I was invited to accompany my friend Bill to Denmark in September 1982. He was President of the Whitby Rotary Club in that year. At the age of only 33 Bill was the youngest president of the Rotary Club they had ever had by some decades! I tagged along as his friend. It was as a result of his position that he was invited to the Danish town of Ebeltoft to stay with the owner of a firm that specialised in interior design fabrics. Although we were staying as the owner of the firm’s guests, as two single men we had the use of our host’s modern holiday house in the marina. Being Scandinavia this was built of wood painted in the distinctive red oxide colour that you see so much of in the country. To get around the district we hired a couple of bicycles. It was mostly flat and the only hills were old sand dunes.

We flew to Copenhagen from Manchester Airport and once there we caught a ferry to Jutland. The town of Ebeltoft is on the same peninsular as Aarhus, and Copenhagen is on the island of Zealand. In 1982 it was truly isolated although since then Zealand has been connected to the European mainland by a bridge across the Great Belt. (The Little Belt between Jutland and the island of Funen had been bridged in 1935.) Not only is Copenhagen now connected with the rest of Denmark, but since the start of this century is has been connected by a bridge and tunnel to Sweden.

The old town of Ebeltoft has a lot of half-timbered single storey houses, mostly detached but quite small. We were particularly taken by the local delicacy, gingerbread. This was sold in all the bakers’ shops and elsewhere besides. In one way the gingerbread men sold in Denmark differ markedly from any sold in Britain; all the Danish figures display a large phallus! In the UK we would still find this rather shocking but obviously Scandinavians are different.

Entertained by the Rasmussens at home; I am facing the camera

Entertained by the Rasmussens at home; I am facing the camera

We were staying at the marina – Ebeltoft is a seaside town –  as guests of the Rasmussens, the owners of the firm Kvadrat. From the marina we were taken out for sail on the Baltic aboard his host’s forty-foot sailing yacht. A friend of the owner who accompanied us did not, unlike the Rasmussens, speak English. He thought that German (which he did speak) would be a better language to communicate with us than Danish, but in that he was mistaken; both languages are equally opaque to me and Bill. French would have been better as I have a smattering of that language, but that was another language he did not speak. I did however learn one German word from him, langsam, slowly; he thought I was handling the jib sheets too fast! One Danish word that we did learn from our hosts was hygge, the sense of cosy contentedness which is a major part of the Danish psyche.

After a week in Ebeltoft (where we also did things like having Danish breakfast with the family) we caught the train back to Copenhagen from Aarhus. This involved all the railway carriages (and the passenger inside) being driven into the ferry’s hold for the journey across the sea. In the capital we stayed for a few days experiencing the sights, like the Round Tower that you ascend by a spiral slope (not steps); this was built as an astronomical observatory back in the 17th century.  In 1716 the Empress of Russia Catherine the First (not Catherine the Great) was driven to the top in her carriage and four.  I am sure that going up was the easy part; it is  coming down again that would worry me and I’m sure it worried the horses too. Of course we made a visit to Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. The bronze statue sits beside the waves on Copenhagen’ shore. It was while touring the shops in Copenhagen that I was first acquainted with the work of the artist Carl Larsson.



Swedish Artist (1853-1919)

MidvinterblotHis most famous work is Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice – Death of King Dómaldi) in the Stockholm National Museum. He painted it in 1915. Despite is subsequent fame this painting was rejected by the committee and was only eventually purchased by the museum decades after his death.

The story of the sacrifice was related by the Saga writer Snorri; he took the tale from a ninth century poem and that says that it happened “a long time ago”. This was at the height of the Viking age. After a run of bad harvests the gathering of elders at Uppsala decided that oxen must be sacrificed to ensure a good harvest next year. This was done but again the harvest was no better so human sacrifice was substituted. Some victims were selected and executed but when for a third year the harvest failed it was unanimously decided that the fault must lie with the king himself, Dómaldi, and he must be sacrificed. The story ends at this point, with king’s blood staining the altar, and we are not told if this finally produced the desired effect and led to good harvest.

Larsson's picture of his family and dog.

Larsson’s picture of his family and dog.

More usual subjects for Larsson were however homely scenes of contemporary family life. These were what really appealed to the public and the depictions of the Larsson’s own home have had a lasting effect on Scandinavian interior design. The cottage in which they brought up their large brood of children was given them by his father-in-law. Larsson spent much time an effort in extending and decorating it, and his wife also made items for the home. She wove her own furnishing fabrics for example.

Carl Larsson has been a greatly loved artist in Scandinavia throughout the 20th century. He is less well-known outside the countries of Northern Europe but there his prints are a long running staple of popular taste in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany too. It was the increasing sophistication of colour printing in the 1890s that made his books so attractive, and they became widely sold, especially when taken up by a German publisher. After an impoverished childhood his obvious ability gained him a place at art school. As a young man he spent several years in Paris and it was while living in France that he met his wife, a fellow Swede. Despite living among the artists of France he never became influenced by French Impressionism. He is a painter in the Arts and Crafts style and his favourite subject was his own intimate view of his young family growing up. Not something we would associate with the French.




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