The Grand Salon.

Words and photography
by Håkan Groth

“After much thinking about how to write this piece about the arts in the Swedish eighteenth century, I decided to focus on Gustav III and his Pavilion at Haga. This is a remarkable house with exquisite interiors but it was also the King’s private retreat towards the end of his life. There have been many books written about Gustav III as he was involved in so much of public life at the time... his childhood, family, politics, travels, theatre, opera, artists and many others. In the end, I chose Haga as the King was so closely involved in its creation. During his life, Gustav III faced strong political opposition from the leading aristocrats of his country. It seems that the more difficult things became, the more he concentrated on this project as a form of escapism and therapy. A strong advocate of the enlightened absolutism, it is believed that Gustav was planning to change the Swedish constitution by creating a parliamentary system. However, in spite of the many reforms that the King was able to promote, his premature death at the hands of assassins in 1792 prevented him from accomplishing everything he wished to.”

The Mirror Salon.

Gustav III was an aesthete. He loved exquisitely beautiful things and had developed a taste for luxury. As a result of his cultural interests and passion for the arts, the late eighteenth century in Sweden was an artistic golden age. For this reason, the Swedish version of the Neoclassical Style has become known as the Gustavian Style.

Gustav had been brought up at a highly sophisticated French speaking court and his mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika, sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, was a great art collector and patron of the arts. Gustav’s first governor and tutor was the Francophile Count Carl Gustav Tessin, the son and grandson of Sweden’s foremost architects. Tessin was an art collector, a diplomat and a statesman who greatly influenced the education of young Gustav. The intelligent prince was intensely patriotic, ambitious and, as a king, he sought to re-establish the greatness of Sweden, a process in which arts would assume a pivotal role.

Entertainments such as opera and theatre were highly appreciated by Gustav and his restlessness expressed itself in a great interest in travelling. His first trip abroad as Crown Prince was to Paris in 1771. This visit was meant to last for a year and to be educational, as well as to forge close political ties with Louis XV and his government. Gustav enjoyed Paris, where he made many new friends, and was well-received by the King at Versailles.

A portrait of Gustav III of Sweden.
Alexander Roslin, 1775.
Image courtesy of the Nationalmuseum.

One evening, while attending to an opera from the box of the saloniste Comtesse d’Egmont, a messenger arrived from Stockholm with news that his beloved father, King Adolph Frederick, had suddenly died. Gustav was forced to shorten his travel but, even so, decided to stay for three more weeks before returning home.

Sweden’s finances were then in a precarious state and so the new sovereign had important business to attend. In 1772, Gustav staged a coup d’etat, arresting and deposing the ruling aristocratic government that had become hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. While most people rejoiced and supported the young King’s efforts to restore royal power, aristocrats expected more privileges whereas the peasants and burghers wished for more social reforms. After his coronation and coup d’etat he introduced the formal court etiquette from Versailles. Gustav improved considerably the country’s finances by promoting economic liberalism and by devaluing the currency. Torture was abolished and the use of capital punishment was restricted. Catholic presence was legalised and Jewish businessmen were invited to settle in the country. By 1777, Gustav became the first head of state to recognise the United States as a new sovereign state.

By this time, the King had several royal palaces at his disposal and also acquired Drottningholm, the largest and most splendid of the royal country palaces from his mother. His favourite residence came to be the smallest of his estates, a manor house in the Haga Park by the idyllic bay at Brunnsviken on the outskirts of Stockholm.

The Dining Room.

After his return from Paris in 1771, where he had visited the recently completed Petit Trianon at Versailles, he saw Haga as a place where he could live a simple country life in the presence of a few friends, away from the intrigues at court. In 1780, the talented architect Fredric Magnus Piper returned to Sweden from his studies in Europe, mainly in England. The King commissioned him to design a new and larger Neoclassical house and to transform Haga into a romantic park in the English style.

In 1783 Gustav travelled to Italy, his longest and most rewarding trip. This was ostensibly meant to visit the thermal baths in Pisa to improve his health; a much-criticized plan since he was gone for the best part of a year and funds had to be borrowed to his Italian periplus. The King travelled incognito under the title ‘Count of Haga’ together with a large entourage and the sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel as his guide. His time in Italy was taken up with studies of architecture and art. While staying in Florence for one month, Gustav visited the Uffizi Galleries no less than fifteen times. He didn’t care much for the contemporary Italian art or architecture as he found it disappointing.

A detail of the Grand Salon.

The visit to the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican was one of the highlights of the tour. Pope Pius VI personally showed him the collections of antiquities on New Years Day in 1784. The excited King now wanted his own collection of antique pieces. The dealer Francesco Piranesi had been appointed his art agent prior to his arrival in Rome and sold him over a hundred pieces of antique sculptures, candelabra and vases from his late father Giovanni Baptista Piranesi’s collection. Many of these had been created by him using antique marble fragments.

He visited Tivoli outside Rome where he saw Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. The King travelled south to Naples to see Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum, visiting also the impressive Greek temples at Paestum. Amidst his return to Sweden he visited Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, now the King and Queen of France, at Versailles.

The Blue Salon.

Upon his arrival to Sweden, King Gustav saw the possibilities of creating a new retreat at Haga. In 1785, he purchased the adjacent property and more than doubled the size of the estate. The King strictly desired Neoclassical buildings with a dramatic and sober landscape inspired by his visit to Tivoli.

Piper was asked to produce new plans for the enlarged park and to design a royal residence on a new site up the hill. The scheme included several other constructions; there were to be enormous stables, quarters for the Royal Guards, temples, grottoes and monuments, as well as a man-made waterfall was to plunge down a cliff opposite to the new house.

“The king was intimately
involved in the design
of the interior and
of the furnishings”

Ultimately, only one structure was built by Piper, the Turkish Kiosk that was erected in 1786-88. After consulting several architects, the resolution for the construction of the new house came in 1786 following the design of Olof Tempelman. A central rotunda was intended for antique statues of the Nine Muses with Apollo in the centre that the King had bought in Rome. Work progressed speedily, but the impatient Gustav suddenly changed his mind and, after discussions with the French architect Louis-Jean Desprez, dismissed Tempelman. The King had met Desprez in Rome and had engaged him as a stage designer.

The Library.

The project changed character. Instead of a modest building, the King now wanted a grand Neoclassical palace to house his collection of sculptures and paintings. Work on Desprez’s fantastic palace continued in spite of shortage of funds, political opposition to the King and, from 1788, the war against Russia. The assassination of Gustav III put a stop to the project as no one had the interest or capacity to complete this ambitious project. Today only the ruins of the foundations remain.

When Tempelman was dismissed from the palace project, he was instead commissioned to build the pavilion which was to become the King’s real home at Haga. He completely reconstructed the old manor and added two new wings. Work began in 1787 and the interiors were created by Louis Masreliez. This period is known as the Late Gustavian Style and is greatly influenced by the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The French-born Masreliez had studied in Italy and Paris for nearly thirteen years before being called back to Sweden to work for the King. The interiors created by Masreliez at Haga are exceptional and the King himself was intimately involved in the design of the interiors and of the furnishings.

The Divan Anteroom.

A detail of the Divan Anteroom.

The pavilion is entered through a small colonnaded portico on the north side. The small Vestibule, with simple painted wall decorations, inspired by those in the Renaissance Villa Farnese at Caprarola, also served as guard’s room (with a bed hidden in a large built-in cupboard) and a serving room. Food was cooked in a service block across the road disguised as a ruin.

The Dining Room is an austere interior with three tall arched windows on both sides. The walls had been painted over in the nineteenth century, but some of the original decor was found underneath layers of paint. Restoration of the walls and of the room was possible using Masreliez’s original drawings. The paintwork, very faded today, would have been much stronger originally.

Desprez designed the unique set of four serving tables inspired by antique altars and made by Pehr Ljung in 1791. All the wooden floors in the pavilion were originally covered with, specially woven, wall-to-wall carpets. The designs of these are unknown as none have survived. There was no permanent dining table as the custom in Sweden, well into the nineteenth century, was that at mealtimes folding gateleg tables of painted pine would have to be settled. These tables would be brought into the room and covered in fine damask.

The Room of the Divan.

A bust of Princess Louise of Lorraine
by Jean-Baptiste Lemoine.

The Grand Salon is the most lavishly decorated in the pavilion. The walls are divided into four sections, each devoted to a classical divinity: Apollo, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Masreliez’s designs for these were inspired by Raphael’s interpretation of the Pompeian style. A Swedish porphyry chimney piece based on Masreliez’s design would be added in 1802. Masreliez also designed the elegant Klismos chairs based on an antique model. These were recovered with the present oriental gold brocade around 1800. The pair of French Louis XVI mahogany side tables were made in Paris by the great cabinetmaker Adam Weisweiler.

The Blue Salon was used by the King as a breakfast room. The walls are now covered with white and blue silk damask which replaces the original, patriotic, blue and yellow of Sweden’s flag. The allegorical paintings allude to important events in the war against Russia of 1788-1790, which had only just ended. One of the overdoors celebrates the naval battle of Svensksund, at which Sweden won a glorious victory; the other commemorates the peace treaty of Värälä that ended the war.

The last room of the enfilade is the dazzling Mirror Salon. It has windows along one side and at the end. A series of large mirrors are placed on the windowless wall reflecting the greenery of the park and the glittering water of Brunnsviken below. The delicately carved and gilded arabesques, designed by Louis Masreliez, were carved by his brother Jean-Baptiste Masreliez and Pehr Ljung, and are reminiscent of the work of the Rousseau brothers in Marie Antoinette’s Petits Appartements at Versailles. Three sofas and twenty-four Klismos chairs furnished the room.

“He was a great booklover
and the library contained over
two thousand volumes”

Behind the Grand Salon are the King’s Bedroom and his Library, which also served as his study. A painting by Alexander Roslin, of a scene from French history in which Henri IV is reconciled with his great minister Sully, has pride of place on the Bedroom’s wall. Gustav had great admiration for the capable French King who managed to unite his country, restore royal power and rescue the country’s finances: Gustav’s own ambitions. The floor was originally covered with a colourful French Savonnerie carpet from Versailles, a gift from Louis XVI. The carpet still exists in the Royal Collections but is today only used at special occasions.

The Library where the King often withdrew to work alone has an antique chimneypiece—said to have come from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli—that was bought by the King from Piranesi’s collection. Gustav was a great booklover and the library contained over two thousand volumes. The books were largely bought in 1785 from the estate of his late friend Count Philip Gustav Creutz, a poet and former ambassador to France. In his memory, the King commissioned a marble medallion by Sergel, nowadays replaced by a plaster copy, placed above the chimneypiece. The pair of wall lights, designed by Masreliez, and the unique altarshaped fire basket were made by Fredric Ludvig Rung, Sweden’s foremost fondeur-ciseleur. The library steps were here originally and the elegant writing table by Georg Haupt is a replacement for a similar piece by the same maker.

The Garderobe.

In the wall between the Bedroom and the Library is the King’s very narrow private staircase to the first floor. Ladies wearing wide skirts or corpulent gentlemen weren’t able to ascend this way.

On the first floor are the Divan Anteroom and Divan which were the first rooms in the Pavilion to be decorated, in 1789, by Masreliez and his team. In Turkey, the ‘divan’ was the most important room and where the Sultan presided over council meetings and gave audiences. Although at Haga the Divan served the same purpose, there is nothing Turkish about its interior apart from the long sofa with large cushions. It is highly likely that Gustav sat in the centre of the sofa directly below a wall painting of the apotheosis of Apollo, to whom he liked to be compared.

In the evenings the King used this room for conversation and reading. The long table and the small built-in writing flaps underneath the windows were made by the cabinetmaker Gustav Adolf Ditzinger and in the corner, on top of the stove, is a marble bust by Jean-Baptiste Lemoine of Princess Louise of Lorraine, known as Comtesse de Brionne. She was a young widow who met Gustav in Paris, during his visit in 1771, and was one of the beautiful and intellectual ladies with whom he corresponded after his return to Sweden. Divan rooms quickly spread from the royal palaces to country houses around Sweden.

The other rooms on the first floor are the King’s Dressing Room, the Garderobe, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf’s Room and the Crown Prince’s Governor’s Room. These are very small rooms with low ceilings due to the mezzanine above designed to provide accommodation for gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting. These rooms, as well as a suite of rooms on the top floor, are simply decorated in Pompeian style with plain furniture. Traditionally, the apartment of four rooms on the top floor is called the Queen’s Apartment, but there is no evidence that Queen Sophia Magdalena ever came to stay.

The King's Bedroom.

For the modern eye, the pavilion seems as the perfect summer house but the King didn’t move in until December 1790. That year, without his family, he celebrated Christmas at Haga with just his closest friends. It was freezing cold and the small decorative stoves proved inadequate to heat the rooms. This didn’t bother the King as he never felt the cold though his suffering friends and courtiers did.

The King visited Haga a last time on the sixteenth of March in 1792 to inspect the progress of the building of his grand palace before leaving for a masked ball at the Stockholm Opera House. A political conspiracy of disgruntled members of the aristocracy led to his assassination that evening, where he was shot. The King didn’t die immediately and was installed in his great state bedroom at the Royal Palace, where he received many visitors during the following days. The doctors unsuccessfully tried to operate him in order to save his life but Gustav died in agony from blood-poisoning two weeks later, at only 46 years old. It was a dramatic end to his life.

A witty character, Gustav III would probably have been amused to know that the story of his life—and death—was to be turned into the famous opera «Un Ballo in Maschera» by Giuseppe Verdi. The premiere of this opera took place in 1859 and it continues to be performed today.


Gustav III had perhaps the most complex personality of all the Swedish Kings. No one who came into contact with him was left indifferent. He was a controversial person during his lifetime but the legacy of the cultural life he created, together with the architects, painters, sculptors, writers, composers, musicians and actors he financially supported and encouraged during his reign, survives and is still greatly admired today.

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