PRIDE doesn’t always come before a fall. In fact in Halsingland, Sweden, pride seems to have come before the development of a remarkable domestic art form. In this forested province, 275km north of Stockholm, a dazzlement of decoration, dating primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries, covers the interior walls and often the ceiling and furniture of hundreds of simple wooden farmhouses.
According to local legend, this artistic conspicuous consumption was designed simply to impress the neighbours.
Backing up this theory is the pencilled inscription found behind the window frame of one of these beautiful rooms, ‘NES, a rich farmer, built this house in the spring of 1807’.
Grown prosperous from timber and from flax, Halsingland farmers apparently vied with each other in providing not only colourfully decorated houses for their families, but more houses and more rooms than were actually needed or used.
There were separate structures for winter and summer, for parents, for servants, for guests. The guest building included a large room used only for occasional festivities and was the most elaborately decorated of all. Perhaps because they were so rarely used, many of these rooms remain in their original condition.
A few of the Halsingland farmhouses are now museums. Others are still lived in by the descendants of the original owners but open to the public. Some, long abandoned, are being restored. You can visit a number of them on a tour setting out from several places in Halsingland. I set out from Soderhamn.
The pine forests are the first thing you’ll notice. They circle the undulating farmland like dark, silent regiments. Seemingly inexhaustible, they were the source of more than one immense timber fortune.
They also provided the building materials for the farmhouses, which stretch like cats on the sunny slopes. In 1813, the country governor noted that “the houses and building of the common people can be called forest-consuming. . . the houses are usually built in long rows, only one room deep. The yard itself is a rectangle surrounded by all the buildings. One can easily imagine the amount of wood which is required for building and the amount which must be burned to give some little warmth”.
In fact, a forest-consuming Halsingland farmer might have 14 or 15 separate buildings in his complex, each constructed of interlocked timbers and roofed in birchbark and wood.
As for the richly decorated interiors, these were neither a do-it-yourself winter pastime nor the flowering of some private craft. Itinerant artists, some well known, others now anonymous, were employed to paint the murals directly on the walls or on paper stretched over linen. Often biblical scenes were featured, but floral motifs abounded too, surrounded by tromp l’oeil marble panels, or with garlands, or border upon decorative border.
The ‘Grand Salon’ of the Erik Anders house, not far from Soderhamn, is one of the most beautifully painted rooms in Halsingland. The typical wooden wainscotting, level with the low windowsills, is panelled with perfectly rendered false marbling in grey, matching the base of the white tile stove.
Above the wainscotting the large marbled panels are in sky blue, bordered with delicate tromp l’oeil scrolls.
Exquisite swags of white flowers are painted above the doors. The effect of ‘found’ elegance is underscored by the contrast with the customary bare board floor and the white plank ceiling.
While this room remained untouched since it was painted in the 1850s, other rooms in the Anders house were re-decorated as tastes changed with the times. So today, while the foyer also retains its bright 1850s marbling effects, the small salon wears the brown- patterned wallpaper fashionable in the 1880s.
One of the farm’s two kitchens still looks exactly as it has since the 1920s, the other is a relic of the 1930s.
About 45km north of Soderhamn, where the distant Storberget mountains frame lake Funstasjon and a fertile valley, there’s a farmhouse called Ystegarn. A kind of domestic ‘Sleeping Beauty’ this house lay locked and abandoned for six years until the village of Hillsta took over its maintenance in 1998.
Because the farm had passed down through generations of a single family from 1747 until 1960 almost all of the contents remain in place. It is now a listed building and a rare surviving example of the once typical ‘rectangular farms’, where the buildings are arranged around a central grassy lawn.
Perhaps the main glories of the Ystegarn complex are three remarkable entrance doors by Jons Mansson, a carpenter and painter who worked in this parish from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. Like pieces of rococo furniture, the white-washed doors are intricately carved, bevelled and panelled, each different, each a work of art, mute testimony to the considerable wealth of the family within.
Ystegarn is also famed for the remarkably bold painted room in the guest building. Glowing in the light of large windows, the wall above the pale wooden boards of the wainscotting are deep orange set off by a deep and particularly beautiful painted ribbon border in shades of brown and cream. A cream-coloured corner cupboard carved and ornamented with panels of orange flowers still stands where it was placed over 200 years ago.
DRIVING inland about 25 kilometres brings you to Vij and the small open air museum of Delsbo. In one of these buildings is a room with an impact which is almost physical. Walls and ceiling are covered with intricately painted panels dating from the mid1700s, the muted natural pigments the artist employed still alive and fresh. The work of a local painter, Corporal Gustav Reuter, the principal scenes are alleged, to depict stories from the bible. Actually, the three wise men look distinctly like well-mounted wealthy farmers but it is thought that the biblical interpretation was a mollifying gesture to the local clergy.
There are many more decorated Halsingland farmhouses, perhaps as many as 200 of them in total. The work of restoration, of duplicating faded wall papers, of patching blotched wall paintings, rebuilding sagging rooms, is supported by the contemporary version of community pride, a recognition of the painted farmhouses as a unique national treasure.
The helpful, English speaking staff of the Halsingland Tourist Bureau will arrange for you to see a restoration in progress on request and they can also lay out a circuit of farmhouses and museums for you to visit. In season, they can provide details of bus tours of Halsingland farmhouses.
For information: halsingland.com