On a glorious spring morning in Oslo, I headed to the harbor and boarded a ferry that sails through Oslofjorden, affording great views of the city and the harbor, to Bygdøy, a peaceful and well-off residential area that houses half a dozen museums. I had two destinations for the day: the Norsk Folkemuseum, the world’s second-oldest open-air museum, created in 1894, three years after the one in Stockholm, and the royal summer palace, Oscarshall.
A 15-minute walk separates the two, and after a few hours at the former, I headed to the latter. Commissioned by King Oscar I and Queen Joséphine of Sweden (when Norway was linked in a union to Sweden), Oscarshall was built atop a hill from 1847 to 1852, the site having been chosen by Oscar’s sons during a sailing trip for its dramatic location overlooking the sea.
As I approached the palace, I was startled by its surprisingly small size. The building itself is modest, almost cozy, like a miniature fairy-tale castle — not at all what I expected from connotations of a royal palace for a king and queen. The grounds surrounding it also show economical restraint — expansive but not boundless. Perhaps it stems from a lack of showy ostentation that seems to be a Norwegian characteristic. Or perhaps it originates from the source: Oscar and Joséphine used their private funds, rather than state monies, to build it. Either way, the main building of the palace comprises one square fortress-like, albeit elegant, three-story edifice topped with a parapet of merlons and embrasures, and with a taller octagonal tower at one corner, and an open loggia that connects it to a smaller one-story building with a curved extension, all painted a soft off-white. That’s it.
Combined with its secondary buildings and the carefully manicured park that surrounds it, complete with lots of greenery, fountains, benches, gravel paths, staircases, and terrific views of the fjord, rows of sailboats, the distant hills, and downtown Oslo, including City Hall, Oscarshall is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in Norway. Together, all the components of Oscarshall are considered a gesamtkunstverk — a work of art that combines a range of different art forms that are all equal parts to the whole.
Although they chose a Danish architect to build their summer home, the royal couple were keen on promoting Norwegian art and craftmanship, so a fair amount of the interior sprouted from home-grown artists. I was eager to see what they had come up with. Visits are by guided tour only, so I latched on to a group that made its way through the tastefully appointed ground-floor reception rooms. Apologetically told that the tour was in Norwegian only, I was handed a little English guidebook to help with the translation, although that was never as comprehensive as the oral information provided by the guide. Nevertheless, it did give my eyes and mind plenty of time to wander after digesting the abbreviated literature in my little book while the guide continued on with the finer details in her light and comical-sounding language.
Although conceived as an informal summer residential palace, the first room we entered struck me as one full of pomp and positioning — and a rather beautiful one at that. The Vestibule suggests a Gothic chapel. Light filters in through a stained-glass Gothic arch on one end and a rose window on the opposite. The luxurious ultramarine blue of the cushions on the benches and high-backed chairs matches the paint on the top two-thirds of the walls; the lower third is given over to deceptive paneling that appears to be carved oak but is, in fact, molded cement that’s grained to look like wood. With a spotless oak parquet floor and 11 brass wall lamps mounted above the two main doors (fitted only for candles, not electricity), the Vestibule is still welcoming invited guests as it did upon completion as well as the general public, who were invited to explore the palace from 1881, when the king and queen’s son Oscar II opened it up as a museum.
We moved on to the second-largest room in the palace. The Drawing Room features three high Gothic arch windows on one wall and large glass doors on another, both with stained-glass tops and both installed on the preference of the king, rather than smaller windows proposed by the architect, to appreciate views of the surrounding nature and to keep more in line with the ideals of romantic architecture. Resembling a Norwegian guildhall, the Drawing Room has walls slathered in bold red velvet, oak tracery and dados, and a large chandelier suspended from a gilded plaster rose surrounded by a blue and red diamond-shape panel, which itself is surrounded by four smaller panels bearing the coat of arms of Norway and Sweden as well as of the families of Oscar and Joséphine. Sculptures of four Norwegian medieval kings stand on plinths on the walls, accompanied by 20 heads representing key medieval figures: clergyman, scribe, statesman, warrior, and, most surprising, peasant. The inclusion of the latter can soften your view about ridiculously rich royals, but the furniture betrays the informal intent of the palace: Two high-backed armchairs used by the king and queen to greet guests flank a gilded marble-topped circular table — all very official, and not exactly what comes to mind for summertime fun.
From there, we stepped outside and marched along the loggia to visit the Dining Hall in a separate building. This detachment from the rest of the palace forced diners to step outside for their meals, emphasizing the palace’s role as a summer spot; heading out for dinner, even a very short distance, during a Norwegian winter would have been deemed impolite. Inside the Dining Hall, windows with stained glass match those of the Drawing Room, and mirrors set into the walls make the room appear larger than it is. But all attention here focuses on the two series of paintings. The first series, of six landscapes, comprises oil paintings on canvas that depict the quintessential features of Norway’s natural landscape, including mountains, fjords, and fishing villages. The second series of 10 paintings focuses on the life of a typical Norwegian farmer family, from birth to death. The paintings, set in the frieze that runs along the walls above the landscapes, address the key moments in their lives with both joyous milestones including a wedding proposal, a bridal procession, a father teaching his son to tie a fishing net, and a mother reading to her children, and more poignant moments, such as sitting at a sick child’s bedside, an empty nest moment as the youngest son leaves the homestead for good, and the loneliness of the aged.
The inclusion of such a class of people, at the opposite end of the social strata from the royals and their guests enjoying their meals in this impressive yet not overdone setting, along with its prominent placement, gives great credit to Oscar and Joséphine, who proved that, as privileged as they were, they weren’t oblivious to those who were not, and honored them by including them, at least in spirit, in their grand but not ostentatious home.
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