Current exhibition: “Treasures of the Palace”

"Treasures of the Palace"
The Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, is currently undergoing a two-year renovation. For the duration of the work the president has moved out together with his staff and all representation takes place in temporary offices elsewhere. This long period of closure opened up opportunities to let conservationists work on its collections, and to display it to the public.

Said and done, Ateneum (The Finnish National Gallery) opened this exhibition back in April. I had a chance to visit it during my recent summer stay in Finland. Earlier on members of the public could even watch the conservation department work on some of the pieces in the museum, but that was likely on summer break or done with by the time I had a chance to go…

“Treasures of the Palace” starts with a bang on the second floor. As you enter the main hall of the exhibition you are met with the gigantic painting ”Alexander II opens the Diet in 1863 at the Imperial Palace” by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. The huge painting, on loan from the House of Nobility in Helsinki, shows the opening of the Diet of the Estates on 18 September 1863 and those interested in the personalities of the day can borrow an identification map to learn the names of many of the figures appearing in front of the tsar. The painting clearly shows a Finnish lion coat of arms behind a chandelier above the tsar’s podium, perhaps one sign of Alexander II:s benevolent attitude towards his Finnish country and one of the reasons why he is still today held in such good esteem by many.

Photo: Hannu Pakarinen / Finnish National Gallery's Central Art Archives

Photo: Hannu Pakarinen / Finnish National Gallery’s Central Art Archives

The exhibition shows art, sculptures, furniture, clocks, chandeliers, tableware and an Iconostasis. Weaved into these categories is also the story of the palace and its varying use through the centuries, told through sketches, drawings, photos and texts.

The Presidential Palace’s art comes from two collections; the Imperial Collection and Ateneum’s deposited collection. The Imperial Collection consists of art bought during the era of the Grand Duchy of Finland, mainly from the second half of the 19th century, and consists of some (nationalistic) pieces that show the defence of Russian soil as well as many landscape depictions. Most of this collection stems from Alexander II:s time and almost all pieces are by Finnish artists. The Ateneum collection at the palace started after Finland’s independence and has shifted through the years.

One of the paintings from the Imperial Collection is “Anchorage in Copenhagen III, 1890” by Albert Edelfelt. It was commissioned by Alexander III in 1889 and shows the home town of his wife, Danish-born Empress Maria Feodorovna. Edelfelt painted three versions of this motif, encouraged to work on the colours which the empress first found “too bland”, and one of them was purchased for her personal collection.

The extensive collection of tableware shown is topped by two dinner sets; the imperial one bought in Russia in the 1850’s, crowned with the grand ducal coat of arms, and the current presidential state dinner set with the Finnish lion. One can also view some photos of palace life from the tsarist era as well as the later presidential one, and there many photos of the traditional independence day ball through the years as well as a photo of how the state dinner set was used by Queen Elizabeth II at a state visit in 1976.

One room shows the sculptural busts of the presidents of Finland and the painted portraits of the spouses of the president. The first ladies (a term not used in Finland) are normally displayed in the apartment of the empress on the palace’s second floor and thus usually have a very limited exposure.

A portable iconostasis painted on canvas as well as other religious objects from the palace’s former orthodox chapel, a room now used as a library, are exhibited in their own room. It was acquired for palace in 1834 and was transferred to Ateneum’s collections in 1919.

Accompanying the exhibition is an audio guide in which the current living presidents and their spouses have selected their favourite piece of art from the collection and tells the visitors about it (the non-Finnish versions are narrated by others).

“Treasures of the Palace” is on until 1 September 2013.

A visit to Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs (Louhisaari))

About 30 kilometres north of Åbo (Turku in Finnish), on the southwest coast of Finland, lies an unusually grand manor estate tucked into the local landscape and well hidden between long avenues of old trees. Villnäs as it is called in Swedish (Louhisaari in Finnish), is one of the country’s finest and grandest manors and thanks to a particular Finnish national hero it is also one of the most well known.

Villnäs lies near a local bay with access to the Gulf of Finland, a strategic choice in the estate’s early history which dates back to the 15th century and probably meant that the main house was situated next to the water for most of its existence. The estate of Villnäs passed into its first (in the future famous) hands in the middle of the 15th century when Magnus Fleming married Elin Nilsdotter whose family possessed it.

Today’s corps-de-logi of Villnäs stands in a barren renaissance style, it was finished in 1655. The owner and builder was Baron Herman Claesson Fleming af Lieblitz (1619-1673), a man from a prominent family in royal service who was born in Finland and after a great career with many positions of state receded to Sweden’s eastern country-half (Finland) as its Governor-General after the death of King Karl X Gustav. Villnäs then remained in the Fleming family until 1791 when a heavily indebted descendant had to sell.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs’ corps-de-logi has two wings, one on either side of the cour d’honneur, and there is a sense of strict symmetry and simplicity in the style and layout. A few kilometres away from the manor lies the church, once under patronage of the estate owner, which was erected around the same time as the manor and is seen from the air connected to the main buildings via straight lines.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)Above the wooden door to the corps-de-logi is the only break from the otherwise barren renaissance facade; a portal of sandstone where, although most of the text is unreadable, you can see the construction year of 1655 written. The corps-de-logi of three floors (plus a cellar underneath, dating back further than the construction year) is built of bricks and is after hundreds of years of function as a home that has been adapted to suit the inhabitants and times, much of its present condition is restored to the original 17th century state.

In 1795 Baron Carl Erik Mannerheim (1759–1837) bought Villnäs. The Mannerheim family originally came from the Netherlands or Germany to Sweden and Carl Erik became the first member of the family to permanently take up residence in Finland. He first used Villnäs as a permanent home and later as a summer home and Carl Erik held important positions when Finland became Russian and was later raised to comital stature by Emperor Alexander I of Russia.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)In 1867 Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951), The Marshal of Finland, was born at Villnäs. He spent his first years living at the estate and later spent many summers there. The Marshal is the reason why Villnäs is today so famous and attracts around 30.000 (or so I was told) visitors per year.

The Mannerheim family held on to Villnäs until 1903 and after that it passed through the hands of various (non-noble) hands until it was donated to the Finnish state in 1961. The donation came from the delegation that raised funds for the mounted Marshal Mannerheim statue that stands in Helsinki, they managed to raise so much money that there were enough left over to purchase Villnäs and give it to the state as a museum.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)Between 1962 and 1967 the corps-de-logi and wings of Villnäs were transformed into a permanent museum. The first and third floors of the corps-de-logi were largely returned to their 17th century state. The first floor was previously used by servants and as storage, today it is used to exhibit simple time-typical items, for local archaeological finds and as a lecture space. There is no sign other than an open fireplace of the old kitchen. The third floor which originally held the ceremonial rooms has, because of its later old fashionedness and lesser importance, been well preserved and is now largely decorated with items borrowed from The National Museum of Finland.

The second floor, where the families of Villnäs used to live, displays the styles from the 18th to 19th centuries and is the only of the manor’s floors where one can feel some familiarity. This is also where there are some pieces left from the Mannerheim era and rooms have been re-created into what they were when some family members had their own bedrooms there and so on. The interior decorating styles vary with the times; from rococo to Gustavian and biedermeier. In the dining room one can admire the family’s dinner sets; one for everyday use and one for more special occasions. In the Count’s library the original book cases still remain and a quick glance at the original book collection shows very clearly that Finnish was not often spoken or read in the family. Portraits of members of the Mannerheim family give the rooms the most feel of originality and many of them were donated by the family to The National Museum of Finland some decades ago.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

The interior of the two wings is very simple. In one of them there is a billiard’s room (moved from the main house) and a room that displays the various handicraft women devoted themselves to, in the other there are traces of an old kitchen and laundry room plus a museum office and shop.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs is surrounded by a large English landscape park. There are gravel paths surrounded by tree avenues in different directions and large trees placed here and there in the park and on the backside of the corps-de-logi. There is a beach pavilion or bathing house from 1825 and a playhouse used by the Mannerheim children. Earlier traces of a kitchen garden, walled gardens, apple orchards and other kept gardens are largely gone. In front of the manor there is a wonderful map of the estate for the blind, they can feel the layout and also read where everything is situated.

In the park of Villnäs there is a monument in memory of Marshal Mannerheim, leaving visitors with one of his concluded wisdoms for Finland and other countries:
– A small country’s greatest strength is its unanimity.

To see more of my photos from Villnäs, please visit my Flickr stream.

A visit to Lobkowicz Palace

One of the two highlights of my recent trip to Prague, the Czech Republic, was definitely the Lobkowicz Palace inside the Prague Castle complex. The palace is the only privately owned part of the castle and is one of many residences that members of the Lobkowicz family has managed to get back from the state. And at Lobkowicz Palace they certainly have done the most of it!

Lobkowicz Palace

In the most wonderful audio guide I have ever listened to, Prince William Lobkowicz, occasionally joined by other family members, takes visitors on a personal tour of the palace as well as the family’s history.
– Probably the most remarkable thing, certainly in the past 100 years, is that we’ve lost everything twice, and gotten it back twice, William says at the beginning of the tour when one has climbed the stairs to begin a wander through a suite of rooms. What a way to start, I thought! The audio guide goes on to present both the items you view as well as the family’s history in an excellent way, nicely paired with some background music from composers of the time.

– Even after 50 years of exile, I have vivid memories of riding my bike down the long galleries of Roudnice Castle, feeling the weight of my disapproving ancestors looking down on me, Prince William’s father Prince Martin tells visitors in front of a painting of the castle. In 1939 Prince Martin fled the Nazi occupation with his family, leaving behind the family’s thirteen castles and a large collection of art and other objects.

In 1945 the Lobkowicz family could return to a liberated country and reclaim their property but only three years later, in 1948, they had to flee the communists who seized everything once again. The Lobkowicz family couldn’t return until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the restitution of some of their properties and collections has been a process going into the 21st century.

The collection at Lobkowicz Palace is beautifully presented both in the way the exhibitions are made and how the audio guide gives a personal presentation of many items. There is a very impressive collection of family portraits, paintings, porcelain, armoury, religious items, dog portraits and musical instruments and scores. For lovers of classical music it’s a real treat to see original instruments and scores by Beethoven (who left personal dedications to Lobkowicz family members), Mozart (including his re-orchestrated version of Händel’s Messiah), Haydn and Guck.

One instantly recognizable piece at the Lobkowicz Palace after last year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom was “The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day” by Antonio Canaletto. The painting, of circa 1750, was on loan to the exhibition “Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames” at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a good part of 2012 and featured in many reviews and articles about the Thames Diamond Jubilee flotilla. Also this painting, which is the second of two in a series, has an interesting story of how it came into the Lobkowicz family – but I’ll let you visit the palace to hear about that (I don’t want to spoil all the gems of the audio tour!).

Prepare to spend quite a good amount of time at the palace and when you’re done what better place to sit down and relax than the palace’s café, featuring beautiful views down over Prague? The establishment has a small but good menu, the food is of good quality and taste as far as I could tell. My travelling companion and I both tried the carrot cake from a family recipe and it was excellent.

I ended up spending quite a long time at Lobkowicz Palace and when I left there was only one thing itching me – why is there not a good English or bi-lingual book about the family? I asked in the palace shop if they knew of any books about the family being published but to no avail. With such a rich and fascinating history as well as some very charismatic family members who are good at telling stories, a good comprehensive book about the Lobkowicz family and their properties and collections is long overdue.

Lobkowicz Palace café's terrace

A week in and around Prague

Walking from from Prague Castle

Prague façadeRecently I spent a week in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. After hearing and reading so many good things about the city it was time for a visit, so off I went and was very happy that a Danish friend with similar interests was able to join me there.

I arrived to a city pouring with rain and with grey skies looming. When I stopped at the reception desk to check in, after some trouble finding the hotel as the streets were quite empty of people (to ask directions from) as the worst showers came down, a small puddle of water formed around my feet. The lady behind the desk probably thought I looked miserable and immediately upgraded me to a double room and gave me a free drink ticket.

After installing ourselves at the hotel we grabbed our umbrellas and left to explore the city. At Náměstí Republiky, one of our first stops of the trip was the magnificent art nouveau Municipal House which is the home of the 1918 declaration of Czechoslovakia’s independence and today a concert venue and the place of a very elegant restaurant. We then passed the Powder Gate, an original city gate and former gunpowder storage site, and walked into the Staré Město (Old Town).

The Powder GatePrague’s old town is the most crowded part of the city, its narrow cobble stone streets require comfortable shoes and a good helping of patience if there on a day without rain – but when we fist came there the rain had cleared the streets of the huge crowds and it gave us a chance to really see the buildings.

In Prague in general, everywhere one looks there are the most amazingly beautiful façades. I quickly learned that one could spend the entire stay with the nose pointing towards the sky (looking at façades) and that taking photos is best done only occasionally as one could easily fill memory card after memory with photos of beautiful buildings.

Our first dinner was eaten at Hotel U Prince at the Old Town Square, looking onto sites such as the astronomical clock, the Jan Hus monument and the Týn chuch. When we’d finished our dinner it was quite late but despite the rain and our hotel not being situated on a very public street it was quite a nice walk back and I never felt unsafe or worried. It didn’t take long to feel that Prague is not too big to feel ungraspable, wherever one is in the city it’s never difficult to find the right way back to where one wants to go.

View of Prague Castle from Belvedere

My first morning in Prague I woke up to more pouring rain and grey skies. We took tram 22 through a very scenic route with great views up to the hills of Prague Castle, a site you can easily spend a day exploring. Apart from the many buildings, exhibitions, churches and scenic walks you can make at the castle, it also remains the seat of the country’s head of state. The President of the Czech Republic has his/her official representation premises in the New Royal Palace and this part of the complex is only open during one or two holidays per year.

St. Vitus Cathedral & New Royal Palace

At Prague Castle we visited the St. Vitus Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece that might not be as old as it looks in all corners, the St. George’s Basilica, the Old Royal Palace, the Golden Lane and Lobkowicz Palace. The Golden Lane is a scenic street of low picturesque houses along the castle’s northern wall, once housing the site’s craftsmen and guards but today home to tourist shops. All though the visit I only dared to take out the camera a few times and it wasn’t easy to handle while trying to juggle an umbrella in the other hand, hence the photo quality.

Old Royal Palace

The highlight of the visit to Prague Castle, and really one of the highlights of the whole trip, was Lobkowicz Palace – the only privately owned part of the castle complex. In the most wonderful audio guide I have ever listened to, Prince William Lobkowicz, occasionally joined by other family members, takes visitors on a personal tour of the palace as well as the family’s history.

After a very long wander though the apartments of Lobkowicz Palace the rain had stopped for a short while and we sat down on the terrace of the palace’s café, featuring beautiful views down over Prague as well as excellent service and eats. We both tried the carrot cake from a family recipe and it was excellent.

Lobkowicz Palace café's terrace

Prague Castle has some very nice gardens surrounding it on the hill, I want to go back and visit more of them. We left via the royal gardens, where the Belvedere (Royal Summer Palace) is also located, and walked all the way down from the castle to Malá Strana (Lesser Town) and the Charles Bridge.

Belvedere garden

Five of the following days of our trip was spent on day trips to castles outside of Prague and we also stayed overnight in Náchod in north-eastern Bohemia, a few hours from the border to Poland. I will tell you about the castle visits in future separate posts to this one.

Café ImperialIn the evenings, when we returned from our castle excursions outside Prague, we often had quite a big dinner as we only ate snacks during the day. One evening we went to the Café Imperial, a place with amazing art déco interior that I just happened to spot through the window when passing one day. I can highly recommend a visit there if you’re ever in Prague; it offers great décor and atmosphere as well as excellent food and service.

Picking a restaurant in a big and crowded city is never easy, especially when you just want a good meal but don’t really know what places to visit and how to avoid the tourist traps. One evening we found the Pizza Coloseum, which is part of a chain of restaurants that offer fresh western-style food, near the Wenceslas Square boulevard in the Nové Město (New Town). They had a nice view over the boulevard, a good selection of different food and good service. We went there twice and I would return again.

On the second-last day in Prague we spent the first part of the day in Josefov, the Jewish quarter. We visited the Pinkas Synagogue were 80.000 names of Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust are written on the walls and an exhibition of children’s drawings made in Theresienstadt are exhibited. We also walked around the Old Jewish Cemetery which consists of thousands of graves in many layers and was in use from the 15h to the 18th century, and finally the Spanish Synagogue.

Old Jewish Cemetery

From Josefov we took another scenic tram and went to the Strahov monastery. On one (out)side of the monastery complex there’s a restaurant that has amazing scenic views over the city, we sat down there and had cake. Walking back down the hill we spotted the Swedish embassy, complete with a Midsummer pole that had been used for the recent celebrations. In the afternoon we went into the famous Týn Church, it can be a bit of a puzzle to find the entrance (as there’s an outdoor serving area in front of it) but we found one via a music shop on the left side of it. That evening we had dinner with a local Prague inhabitant who we know from an online forum, it’s always nice to meet people who share your interests and we all had a great few hours together.

Restaurant/café at Strahov monastery

Times flies when you have fun, which I certainly did in and around Prague. I still have a long list of places I’d love to visit and I liked the beautiful architecture, rich history and friendly atmosphere so much that I will definitely have it on my list of cities to return to in the future.

To see more of my photos from Prage (and later from the other places I will post about), do visit my Czech Republic album on Flickr.

Princess Madeleine’s wedding: my day in Stockholm

Princess Madeleine's wedding
Every time there’s a royal event possible to reach in real life, the same question pops up: should I stay or should I go? That is: should one stay at home and enjoy the festivities via television via which one gets the best view, can see everything and at the same time follow photos being published online OR should one go to the event in person and actually see some of those royals in real life but on the other hand get a limited experience of the full event, having to come home and catch up on everything?

Yesterday, on Princess Madeleine’s wedding day, I decided to go. After all, the number of royal weddings is very limited, especially per generation and in a small country like mine. So off I went into Stockholm in the forenoon, arriving around 10 AM to a capital with beautiful clear blue skies and a scorching sun.

Princess Madeleine's weddingAfter suffering from decision anxiety about where to stand during the day I had decided to first watch the guests leave the hotel to go to the wedding and then make my way to Riddarholmen, the ending point of the cortège, to see all the guests leave on boat for Drottningholm.

So after arriving to Stockholm I first made a walk to look up the locations, joining my friend Johannes who was in the capital to help Aftonbladet with their web-TV during the day. The metal barricades were already up along the cortège route and everything was prepared at the ending point, with carpets laid out and flower decorations in place. Since it was told that the public would have a viewing point there we decided where a good place to stand could be.

Walking back from Riddarholmen, Johannes left to meet up with Aftonbladet and I stayed on the other side of the road to Grand Hôtel where they had also put up metal barricades and a special box for the media. Since I was there so early Stockholm was still quite calm and there was nothing to do but wait. After a while I noticed I was not alone however, and so I came to talk to a Finnish man who shares my interest in seeing and photographing royals. I even got a chance to practice my horribly rusty Finnish a little. He had found the best spot to stand at aside from the media box and so we came to share it for a few hours. Apart from a few guests occasionally stepping out on balconies to pose for gala portraits above us, there wasn’t much to see for a few hours.

Princess Madeleine's weddingMy first royal sighting was Hereditary Prince Hubertus of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, he walked back and forth to the hotel a few times, to and from somewhere. After a while Princess Benedikte of Denmark got into a car, dressed in a suit, and remained gone for quite a while.

Around noon Prince Andreas of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, first cousin of King Carl XVI Gustaf on his mother Princess Sibylla’s side, came out through the main entrance and talked to his son for a bit. It’s not often one has the chance to see German royals in Sweden and because of the family connection with our Royal Family it always feels a little extra special to see that they come to attend events. As Prince Andreas was going for a walk I grabbed my courage and went up to him, he kindly accepted to pose for a photo and accepted my greetings.

By the time guests were starting to come out of the hotel to leave, after 2:30 PM, my friend Pia had joined me. The first to leave were the groom’s best man, Cedric Notz, and someone we couldn’t ID – but after that followed an amazing row of royals. Pia and I had a wonderful time and as really the only ones who could ID all the guests we called on their attention, to the amusement and joy of the by then large assembled crowds around us, and most of them waved and were happy to be recognized. The Earl and Countess of Wessex, Prince Nikolaos and Princess Tatiana of Greece, Prince Philippos of Greece, Princess Theodora of Greece, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Hereditary Prince Hubertus and Hereditary Princess Kelly of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Crown Prince Pavlos and Crown Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, Princess Benedikte of Denmark, Prince Andreas of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Prince Joachim and Princess Marie of Denmark, Prince Leopold and Princess Ursula of Bavaria, Prince Manuel and Princess Anna of Bavaria, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, Princess Märtha Louise of Norway and Ari Behn.

Princess Madeleine's weddingThose were the guests we were really there to see but of course a large number of others also passed review. At times it was really crowded with guests on the sidewalk but I think we also spotted Prince Pierre and Princess Silvia d’Arenberg and Princess Khaliya Aga Khan. A few guests, like Princess Takamado of Japan and Hereditary Grand Duke Guillaume and Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie of Luxembourg were staying elsewhere and the closest family at the royal residences of course. The groom’s mother Mrs Eva O’Neill and her daughters and parts of their families left together and wedding dress designer Valentino was one of the last to leave for the ceremony. Most of the guests were transported on blue public transport buses with Swedish flags and marked “The Royal Wedding” for route name for the day. Some special VIP guests were driven in white chauffeured Volvo’s.

After watching the guests leave the hotel we immediately walked to Riddarholmen to find a spot for the ending point of the cortège. Since they had announced that the bride to the island would be closed off and all traffic would be halted for the cortège later on it was best to be there early, I figured. When we got there a small crowd had already gathered but we managed to get a decent spot, the press enclosement down in prime location by the boats at the quay remained empty for a long time while the public was waiting. It was a mixed crowd that grew in size as we waited, from elderly ladies sitting on camping chairs to parents with children to keep calm and young people sitting on the stone pavement. Thanks to our smartphones we watched parts of the wedding ceremony live on SVT, with the sun still shining intensely upon us but a few dark clouds occasionally appearing.

Princess Madeleine's wedding

A little after 5 PM the buses transporting guests began arriving. By that time the public had been warned ahead of time that the island would be closed off and everyone would have to remain in place until the boats had left. Unfortunately for the huge crowds gathered on Riddarholmen the last stop of the cortège was not planned as a good viewing spot for the public, despite expectations raised by talk of special viewing locations. The blue double-buses stopped right in front of us and we could only see the guests get off and walk down the stairs the quay on the other side – by the time the bus had moved, one after one, most guests were out of sight. This was of course much to the disappointment of the crowds, some boos and whistles were heard, mainly aimed at the “slow” bus drivers (of course everyone knew it wasn’t their fault, it was simply planned like this).

Princess Madeleine's wedding

Three boats lay at the quay to received guests on board, the first one in the row was the family and royal boat and was the only one to remain until the bride and groom – Princess Madeleine and Chris O’Neill – arrived. A few minutes before 6:30 PM the cortège arrived but apart from a few waves from the bridal couple in the carriage, also they disappeared from view on the other side before the carriage and horses had moved on.

Princess Madeleine's wedding

Around 6:40 PM Stockholm blasted its horn and sailed off for Drottningholm, a large fleet of private small boats following it in a tail and crowds gathered on all sides of the water waving it off into the horizon.

Princess Madeleine's wedding

After standing for the entire day and not having had anything but a bottle of water to consume, feats were tired and shoulder sun-burned. We ended the day with a meet-up at a restaurant in nearby Old Town, finally having some food, drink and a chance to share each other’s experiences. When I came back home around 11 PM there wasn’t much to do but to have a small snack and then have lights out. It wasn’t difficult to sleep after a happy and eventful day in a perfect summery Stockholm.

To see a few more of my photos (and I might add more later) please look at my Flickr stream.