The Study at Nyhavn
Reconstructing the Study
By Curator Ane Grum-Schwensen
"The Photographer Arrived At 1 O'clock...
"H.C. Andersens Hus holds a reconstruction of the study in the last home of H.C. Andersen located at the first floor of Nyhavn 18. The reconstruction comprises original furniture, pictures, books, bric-a-brac etc. and was set up in 1976 on the basis of five photographic portraits of the poet posing in the living room. These photos was of immense help when re-creating the living room and taking care to employ accuracy in conveying a credible idea of a poet's place to work when inventing new fairy tales.
On May 21 1874 photographer Weller from 'Hansen, Schou & Weller' visited Andersen: The poet had his picture taken in the living room for the first and last time. H.C. Andersen wrote in the diary:
"The photographer arrived at 1 0'clock, I sat until 3.30. The weather was dark; the light in the room insufficient; Weller took five photos using the interior as setting. The first attempt was unsuccessful but he was pleased with the rest..."(1)
The result is an outstanding series of portraits. The poet is indeed in a room of his own. The portraits were naturally arranged: Andersen both sat (as he called it) and was asked to assume postures for 2½ hours - each photo required half an hour to set up. We are not dealing with snapshots; the atmosphere emanates concentration.
These five photos comprise of some of the last photographic portraits of H.C. Andersen: Some six months later September 26 1874 the poet sat again this time for appointed photographer to His Majesty, Georg E. Hansen, who took the last pictures of Andersen. At that time, photographer C. Weller (1838-1900), had gained considerable acknowledgment. Originally a bookbinder employed and trained by Georg E. Hansen.
In 1869 Weller achieved business partnership with Hansen's brother 'N.C. Hansen & Schou' and Weller soon became the leading force. (2) Before that he had already meet the poet who mentioned Weller October 21 1866. (3)
Englishman Edmund Gosse paid a visit to Nyhavn 18 the same day that Weller took photos of Andersen. The poet was weak from cancer and had just recovered from a relapse. Gosse was very surprised to see the poet taking part in a photo session:
"I was accompanied by Georg Brandes to the front door. Brandes did not join me as we both feared the convalescent was too weak to entertain two guests at a time. Andersen had just suffered a relapse; yet I found him in the living room fully dressed as if going out. Much to my surprise Andersen had assumed a position in front of the camera. I waited until the session was over. He was very tired afterwards and I only stayed a few minutes."(4)
When Andersen received the developed photos three days later he rejected one of them as he wrote to Dorothea Melchior: "...I shall have to put up with the rest of them..."(5).
The journal noted: "Letter from Weller with prints of me in the living room, they are well done, but I look very decrepit and toothless"(6)
In a letter to Weller Andersen writes much the same thanking the photographer for the photos: "... Each print (is) lovely and picturesque..." then he turns to describing the pictures:
"Where likeness is concerned it is difficult for me to say as I look old and decrepit in them all - this is presumably also the case in reality. I have not had my photographic portrait taken for almost two years. In two of them I am assuming much the same posture sitting at the table with the white vase in front of the sofa. In one picture the vase is shown and also much of the table; I do not quite like that one where as the one in which the vase can not be seen is much more to my liking. (7); the large picture where I am sitting at the table hand under chin is the most beautiful in terms of the surroundings, the portrait is less to my liking. The others by the window where I am supporting myself to my desk are undeniably the best ones. I particularly admire how lovely the set up is and that you made the surroundings so beautiful. ..."(8)
Andersen's opinion of his appearance in the photos is very level-headed and unpretentious; bearing in mind that he was a very vain man. He did not wear his false teeth which is why he may have looked toothless. It is worth noticing that H.C. Andersen specifically appreciated the depiction of the surroundings and the interaction between them. And it is the photo's graphic representation of the surroundings which make them interesting.
In the letter quoted above Andersen also asked the photographer where he should place his signature. He put his signature and a few words on the glass plates, others bore the famous line: "Life itself is the most wondrous adventure", added later on.
In the time to come Andersen handed out many prints and asked Weller for more several times - particularly the pictures where he is sitting by the window (9). The photos served as presents and calling cards to friends and acquaintances. We know that Edvard Collin and Clara Ballin each received a copy. Ballin was Andersen's landlady at Nyhavn 18.
In the passed year H.C. Andersens Hus has acquired the original glass plate negative of the photo that Andersen describes as: "most beautiful in terms of surroundings ". Most copies and print negatives are from a cut extract (the same probably goes for the one H.C. Andersen received although he does not mention the white vase in picture no. 3). It also carries H.C. Andersen own inscription on the glass plate; 'H.C. Andersen's study in Copenhagen 1874'.
In October 1871 H.C. Andersen moved into Nyhavn 18. He rented three rooms from miss Thora Hallager (incidentally also a photographer). Later on - in 1873 - Clara Ballin took over. A lot of the furniture came with the tenancy, as the travelling poet did not like too many possessions. "Furniture, bed and rocking chair weigh me down, not to mention books and paintings", he said when he late in life purchased his own furniture.
The burdensome furniture and possessions were indispensable to the museum when it came to reconstructing the study. Without the many objects both in the photos and collections a reconstruction would obviously not have been possible.
We shall focus one a few selected items. The white vase which Andersen mentions in his letter to Weller is present in picture no. 1 and 2. It is placed as in the photos: on the table in front of the sofa. Andersen describes is as a vase but it is a centrepiece - often used for calling cards. It is made of alabaster decorated with vines and grapes. 'The pillar' or 'stem', holding the bowl is modelled like fish and porpoises tails entwined. Note how the methodical Andersen has left books lying on the table by chance - a very ingenious thought. In picture no. 3 the empty space in the bookcase is covered by plants!
The bookcase had copies of Ingemann and Oehlenschläger's works, a German edition of Brockhaus' Encyclopaedia and some presentation copies of Dickens' books. We cannot say for certain if the books in the reconstructed study are exactly the same as the ones in the picture. But the exhibited books did belong to H.C. Andersen.
In the corner there is a so-called étagère; a sort of wooden bookcase with two shelves, front and back piece. Louise Drewsen inherited quite a lot of H.C. Andersen's possessions and furniture. Later on she gave these to the museum. The étagère is located in the 'same' corner as in the photo surrounded by the same objects: The champagne glass - or bowl that is actually stashed away in the reconstruction. The glass has later been rimmed with silver wire.
H.C. Andersen had been keeping the glass since October 21 1845 where he toasted with Jenny Lind: A bitter drink for Andersen. Shortly before he had written an indirect proposal to the Swedish opera singer and she hinted her answer when she raised her glass and said"...I drink to the health of my brother in spirit". (10)
The number of paintings on the walls is sparser than in the 'real' study as only paintings seen in Weller's photos are present. An authentic one is German historical painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach's illustration of the fairy tale "The Angel"- upper left corner in photo no. 1 but cut in half in the photo from the reconstruction. Kaulbach's angel was one of H.C. Andersen's favourite illustrations. Kaulbach was a friend of Andersen, they met at Kaulbach's studio in Munich in 1840. Dorothea Melchior, who nursed the poet on his death bed, inherited "The Angel".
In the last photo the poet is seated at his desk looking out of the window. Above the desk there are four reliefs in bronze of which three has been identified as Ariosto, Francesco Petrarca and Dante Alighieri. It was at this desk fairy tales, poems, notes for the journals and letters came to be. There is a reading desk, inkpot, candlestick and writing set - all ready to be utilized. The other photos show fairy tales illustrations and books but this one clearly embodies the work place of a poet as Andersen has assumed the posture of a poet lost in his thoughts.
Creating a reconstruction of H.C. Andersens Hus is far from a new conception; nor is the idea of re-creating his rooms. The first model is from the 1930ies. But the concept goes further back in time and has more or less always been part of the interior at museums displaying cultural history or Museum of the Person (11). Museums often seek to reconstruct an approximate draft of a historical room where as museums dedicated to one person (or given locations) must strive to design an exact copy of the original.
One could think that this concept seems rather outdated but this is not the case. The room from Nyhavn is still part of the exhibition, and shortly H.C. Andersens Hus will be undergoing new designs but the study from Nyhavn 18 will remain untouched. Why do these types of exhibitions still interest us?
Most guests visiting museums know the feeling of viewing a room that seemingly has just been left by the occupant. By looking into the study we get a sense of being close to H.C. Andersen as a private person. The original objects are present in their factual context: there is no need for further explanations or interpretations. The main thing is the experience of being there. (12)
Objects in a museum are three-dimensional and absorb their own space. We may sense them through sight and touching. Just like people they exist in time and space, they are transitory yet have more longevity but can only be present in one place at a time. They bring the past closer to the present.
They are here yet they draw us back in time. When several objects are gathered in one room in an original context we get an authentic feeling of steeping back into the past. One might even forget being a guest visiting a museum.
Authenticity is of utmost importance in museums dedicated to one person; guests will be pleased to know that we are not guessing or suggesting an idea of how H.C. Andersen's study looked like - or a typical workplace for a poet in those days.
The more accurate the display the closer we feel to Andersen as a person. Naturally we are only suggesting what the study looked like at a given time but it is an educated and informed even credible guess of how the room appeared May 21 1874, as seen in the photos. The authentic experience is sharpened by knowing the objects are real and placed in their original places in a reconstructed room.
The five photos served as working tools in the reconstruction: Which objects in the collection are present in the photos and are they placed accordingly? The photos become evidence of truth. We are aware that photos can be manipulated - like all media - but in this case they also represent an interpretation of what has been seen, in other words they serve as documentation.
Even arranged photos like these show that the objects has been and that they most probably were in context when the pictures were taken, whereas it is not likely that the photographer re-furnished the entire room within two hours.
In conclusion, the five photos serve as working tools, documentation and evidence of truth. On top of that they are also beautiful and unique portraits of an ageing poet in a room of his own; old and decrepit "... presumably (also) the case in reality ".
(1) H.C. Andersen's journals, volume X, s.256.
(2) Bjørn Ochsner "Photos of H. C. Andersen", p. 70+79.
(3) "... after I returned from Basnæs I searched through my papers and came across an unopened letter from Nicolai Bøgh, brother to Frederik Bøg regarding a certificate to the photographer. I immidiately wrote the reference and then a letter to Nicolai Bøgh". H.C. Andersen's journals, volume VII, p.200.
(4) Fra Bredsdorffs "H.C. Andersen. Mennesket og Digteren", p.351.
(5) Letter from H.C. Andersen to Dorothea Melchior, Holsteinborg, May 24 1874. In H.C. Andersens Hus, collection of letters.
(6) H.C. Andersen's journals, volume X, p.258.
(7) Picture from photo #. 2): This picture is uncut and the the entire vase is to be seen.
(8) Letter from H.C. Andersen to Weller, Holsteinborg May 25 1874. In H.C. Andersens Hus collection of letters.
(9) Letters from H.C. Andersen to Weller, Holsteinborg June 1 1874 and Rolighed June 28 1874. H.C. Andersens Hus, collection of letters.
(10) H.C. Andersen's almanacs 1833-1873, p.160, Oct. 21 1845.
(11) The interior principle or the so-called scientific method in which objects are organized according to typology, chronology or geography all date back to the 19th century.
(12) It would be more appropriate to have a 'table of contents' of the room since it is hard to see objects at the far back.