A favourite place, despite everything
The residence’s cosy ground-floor library looks out across the considerable breadth of Portland Place. When the Swedish Embassy moved into the property in 1921, the room was initially used as a dining room. At the time, a staircase connected the room directly to the basement kitchen. In here, one can shut out the roar of the big city for a while and relax in front of the original Adam fireplace. While it may be the best room for quiet conversation, this was not always the case.
During World War II, London was badly damaged by high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices. The area around Portland Place was not spared: Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, is located on the same street and was a strategic target for enemy bombers. London was subjected to several rounds of systematic bombing during the war in what became known as the Blitz. Two buildings in the same block as the residence were so severely damaged that they later had to be rebuilt. Although on the whole the legation survived relatively unscathed, in May 1941 a bomb did explode on the street outside. The Swedish press reported that all windows in No. 27 were smashed, curtains torn to ribbons and the window frames on the facade on Portland Place blown in. Inside, door leaves were shaken loose and walls moved by the blast. The occupants of the building escaped with a disturbed night’s sleep. In terms of material damage, the dining room – now the library – was one of the worst affected rooms. After the war, the dining room was moved to the first floor, into the royal guest room adjacent to the large gallery. At the same time, an oak and pine interior with classical ionic pilasters was installed and the room became the homely library it is today.
May 1941. As darkness falls, the attacks begin, as they have since autumn 1940. Ambassador Bjorn Prytz has spent many nights on the roof of 27 Portland Place watching for enemy planes. After several hours, fatigue takes its toll and he retires to bed.
He has only just fallen asleep when it happens. He wakes to the sound of an explosion as a bomb lands somewhere nearby. The blast is powerful enough to shatter window panes, dislodge window frames and door leaves and tear curtains to shreds. The worst of the damage is sustained by the then dining room, now the library, at the gable end of the building facing Portland Place. Still, on this occasion things go relatively well, with no injuries save for a shaken ambassador and a decapitated bust of the Queen.
Did you know:
When Sweden leased the neighbouring property No. 29 (1947–1971), it is likely that an additional small passageway was constructed linking the library to the new premises. All passageways were bricked up when the embassy left No. 29 in the early 1970s; however, rumour has it that there is a secret door in the library somewhere, but there is no one left who remembers how to open it.
Fittingly enough, writing has been an occupation of several Swedish Ambassadors to the Court of St James's. Envoy Erik Palmstierna wrote and published both political diaries and more esoteric literature, while Ambassador Gunnar Hägglöf has described his diplomatic exploits in a number of volumes. In Engelska år: 1950–1960 [The English Years: 1950–1960], Hägglöf offers insights into historical events great and small. During World War II, for example, he and Erik Palmstierna were guests of the then ambassador Björn Prytz for a simple dinner at the residence, most likely in what is now the library. An air raid caused the gentlemen to remain longer than intended and when Palmstierna and Hägglöf were finally able to make their way home through the blacked-out city, they walked hand in hand along Portland Place, lost in the thick London fog. He also describes how in 1953, as Björn Prytz’s successor as ambassador, he was tasked with conveying the good news to that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
A literary assignment
On the afternoon of 15 October 1953, Ambassador Gunnar Hägglöf leaves Portland Place on his way to 10 Downing Street, his assignment to deliver the news that the British Prime Minister has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “£12,000? Well, that makes all the difference,” Churchill exclaims on receiving the news.
This was in marked contrast to the events of 1926, when author George Bernard Shaw received the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature. Shaw refused to accept the prize money, likening it to “a lifebelt thrown to a swimmer who has already reached the shore in safety”. It was finally agreed to donate the money for the establishment of the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation, the purpose of which is to promote cultural ties between the United Kingdom and Sweden.