The next morning a footman took me into a big corner room in the palace in Brussels, where Leopold and Astrid were waiting. He was an extraordinarily handsome man, and she was very young, very thin, kind and charming. They had been married only three months, and she was already extremely popular in Belgium.

Later they told me that after the wedding in Sweden Leopold returned to Brussels alone to prepare for a second wedding ceremony in Belgium. He and the royal family went to Antwerp to greet his bride. She arrived on a white steamer. She was dressed entirely in white, her suit, her furs, everything. A crowd of thousands of people were waiting to welcome her. Leopold, nearly running, went to meet her, and Astrid threw her arms around him and kissed him, a manifestation that the crowd had not expected but heartily approved. Leopold gave her a bouquet of white flowers, and she held one in her hand, waving.

Her features were not really beautiful, her nose was a little too long, her chin too short and prominent, but she had a beautiful body, almost as tall as Leopold, and a wonderful pink-and-white complexion.

She talked to us in English because she did not yet know enough French. She was obviously madly in love with her husband. The first few times I saw them, they were shy, but after that they always sat in the same chair, kissing each other all the time, except when Astrid, who was in the first stages of her pregnancy, would ring a bell, ask for a lemon, and eat it.

Once I asked her how she had met Prince Leopold.

"He came to see us with his mother," she said. "You know we lived in the country in a big house." She went on to talk about her father whom she loved deeply, her mother, her two sisters, her brothers. She was an artless girl of completely simple tastes. Her eyes shone as she spoke of Leopold.

"He came with his mother, and I did not know who he was. They told me he was Mr. Alexander. And then in a few days we fell in love, and now I am so happy."

Later she told me how much the Queen had helped her in her adjustment to a strange country and duties that were completely foreign to her. "She has never seemed like a mother-in-law," she said. "She has been a sister."

When the time came for her son to marry, the Queen of Belgium had gone from country to country with him, where he met the royal princesses. None of them made any impression on him. Astrid was not the daughter of the King of Sweden, she was his niece, and because she had few official duties she had led a quiet family life in the country. She and her sisters had walked alone through the streets of Stockholm, shopping, going to movies, like private individuals.

Belgium, however, did not approve of this informality. There were rules of etiquette that must not be broken, and that the simple Swedish country girl could not learn. Once while I was modeling her, I dropped one of my tools. Before I could reach it Princess Astrid had bent over to pick it up, and we bumped our heads together.

After the birth of her first child, Astrid, like any proud mother, wanted to show off her baby, and with her Swedish simplicity she walked through the streets of Brussels, pushing the baby carriage. The aristocracy was not amused. Complaints were made to King Albert who, informal and natural himself, sympathized with the daughter-in-law for whom he felt great affection. He gave Leopold and Astrid another palace out of town in Laeken where they were surrounded by trees and lawns, and not by houses filled with curious and observant eyes.


aarondavidson said...

What a lovely photograph and interesting first hand account. I will remember Astrid on Saturday.

May said...

Thank you! I will be commemorating her, too.