They were built for the festivities hosted by well-to-do farmers in the Swedish province of Hälsingland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, seven Hälsingland farmhouses make up one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, thanks to their unique preserved paintings. Ingalill Nyström is leading a research team who will find out more about the paintings and the paints used, in order to provide advice on their preservation.
There are almost a thousand Hälsingland farmhouses, an unusually large number of which are well preserved with intact interiors. These farmhouses were built from the late 18th century onwards, and the farmers’ prosperity meant that they could afford to decorate their properties and build special rooms for entertaining. These rooms were richly ornamented with landscapes, cityscapes and flowers painted directly onto the walls.
“These large, magnificent buildings truly are breathtaking,” says researcher Ingalill Nyström.
Ingalill works as a conservation scientist, and is leading an interdisciplinary project together with physicists, chemists, restorers, ethnologists and art historians. The aim is to find out more about the murals, furnishings and textiles of these farmhouses. How were the paints made? Which bonding agents and pigments were used? The results will provide better knowledge about historic arts and crafts, and will also provide answers to how objects dating from this time should be handled and displayed in order to avoid damaging them.
THE STUDIES ARE BEING carried out both on site, by investigating the buildings themselves, and via samples in the laboratory.
“We try to do as little damage as possible,” explains Ingalill. “If samples are taken, they are as small as possible – about 1 millimetre in diameter. The same samples are then used for several different analyses.”
The actual analyses are carried out using light. The research is based on various spectroscopic analysis methods, and by illuminating the paintings with visible light or light that is not visible to the human eye, researchers can learn about the paint. On site, equipment such as multispectral cameras is used to give researchers an overview and to see which paints are original and which have been added at a later date.
“We’ve also thought about bringing portable x-ray equipment with us so we can see the timber construction beneath the paintings and how the murals are attached to the walls.”
MUCH OF THE WORK involves developing various analysis methods, requiring collaboration between researchers from different disciplines. For example, research assistant Jacob Thomas from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow has developed a method for exposing a material to strong light to see how quickly the colour fades. Researchers have also produced paints and bonding agents using historic formulations so that they can analyse them and compare them with samples from the Hälsingland farmhouses.
“We think it’s lime wash on the walls, but that’s what we thought about the southern Swedish painting, too, and there the bonding agent turned out to be made of egg and various starches. So we’re quire curious about that.”
IN MAY, THE RESEARCH team will be returning to the farmhouses to carry out analyses on site. This time they will be visiting the Bortom Åa farm, in the remote woodland village of Fågelsjö.
“We’ll be heading to Bortom Åa to study a farmhouse where historical sources such as diaries in which painters are described have been preserved, together with other sources in the form of painting tools, templates, ink stones and pigments,” continues Ingalill.
BORTOM ÅA IS OWNED by Ljusdal Municipality, and is managed by Fågelsjö Rural Heritage Association. Several of the other farmhouses included in the World Heritage listing are private homes, such as Pallars in Långhed. The farmhouse’s interior was painted by the Blue Painter, a painter whose name is not known, but who – as his nickname suggests – used a blue colour in his paintings. As Ingalill explains, it is thought that the paint came from the ore mine in the Hälsingland village of Los, where cobalt ore was mined in the 18th century. At that time, cobalt blue was an export commodity and the pigment was exported by Sweden and Norway to China, where it was used to decorate the characteristic Chinese porcelain.
“We’ll be working with geologists to carry out analyses from Los to see whether the paint comes from there.”
THE RESEARCH PROJECT was financed by the Swedish Research Council, and runs until 2017. In addition to the scientific breadth, there is also an extensive contact network including museums, the Swedish National Heritage Board and the County Administrative Board. On completion of the project, Nordiska Museet will publish an anthology of the results.
“We’ve been given a unique opportunity to carry out this type of work together, and to establish conservation science in Sweden.”