The reasons why one of the most sizable collections of furnishings and furniture from Liberty of London can be found in Sweden is a story of early – perhaps even compulsive – brand loyalty. Blanche Dickson was born in Sweden, but raised with her sister by relatives and educated in Scottish boarding schools after their mother’s death when Blanche was seven. In 1874 Blanche married her cousin, the Swedish lumber baron James Fredrik Dickson. When James died unexpectedly of blood poisoning in 1898 after wrapping a cut finger in the metal foil of a wine bottle top, Blanche pressed on undeterred with the building of Tjolöholm Castle, their home south of the city of Gothenburg on Sweden’s rocky west coast.
Between 1898 and 1904 Blanche singlehandedly oversaw the creation of the mock Tudor castle designed by the Swedish architect Lars Israel Wahlman and furnished by Liberty. Records suggest various previous owners of Tjolöholm’s idyllic location, which is situated on a peninsula in the Kungsbacka fjord, including the Danish King Valdemar who owned the land in the 13th century. The Dickson’s incarnation of the estate turned the land into a thoroughbred stud farm. After the death of her husband, Blanche is reported to have project managed the entire endeavour, down to some of the very smallest details.
Despite her Swedish birth, the influence of Blanche’s Scottish childhood meant that she chose to speak and write in English. Historians have been helped by the preservation of nearly one hundred letters sent from Liberty to Blanche (sadly her responses are not thought to have survived) and a number of invoices. The contribution Liberty made to the project was so significant that between April 1902 and December 1903 two English workmen from the company lived on site while the building was under construction. Today the interior still contains original wallpaper, furniture and fittings. Karin Kvicklund, Head of Culture at Tjolöholm Castle, explains that the property “might be the only house in the world with such an outstanding and well-preserved original interior from Liberty.”
Tjolöholm’s rooms were allocated particular themes capturing the enthusiasm and romanticised interest at the turn of the century for the material culture particularly of north Africa and Japan. For example, the castle’s smoking room is decorated in the style of an Arab tea room. While Liberty created a proposal for the interior design, Blanche is understood to have rejected the plan and gave the eventual design work to Wahlman, who instead drew extensively on images he found in the Handbook of Sketches – Liberty’s 1889 catalogue. Moorish arches were built and the room furnished with Turkish tables inlaid with intarsia. Curiously, the room’s windows, which face the property’s formal lawn and small private beach below, include sliding window grilles – useful for keeping the sun and heat out, but perhaps not crucial functional elements for Sweden’s more wintery climate.
In addition to the iconic textiles we associate with Liberty, Blanche also purchased furniture from the company, much of it made-to-measure and ordered in the early 1900s before the company became known for furniture production. The mock Tudor Royal Guest Room reflected the popular Tudor revival sweeping London in the 1920s when Liberty moved to its now iconic black and white building on Regent Street. Reserved for Royal guests, the bedroom includes Liberty’s copy of the oak “Great Bed of Ware” (the original held in the V&A collection) described in Shakespeare’s 1601 comic romantic play “The Twelfth Night”, several folding oak screens, as well as wall-to-wall and oriental carpeting.
In addition to her devotion to Liberty, Blanche was an early adopter of domestic technology, installing electricity, a state-of-the-art vacuum cleaner (weighing one tonne), central heating and a futuristic-looking (even by today’s spa standards) shower with water jets in the round. Items such as power switches and doorbell buttons were also ordered from Liberty. More eccentric details include a curious decorated snail that adorns the peep hole of the main bathroom’s door. And in an approach that prefigures the design and shipping strategies of Sweden’s later behemoth IKEA, Liberty shipped its furniture to Sweden unassembled to avoid the country’s import duties.
In addition to the main house, Blanche also built a chapel, town hall and small village of workers cottages – the latter built in Sweden’s National Romantic style. Today Tjolöholm and its grounds are considered one of Scandinavia’s finest examples of Arts and Crafts inspired properties. The location caught the eye of Danish film director Lars von Trier who chose the site to film the exterior scenes of his dark film Melancholia in 2010. Tragically, Blanche lived to enjoy very little of her vision, dying in 1906, only a few years after the property was completed, of dysentery on her return journey from Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) where she was visiting her brothers’ tea plantation. Blanche and James Fredrik’s daughter inherited the property, which was in regular use by the family until 1951. Today the property is owned by a private trust overseen by the local Kungsbacka municipality with guided tours offered and the grounds open to the public.
article in Selvedge magazine 2019