Christina here. I’m still in Sweden and have been enjoying one of the things I miss the most about this country – the huge, deep forests. Sweden is fairly sparsely populated, and in the part where I grew up, most of the countryside is covered by woodland and thousands of lakes of various sizes. Going for nature walks or heading out to pick berries and mushrooms is a favourite pastime here and it’s something I used to do with my family as well. There is a law in this country called “Allemansrätten” which gives everyone the right to roam wherever they wish, provided they don’t trample crops, ruin anything or leave rubbish behind. It’s a fantastic privilege and one that most Swedes don’t abuse.
This time of year, the berries are all gone and most of the mushrooms too, but it’s still lovely to just go for a walk, as I did last week with my friend and fellow author Anna Belfrage. It’s hunting season, so there’s always the possibility that you might come across a panicking elk/moose, deer or wild boar, but that’s never happened to me. I just enjoy the peace and quiet, and the fresh scents of pine and moss. (I’m not getting into a debate about whether they are called elk or moose – I prefer the word elk because it’s a direct translation of the Swedish word “älg” which is what they are called here, but others seem to disagree.) (Illustration – "Skutt by Tuvstarr" by John Bauer 1913)
As a child, I was dragged out (that was how I thought of it at the time) to enjoy nature most weekends, even in winter when we went cross country skiing through the forest. Being a book worm back then, as now, I didn’t appreciate it as I would much have preferred to stay at home and read, but nowadays I can see the attraction more clearly. There is something truly magical about the Swedish forests, especially in winter when snow or thick frost cloaks the tree branches, the air is so cold and fresh it stings your cheeks and sears your lungs, and it is usually completely silent and all you can hear is the swish of your skis on the snow. (Illustration – Brother St Martin and the Three Trolls by John Bauer)
During the rest of the year, there is a different kind of magic – the fairy tale kind. These often feature dark forests, and it is easy to imagine creatures like trolls and elves behind the thick tree trunks and mossy boulders. Swedish artist John Bauer, a favourite of mine, was a master at depicting these and he hailed from a town not far from where I am. His trolls are ugly, lumbering creatures that blend in with their surroundings, while his princesses and elves are tiny, delicate and beautiful. I have always loved his paintings and find them inspiring! (Here is his drawing "The Princess and the Trolls")
Bauer’s own story is a tragically short one though. Born in 1882, he was a painter and illustrator, mostly remembered for the illustrations he made for a book called Bland Tomtar och Troll (“Among Gnomes and Trolls”). This is a collection of Swedish fairy tales and stories, and Bauer’s drawings are amazing. The one of “Princess Tuvstarr” is my favourite and always fascinated me as a child. She is depicted as sitting naked and alone in the darkest part of the forest, staring into a black tarn, her long golden hair like a shimmering cloak around her. My grandparents had a copy of this drawing carved out of wood, which was lovely. He also drew images from Norse mythology, like the wolf Fenrir and Loki with the goddess Idun in the picture below.
John Bauer grew up in a town called Jönköping, which is very close to where I lived as a child. At the age of 16 he went to Stockholm to study art, but he was deemed too young to attend the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts so had to go to a different art school for a couple of years first before finally gaining entry. His home town and county provided him with inspiration for his troll and forest scenes, and they really resonate with me as the backgrounds feel so familiar. He also travelled a lot, gaining even more inspiration from places like Lappland (in the far north of Sweden), Germany and Italy.
Bauer married another artist, Ester Ellqvist, and they had one child, a son. Ester was a fellow artist also studying at the Academy, but in a separate department for women. She had the same dreams and ambitions as her husband, but she was expected to be a wife and mother first and foremost, so her art had to take a backseat. That must have been difficult to accept! These days she is best known as the model for some of Bauer’s most well-known illustrations, which is kind of sad. Understandably, their marriage wasn’t always harmonious.
The couple bought a house near the town of Gränna, north of Jönköping on the shores of Lake Vättern, but they also travelled a lot and sometimes rented apartments in Stockholm. Being an artist didn’t provide a steady income and Bauer relied on his parents to help them out.
In 1918 they decided to relocate to Stockholm and set off on the journey on the 19th November on a steamship. There is a canal called Göta Kanal linking Gothenburg with Stockholm and the trip incorporates a stretch of Lake Vättern, where the Bauer’s lived, so that they were able to join from there. Bauer had read about a recent train accident and must have thought he and his family would be safer travelling by boat, but unfortunately that didn’t prove to be the case. The ship was loaded with all manner of heavy items made of iron, and much of it was stored on deck as there wasn’t enough room in the hold. As the weather was bad, the storm made the cargo move and caused the ship to capsize. It sank killing all 24 passengers, including Bauer, his wife and child – a huge tragedy, especially as they were only 500 metres from land!
The wreckage was salvaged and the Bauer family buried in his home town of Jönköping. He had made several illustrations featuring a sea king (see above), but I’m sure he never imagined the water would claim his life. If you are ever in the south of Sweden, do visit the Jönköpings Länsmuseum, where they have a lot of Bauer’s work.
Although his life was cut short far too early, John Bauer lives on through his wonderful illustrations and they definitely fire my imagination!
Do you have any favourite illustrators, especially when it comes to fairy tales and folk tales?