Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gunnebo - the ultimate riches to rags in less than a generation

Gunnebo from the south side facing the formal French gardens with bosquets surrounded by lime alleys.

At first sight, Gunnebo's looks are utterly deceiving. Like a shining pearl, this petite 18th century palace stands on top of a ridge, forming a perfect centre point to its well-manicured, French-inspired gardens leading away along north and south facing axes. But in all its minute perfectness, Gunnebo really is a memorial to a love story that went awfully wrong; a mistress that seduced and held its masters captured until all their means were exhausted.

The terraced entrance garden facing north. Originally, Gunnebo's orangery and greenhouses contained over 100 lemon-, bitter lemon and orange trees, almond, mulberry, bay and olive trees, 125 pineapples grown in containers and over 200 species of other exotic plants. All these were the first to perish after John Hall Jr.'s bankruptcy. Today, some of the species are displayed on the terraces. 

Gunnebo was built as a summer residence for John Hall Sr. (1735-1802), a son of a British immigrant who became a successful Gothenburg merchant; for some time, he was one of the wealthiest men in Sweden. After acquiring the lands of Gunnebo in 1778 he gave Carl Wilhelm Carlberg, then the town architect of Gothenburg, completely free hands to design everything from the house, utility buildings and gardens to the smallest interior details as door handles and flower pots.
Clearly a dream commission for any architect, Carlberg embarked on a creative frenzy seldom experienced in the usually simplicity-loving Scandinavia. He had just returned from a lengthy visit to central Europe full of inspiration and ideas, and in Gunnebo, he got a unique chance to put all of them in practice. Especially fond of the Palladian villas of Italy and gardens of Louis XIV in France, he held them as model at Gunnebo despite the huge difference in scale. No expenses were saved; with strict attention to detail and workmanship, Carlberg hired the carpenters and craftsmen, overlooked the building work and even paid their wages.

The beautiful kitchen gardens and utility buildings were reconstructed in the 1990s according to Carlberg's original drawings. The produce is used at the excellent restaurant housed in the yellow building in the first picture, worth even a longer trip to visit.   

Twenty four years later in 1802, John Hall Sr. died without seeing Gunnebo being finished. Up till then, over 600 000 riksdaler had been spent on it, and the costs were still running with no end in sight. As a comparison, Carlberg's annual salary was 150 riksdaler; the head gardener of Gunnebo had to make with 50 riksdaler a year. Christina Hall, John Sr.'s wife, wrote already in 1794 to a friend how the project was draining their resources, and just five years after John Sr.'s death, his son John Hall Jr. (1771-1830), a bohemian and artistic man without any business skills, was declared bankrupt. Still a wealthy man and equally obsessed with Gunnebo as his father, he tried to regain it through several unsuccessful lawsuits and eventually became destitute in the process. John Hall Jr. spent the last years of his life begging and wandering around the streets of Stockholm; in the end, his worn out and threadbare body was found in a roadside gutter of the city centre.

The orangery, also reconstructed in the 1990s after drawings from beginning of the 19th century. The kitchen gardens are planted creatively to provide both produce and to be visually attractive. Here cardoons and marigolds mingle together. 
Soon after the bankruptcy, Gunnebo fell into deep decay. The luxurious plants in its orangery and greenhouses died, the ponds of the gardens grew over and its windows crashed in the storms; a contemporary eyewitness described it as a 'living corpse". The fast fall from immense riches to the deepest misery attracted visitors from afar and the dilapidated house with its overgrow gardens became a popular attraction in Gothenburg. In 1832, what remained of Gunnebo was sold on auction for 6786 riksdaler to a new owner. In 1948, the city of Mölndal bought Gunnebo. In 1990s, it went through an extensive restoration and reconstruction, meticulously executed after Carlberg's original drawings and carried through with authentic 18th century methods and materials.

Magnificent stairs lead from the house to the formal gardens on the south side, a pool with a fountain and clipped lime trees act as a end to the central axis. The formal style of Gunnebo was considered old-fashioned already when it was being built; surprisingly, the English landscape garden style that otherwise was all the rage during that time made no impact in Carlberg despite his spending over a year in the country during his travels.
I visited Gunnebo with my family for the first time in 2006. Initially, I had difficulties in comprehending what had gotten such a talented business man as John Hall Sr. to spend so much on something that gave him nothing in return? And his artistic son to hold on to something as material as a house and a garden, instead of letting it go and living a comfortable life secured by the means he had inherited? 

During that visit, we ended up in the middle of a 18th century enactment, complete with children dressed in period clothes and a battle taking place on the otherwise bucolic fields of the English park behind the French terraces and bosquets of the formal gardens. The buildings had only just been finished according to the original drawings and specifications from the original period. Usually, I am a real 'ruin romantic'; I love the patina and decay that only real passing of time can generate, so I was uncertain what to think about this gleaming building with its manicured gardens. But instead of longing for the patina, Gunnebo's polished state made me feel I was transferred to the time of its first owners, who sadly never saw it finished. I could understand, or maybe more feel, what had seduced the Halls - both Senior and Junior - so badly that they never recovered. Gunnebo was, and now again is, the perfect little palace (really too small to be called as such), an escapist dream inspired by the southern latitudes of Europe, landed amongst the northern forests and shores of Sweden. A folly, yes, but a beautiful one.

One of the few places at Gunnebo where the passing of time is evident...

We all dream, and in our gardens, we often express those dreams with the choices we make. And maybe that is why Gunnebo still manages to captivate us with its charms, two hundred years after it was originally built. It was and still is the ultimate dream its first owners, and simply by being that it resonates with the dreams that we all bear inside us, whatever the final outcome.