1910 – 2010:
Centenary of the Institut français du Royaume-Uni
The Institut français du Royaume-Uni, originally known as the Université des Lettres françaises, opened in 1910, the initiative of a young French woman, Marie d’Orliac, eager to introduce the London public to well-known writers, thinkers and artists from France.
Over the next ten years, the Institut moved several times from its original premises at Marble Arch House (nr. Connaught Place), finally settling at nos 15 – 17 Queensberry Place, where a stunning new art deco building was commissioned from French architect Patrice Bonnet (1879-1964). The Institut’s new home was inaugurated by President Albert Lebrun and HRH Princess Mary on 21 March 1939.
Inside, a sweeping staircase leads from the foyer area to the first floor, decorated by the famous Rodin statue L’Age d’Airain, and a tapestry by Sonia Delaunay. Situated immediately to the left of the staircase on the first floor is the Ciné lumière, refitted as a cinema and reopened in 1997 by Catherine Deneuve. A gallery on the first floor leads into the library’s wood-panelled main reading room, converted from its original use as a ballroom in 1950 by the architect Jean-Charles Moreux (1889-1956). The library underwent further refurbishment in 1995, when architect Jean-François Darin was brought in to fit open-access shelving, a spiral staircase, and a curved glass wall overlooking the first floor gallery. The newly-refurbished building was inaugurated on 15 May 1996 by President Jacques Chirac.
Over the course of its hundred-year history, the Institut has welcomed a variety of distinguished visitors. They include: Jean-Louis Barrault, Madeleine Renaud, Jean Renoir, Abel Gance, Darius Milhaud, André Maurois, Jacques Lacan and Willy Ronis. General de Gaulle, who with the Free French Forces used part of the Institut as a base during WW2, made a return visit in 1960.
The Institut today comprises a bistro, cinema (formerly a theatre) and library, with offices and reception rooms spread between the interconnecting sites at nos 15 and 17 Queensberry Place. The building’s distinctive red-brick exterior is decorated with columns incised with delicate lattice work and with brickwork and beige ceramic plaques depicting the graces of Minerva, the goddess of intelligence (wisdom, knowledge, courage and peace, symbolized by an owl, asp, cockerel and olive branch).
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