Larger premises required after World War I
In 1907, the Swedish legation in London moved into rented premises at 73 Portland Place, at the time considered to be one of the more fashionable streets in London’s West End. The street was already home to the Chinese and Turkish embassies (annot. Dagens Nyheter, 14 May 1907). At a time when the aristocracy no longer lived in the area’s grand houses to the same extent as during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was mainly through the diplomatic world that they retained the function for which they were intended: entertaining on a grand scale.
As the scope of Sweden’s diplomatic mission increased after World War I, the rented premises were no longer considered fit for purpose. In March 1920, Stockholm-based architect Torben Grut was therefore commissioned to travel to London and explore the possibility of renovating 73 Portland Place or, alternatively, identify a more suitable property that could be acquired. Having made inquiries with various estate agents, Grut ascertained that the privately owned townhouse 27 Portland Place was for sale at a reasonable price. Having thoroughly inspected the property with Swedish envoy Herman Wrangel and a local architect by the name of Wigglesworth, Grut sketched a proposal. Grut’s drawing provided an excellent solution, with the ambassador’s residence and reception rooms in the existing building and an extension to house the embassy’s chancery.
Sweden acquires a 999-year lease
Grut immediately returned to Sweden to obtain a guarantee for Wrangel to complete the purchase. Grut explained his proposal to Minister for Foreign Affairs Erik Palmstierna, who would later replace Wrangel in London. Palmstierna and Cabinet Secretary Boström then set about convincing Minister for Finance Fredrik Thorsson to authorise the purchase. On 16 March 1921, a bill was submitted to the Riksdag for the acquisition of a new embassy building in London for the sum of SEK 1,260,000. Newly appointed Swedish envoy Erik Palmstierna agreed a 999-year lease with the English landowner Howard de Walden and in 1921 Sweden took possession of 27 Portland Place.
It should be noted that not everyone back home in Sweden was delighted by the acquisition. Complaints were raised in the Riksdag in May 1921, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Erik Palmstierna and Envoy Wrangel accused of acting without the consent of the Riksdag and other cabinet ministers. By arbitrarily deciding to sell the lease on the rented premises at 73 Portland Place for £300, Wrangel in effect forced the Riksdag to agree to the purchase of a new legation building, thereby placing a significant financial obligation on the Swedish state (annot. Dagens Nyheter, 26 May 1921).
On returning from London in 1920, Torben Grut was tasked by the National Board of Public Building with preparing a more detailed proposal for the project. Envoy Wrangel had already commissioned the English architectural practice Niven & Wigglesworth to perform the same task and so halted Grut’s work. Although Niven & Wigglesworth’s proposal was loosely based on Grut’s drawings, significant changes were made to the floorplan. The facades produced by the English practice can probably be considered to be entirely its own work.
Renovations commenced in November 1920. The old stables and outbuildings were demolished and the new annex erected in eighteenth-century Queen Anne style. This involved rusticated corner stonework and window openings. The brickwork was executed in yellow and red bricks. The annex was designed as a separate building slightly set back from the residence. The entrance was also located at this junction. It has decorative carving crowned by a carved stone Swedish coat-of-arms.
Only minor alterations were made to the residence. The windowsills in the first-floor state rooms were returned to their original height, having been lowered during the 1890s, except for the openings where there are French windows today. These measure were not taken for antiquarian ends, but rather to make space beneath the windows for radiators for the newly installed central heating.
“Our new legation building is an entirely Swedish living museum.”
Architect Torben Grut, one of the foremost Swedish exponents of the National Romantic style, transformed 27 Portland Place on behalf of the Swedish nation. Rooms were cleared of anything deemed to be decorative additions from the 1890s. Gilding was painted over on the ceilings of the large gallery and present-day dining room on the first floor, while wall decorations in the dining room were removed in their entirety.
Questions were asked about the repairs and renovations and in March 1921 the National Board of Public Building published a notice in Svenska Dagbladet under the title “Adam’s work must not be botched”, in which it is pointed out that no measures were to be taken that in any way degraded the architecture of the rooms and that a Swedish representative familiar with the Adam style was to be consulted before any painting commenced. No mention was made of who this might be but by May or June 1921 Grut was in London to introduce a new, Nordic and more restrained colour scheme in the salons. In the British press, for example, it is noted that the walls of the royal guestroom in the Swedish legation have been painted cream with occasional gilt detailing. Sofas and gilded chairs are covered in bright, beautiful brocades. A Persian carpet and carved oak cabinet furnish the room, which is otherwise simple and restrained.
As Grut later emphasised when designing the interiors of Sweden’s embassy in Helsinki, there is no unnecessary luxury, the space should be pure. In London too there was a stated ambition to give the rooms a Swedish touch: “the best we possess from home of Swedish taste and style,” as Svenska Dagbladet put it. The rooms in the residence represent various historical eras, realised with the aid of artefacts loaned by Nationalmuseum and National Historical Museums. In his memoir Bränn dessa brev [Burn These Letters], Erik and Ebba Palmstierna’s son Carl-Fredrik describes their daily visits to the decorators and Nationalmuseum curator Erik Wettergren at the legation during the summer of 1921. According to Carl-Frederik, chandeliers found hidden away in a stall at Ulriksdal Palace, at that time uninhabited, were also shipped to London.
Torben Grut’s collaboration with the Swedish Foreign Service during the 1920s
The Swedish National Board of Public Building was established on 1 January 1918. In 1918, with the end of World War I, the construction market entered a severe downturn. In July 1919, the idea was raised of exchanging properties between Sweden and Denmark in which to establish legations in one another’s capitals.
Architect Torben Grut (1871-1945) had grown up in Sweden with Danish parents and had family members among the Danish political elite, providing him with initial contacts in both the Danish and Swedish foreign services. Grut was well-versed in Danish conditions and was appointed as overseas architect at the National Board of Public Building (equivalent to today’s house architects at the National Property Board Sweden) by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and tasked with examining potential premises for the Swedish legation in Copenhagen. It also seemed natural to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage Grut’s services to investigate the situation in Stockholm, given that he lived there.
Torben Grut was one of the pioneers of Swedish tennis and many of his commissions came through his contacts in the sport, including Wollmar Boström, diplomat, tennis player and cabinet secretary at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1922. It was through Boström that Grut was engaged to visit Hamburg in late January 1920 to assess the condition of an aging property that Sweden intended to acquire. Grut’s efforts proved satisfactory to the ministry and in mid-March 1920 he was tasked with travelling to London to investigate the issue of the new legation there.
Torben Grut’s assignments for the Swedish Foreign Service via the National Board of Public Building included a number of renovations and proposed new builds:
- Copenhagen 1919–1922
- Hamburg 1920
- London 1920–1921
- Helsinki 1921–1924
- Tokyo 1920–1924 (proposal for new building)
- Soviet Union 1924 (proposals for measures and new building)
“The principal gathering place”, both private and public
By August 1921, 27 Portland Place was ready for occupation and its state rooms could return to the purpose for which the Adam brothers had designed them – holding large social gatherings.
Former Minister for Foreign Affairs Baron Erik Palmstierna had been appointed as Sweden’s new envoy and he and his wife Ebba became the first occupants of the new residence. Their daughter Margaretha wrote: “Traditions from the old home were maintained, with long evenings spent at home with readings around the lamp on the empire table in the sitting room... On Sundays, Beethoven’s sonatas were played.” Then as now, the residence functioned in the borderland between the private and public spheres, as the home of the head of mission and as an arena for the social whirl of official dinners and receptions.
In January 1922, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported from the new premises:
“On New Year’s Eve, Swedish minister Baron Palmstierna and the Baroness gave a brilliant reception at the Swedish legation on Portland Place. This was the first time that the state rooms, which as we know are decorated with the best we possess from home of Swedish taste and style, have received a large number of guests. At least 250 Swedes, ladies and gentlemen, young and old, circulated with patriotic pride around the room, from the walls of which gazed down the portraits of Charles XII and Christina, Oxenstierna and Berzelius. They danced in the ‘Renaissance Room’ and conversed in the ‘rococo room’, while a prodigious buffet was provided in the ground-floor dining room. The party was characterised by both decorum and homely conviviality and when the guests finally took leave of their charming hosts, it was with genuine gratitude to the gentlefolk Palmstierna, who in this manner wished to see in the New Year by making their home the principal gathering place for sentiment towards the homeland.”
“He has raised diplomacy to such a consummate art that every movement of his foot in the direction of a foreign person has a precise meaning.”
The radical ministerial family at Portland Place
Baron Erik Palmstierna was Swedish Minster for Foreign Affairs in Hjalmar Branting’s cabinet. When the government resigned in October 1920, Palmstierna was given the choice of a county governorship or a diplomatic mission. He chose London, having himself recommended the incumbent envoy Herman Wrangel for the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs in the new Swedish government. The British press described the new Swedish envoy Palmstierna as the consummate diplomat.
The Palmstiernas would eventually become renowned as the “radical ministerial family at 27 Portland Place”. The aristocratic Palmstierna’s politics attracted a certain amount of attention in London. Despite his conservative background he was a member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and a proponent of women’s suffrage, with a life-long interest in economics and sociopolitical issues and an ability to forge contacts across party lines. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon referred to Palmstierna as “that Red Baron”, while author and political activist George Bernard Shaw attested that the Swede was more progressive than most radicals.
While Ebba Palmstierna was born into an age in which the role of wife and mother was viewed as the woman’s natural lot, she also belonged to a generation that increasingly demanded independence, education and the right to vote. Like her husband Erik, Ebba was deeply engaged in the issue of women’s suffrage. The first general election in which Swedish women were permitted to vote was held in 1921, the same year that Sweden took occupancy of 27 Portland Place.
Ambassadress: a crucial role
The houses along Portland Place were originally intended to host high society and entertainment has continued to be an important ingredient in the world of diplomacy. In his memoirs, Ambassador Gunnar Hägglöf recalls that the best way to gain entry into English political life during his tenure (1948–1967) was to attend dinners and luncheons. Ergo, to hold such events oneself.
Looking back, such representation was very much based on a man and his wife working in tandem, if not formally then at least in practice. The first hostess of Portland Place a century ago was Baroness Ebba Palmstierna, a woman born into a social class in which the wife’s role manifestly involved entertainment and hosting duties. As the wife of a diplomat, she was expected to participate in high society and represent Sweden at the highest levels, both within and beyond the circles of Swedes living in London in the 1920s and ‘30s and in philanthropic and cultural circles – areas that a century ago were considered especially fitting for a woman.
Over the ensuing hundred years, a long line of hostesses have overseen 27 Portland Place, including Anna Hägglöf, wife of Ambassador Gunnar Hägglöf. For two decades after World War II, she was a renowned ambassadress in London’s diplomatic circles, hosting politicians, cultural luminaries and socialites in the Swedish residence.
It was Anna who created the atmosphere in our embassy, constantly making new conquests in London society and the world of the arts. She organised our house in such a way that we could have eight or ten guests to lunch or dinner on any day whatsoever.
In 1991, Karin Leifland, one of the last of the old-time ambassadresses, described her life as an ambassador’s wife as largely performing an unpaid full-time job in Sweden’s service. During the eight and a half years Leif and Karin Leifland spent in London as an ambassadorial couple in the 1980s and ‘90s, they entertained over 30,000 guests in Portland Place. Karin’s working day, which in addition to entertaining included office work and supervising a staff of four, could easily run to 17 hours (annot. Svenska Dagbladet, 5 January 1991).
While 27 Portland Place continues to play a significant role in entertaining on Sweden’s behalf, today much of the planning, coordination, supervision and implementation of day-to-day operations and entertainment is dealt with by the housekeeper/butler.
Later alterations to the building
Although only minor alterations were made inside the residence itself in 1921, when central heating was installed and the salons repainted under the supervision of Torben Grut, additional renovations and alterations have been made to meet changing needs as new ambassador’s families have moved into the residence. Both the building and its furniture and art have therefore undergone changes over the course of the century it has been in Swedish ownership. The idea that the interiors of the residence should contribute to Sweden’s image abroad has however remained fundamental.
When Björn Prytz was appointed ambassador in 1937, craftsmen, bricklayers and painters moved in to perform a thorough renovation.
Mrs Prytz likes light colours and the walls of the beautiful salons have now been painted in pale green, cream and yellow. The furniture remains predominantly Swedish, especially in Gustavian style, and the walls are covered with Swedish art /.../ The ministerial couple Prytz have thus acquired a home that admirably represents Swedish culture in the English capital.
After World War II, the embassy found itself increasingly in need of space. The neighbouring property 29 Portland Place was therefore rented. The two properties were connected in a number of places, including via a discreet doorway constructed beneath the main staircase. This opening was bricked up in the early 1970s when the embassy moved parts of its chancery to another address and the lease on No. 29 was terminated. The plain door can however still be seen in the hallway of No. 27.
In conjunction with the post-war appointment of Gunnar Hägglöf, one of the reception rooms on the ground floor, which among other things had previously served as a dining room, was transformed into a library with classic wood panelling. The kitchen was moved from its traditional location in the basement to the first floor of the annex, directly adjacent to the new dining room. At the same time, the annex entrance was moved to the centre of the annex, giving it the appearance of a separate house around the corner on New Cavendish Street. A garage had been built in 1921 for Envoy Palmstierna’s car and the annex was now quipped with a second garage large enough to accommodate the ambassador’s limousine.
And so it has continued for a hundred years. New ambassador Leif Belfrage and his wife Greta took up their duties in1967 in a rented apartment, while the residence underwent renovation. At the beginning of the 1980s, during the early years of Leif and Karin Leifland’s term, the embassy’s chancery was finally moved out of 27 Portland Place and since 1983 it has been used solely as a residence. A renovation between 1998 and 2000 included the creation of several staff apartments in the main building and annex. The National Property Board Sweden also commissioned the architectural practice Hyett Salisbury Whiteley to restore the Adam brothers’ historic state rooms and to remodel the ambassador’s private apartment.
Did you know:
The property’s floor area is 2,460 m2 – a considerable square footage for a terraced house in London!