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Building Oscarshall Summer Palace

Oscarshall Summer Palace was built during the period 1847-1852, commissioned by King Oscar I. The work was led by Danish architect Johan Henrik Nebelong. Both the King himself and Queen Joséphine were deeply involved in the project.

King Oscar I and Queen Joséphine sought to promote Norwegian art and craftsmanship when they commissioned the building of the summer palace, and today it is a monument to Norwegian art and artisans from the mid-1800s.

At that time, large parts of Ladegaardsøen, now known as the Bygdøy peninsula, belonged to the Royal Family. According to contemporary writers the site of the summer palace was chosen by Oscar I’s sons during a sailing trip in the summer of 1847. The dramatic location at the top of a steep slope overlooking the sea reflected the popular trends of the era.

The King and Queen used private funds for the construction work and were themselves the owners of the land. Architect Johan Henrik Nebelong worked closely with them, helping to turn their wishes into reality.

Johan Henrik Nebelong

Johan Henrik Nebelong had assisted architect Hans Ditlev Franciscus Linstow with the interior decoration of the Royal Palace from 1840 to 1848. When the Palace was nearing completion, he was commissioned by King Oscar I to draw up plans for Oscarshall. He was also responsible for designing a number of other buildings in the capital, but Oscarshall is considered to be his major work.

Nebelong’s blueprints of the main building are dated 30 August 1847. His contract was signed on 24 September of the same year, and work to clear the site and dig the foundations was started the very next day.

Norwegian craftsmen

During the construction of the Royal Palace Linstow had been criticised for relying too heavily on foreign craftsmanship. Norwegian craftsmen, however, had taken it as an excellent opportunity to learn and with the Palace as good as finished, they were now ready to set to work on Oscarshall. Not all of those involved were Norwegian. In addition to Nebelong himself, who was Danish, Danish decorative painter Peter Christian Frederik Wergmann was charged with decoration. The Italian Guidotti brothers moulded ornaments for the façade.

Norwegian artists were also commissioned in connection with the interior decoration of the summer palace. It was difficult to find commissions in Norway, and many artists had to travel abroad to support themselves. The King and Queen used Oscarshall to provide extensive patronage and assigned a number of artists to the project. The most important of these were Joachim Frich, Adolph Tidemand and the young Hans Gude.

Joséphine’s hall?

The foundation stone was laid in the summer of 1848 and the topping-out ceremony celebrated on 21 August 1849, Queen Joséphine’s name day. That was also the day that the summer palace received its name.

According to the report in the newspaper Morgenbladet: “It was on this occasion that the summer palace was given its name: Oscarshall. The name was proclaimed from the tower by one of the workmen during the music and celebrations.”

There have been claims that the idea to build the summer palace came not from King Oscar I, but from Queen Joséphine, and that the palace therefore should have be named after her and not after the King.

Gesamtkunstwerk

According to Nebelong’s contract the building work was to have been completed in the autumn of 1849. However, despite the fact that the workers set to work promptly, progress was not as rapid as intended. This was partly due to the fact that the plans were expanded to include more buildings and architectural features. A fire in the workshop of master carpenter Hans Johansen Borge in 1850 also caused delays.

Nevertheless, the construction period was relatively short (1847-1852), which enabled Nebelong to build the summer palace in close accordance with his original plans. The fact that one man was responsible for the entire building project is a key factor in the achievement of Oscarshall’s unique, consistent style. Nebelong designed the building itself, the interiors and most of the furniture, and laid out the park with its ancillary buildings as well.

The exterior and the interior of the main building, with the finely-tuned interplay between architecture, furniture, sculpture and painting in the building’s key rooms make Oscarshall a gesamtkunstverk – a work of art that combines a range of different art forms that are all equal parts of the whole.

Not without conflict

However, the construction activity did not proceed without obstacles. Both the delays and Nebelong’s unceasing demand for high-quality every step of the way were costly. The original budget of 16,200 speciedaler nearly trebled, to 51,000, during the building period. With the other sub-projects the total amount reached 70,000 speciedaler.

Lord Chamberlain Ferdinand Wedel Jarlsberg strongly criticised Nebelong for poor accounting and delays. Although the summer palace was being built using the private funds of the King and Queen, the Lord Chamberlain was monitoring the expenditures. In a letter to the King at the beginning of September 1851 Wedel Jarlsberg requested the dismissal of Nebelong. King Oscar I, however, had great faith in his architect and chose to retain him.

The Lord Chamberlain renewed his complaints in 1852 and succeeded in preventing Nebelong from participating on the committee that on 18 March handed over the finished palace. Nebelong was out-manoeuvred and the task of completing the interiors was given to decorative painter Peter Christian Frederik Wergmann.

Poor maintenance

Wedel Jarlsberg’s desire to save money may have been to the detriment of Oscarshall. The desire to speed up the work led to demands that the workers continue throughout November and December 1850. As early as spring 1851 repair work had to be carried out because of damp and frost damage.

Over the years the building has undergone extensive repairs and the quality of the repair work has varied.

Total renovation

The total renovation of Oscarshall from 2005 to 2009 included a complete restoration of the main building's exteriors and interiors, as well as the ancillary buildings. The primary objective was to recreate Nebelong’s original as closely as possible. The restoration work was conducted on the basis of thorough preliminary investigations; extensive colour testing of the interiors, stripping of the paint layer by layer and recording the types of paint and random checks using a scalpel of different parts of the building. Original receipts from the craftsmen have also proven useful in efforts to find out information about the use of colours and gilding. The restoration of Oscarshall Summer Palace required exceptional craftsmanship, as did its original construction. The most striking result of the work is that both the exterior and the interiors have emerged as considerably brighter. The summer palace has regained its original white colour after having been painted light pink after World War II. All the woodwork in the interiors has been blanched by the removal of secondary layers of varnish and oil.

Any features that had suffered extensive damage or were poorly executed copies were replaced. All the repairs to and damaged original parts of the plasterwork were chiselled out. Those parts of the original plasterwork that were in good condition were preserved. Original ornamental mouldings that could be saved were taken down before the renovation work began and were replaced afterwards. The restoration of the furniture and art was also important. As far as possible, the inventory was returned to that of 1859.

More accessible

One of the main aims has been to make Oscarshall more accessible than before. The summer palace will be used to a larger extent as a venue for official events as well as entertainment and concerts. In addition the building is better equipped to accommodate the public and guided tours are offered during the summer season. This will continue the tradition of King Oscar I, who himself opened Oscarshall to the public and made the summer palace a popular destination for the population of Christiania (now Oslo) as well as visitors.

09.11.2012