The Unknown Elsa Beskow
Elsa sits at a table in the parlor trying to concentrate, drawing Aunt Lavender’s frilly skirt or the Children of the Forest’s red mushroom hats. One son sits by her side to draw as well, while the youngest boy sits on her knee. The oldest son comes in from the garden and tries to take advantage of his mother’s distractions:
”Mother, may I have a gingerbread cookie?”
”Mother, may I have two gingerbread cookies?”
”Mother, may I have three gingerbread cookies?”
”Alright – no, what are you talking about, child?” You may not have any gingerbread cookies!”
Such were the working conditions for artist and author Elsa Beskow, who created her fairytales while taking care of six children and the old wooden mansion owned by author Viktor Rydberg, just outside Stockholm. The man of the house – theologian, preacher and hymn-writer Natanael Beskow – had the use of his own workroom at Villa Ekeliden. One of Elsa’s and Natanael’s six sons, Bo Beskow, writes about his mother in the autobiographical book Krokodilens middag:
How did she find the time to work with her picture books! She had to produce one a year in order to support the family; father’s nonprofit obligations did not provide much in the way of financial return. We understood that father’s work was important; he was not to be disturbed, but mother only drew and painted – it was fun and we could disturb her as much as we wished. Mother was always available; she didn’t have her own work room, she wrote and drew at a large white table in the parlor. Everything and everyone in the house that moved passed by there, someone always needed her help with something.
But even if the children could at times disturb Elsa Beskow in her work, they were also her lifeblood. ”Every other year and every other year a boy” is the way she described the rhythm her life took during the first years in Djursholm.
Children and Flowers: Her Inspiration
Peter in Blueberry Land, Christopher’s Harvest Time and all the other children in the books were based on her own kids, while her childhood love of trees and flowers gave her a great deal of knowledge of botany that also added to her stories. ”With a great deal of planning and bother, you can take the children to the zoo and show them the wolves and the bears. Once there they become enthralled by a tiny stone at the side of the road or can talk of nothing but the ladybug creeping along the bars of the wolves’ cage. You might just have stayed home in the garden – there are both stones and ladybugs there,” said Elsa Beskow. To her painted fairytale forest worlds she brought fairies, trolls and elves.
When she was seven years old, Elsa Beskow knew that she would write and illustrate fairytales when she grew up. But fairytales actually came to her all her life. When she was even younger, she would tell her brother Hans long stories and ask for his story suggestions when she lost her train of thought. Perhaps the fairy tales originated when she sat in grandmother Johanna’s exciting garden on the south side of Stockholm or was being rocked gently in grandmother’s secure arms. It was her grandmother who taught her the classical nursery rhymes about the old lady who lived in a little cottage with her little, little cat. Much later, Elsa illustrated her first book, the nursery rhyme The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman, which was published over 100 years ago in 1897. The publishers, were Wahlström & Widstrand, convinced Elsa Beskow to add a page with the concluding line, ”and the cat ran to the forest and never returned again” because that’s how he remembered the rhyme from his own childhood. She reluctantly agreed, but fifty years later she added the line, ”Or maybe he did come home,” so children wouldn’t be sad.
Growing Up with the Aunts
Elsa Beskow was born February 11, 1874 in Maria Parish on the south side of Stockholm. Despite being accustomed to harsh winters, Elsa loved the summertime and primarily wrote about her favorite season in her books, saying, ”Why must there always be pictures of winter? It’s much more fun to see pictures of summer during the winter.” Elsa’s own paradise was Skärfsta, a farm next to Lake Uttran in Sörmland where she spent her childhood summers with her parents, older brother and four younger sisters. Hailing from Norway with the family name of Maartman, her father Bernt was outgoing and full of good-natured pranks; he brought the laughter and fun to Elsa’s life, and she loved him dearly. When Elsa was 15, her father came down with pneumonia and died suddenly, leaving her mother alone with six children and no way to afford to care for them on her own. Elsa’s brother was sent to Eskilstuna to live with their uncle, and the five girls went with their mother to live with her three unmarried younger siblings who already lived collectively in Stockholm. Elsa grew up with her mother, two aunts and uncle, which is where the archetypes for Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, Aunt Lavender and Uncle Blue originated.
Sunshine and Hidden Sorrow
Elsa grew up in a lively, liberal and artistic environment, which was a stark contrast to her husband Natanel, who came from a strict clergyman’s family. While a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, Natanel was looking for a model and came across Elsa Maartman, who was also in a different school at the time and would later become his wife. In 1897, the same year her first book was published, they were married. Shortly after, future artist Natanael Beskow suddenly changed directions and went to Uppsala to resume his interrupted studies in theology. Elsa’s son Bo Beskow provides us with a glimpse inKrokodilens middag:
We children noticed very little of the enormous difficulties that my parents must have had to overcome. The very fact that two such strong personalities with diametrically opposed points of origin could meet and understand one another is a fairytale. They turned the conflicts into something positive, they learned from one another instead of working against each other. Father was colossally practical and proper, but mother could work magic. Sometimes when it was gray and cloudy, she would take a stick and stir up the clouds and say: ”Come out, sun!” and the sun came out.
Outwardly Elsa Beskow was happy and positive, but she hid a major sorrow: her son Dag was killed in a tragic accident just before his eighth birthday, and Elsa was jarred to the very core. Natanael and the boys helped Elsa recover the will to live and rediscover the fairytales which allowed her to convey her view of life and also share her humor, wonder and wisdom. ”Life has been like a bowl, filled with a precious liquid. I didn’t want to spill a single drop,” said Elsa, who died June 30, 1953.
Always A Child At Heart
Fairytale continue to live on. Young or old, you can simply open the door to the world of dreams and imagination to go dancing with Peter and Lotta around the Christmas tree at the Aunts’ house or visiting the Flower’s Festival. All of the real and imaginary creatures in nature were Elsa Beskow’s allies, as were the children. ”There is something blessed about children, they are always willing to meet you halfway. If you weren’t certain of that, you would never dare to show what you have. They themselves have seen the subjects from the fairytales peek out here and there and that’s why they immediately recognize them, however imperfectly they are portrayed.”
Elsa Beskow in the World At Large
Elsa Beskow’s books are well represented in other languages and she is said to have introduced the Swedish picture book abroad. Peter in Blueberry Land was translated into German in 1903, Danish in 1912 and English in 1931. The illustrations found their way to Poland without the texts, which lead the Polish author Maria Konopnicka to write her own longer stories to accompany the illustrations. In 1903, the book was published in Poland without Elsa Beskow’s name being mentioned. The book became so popular that it was obligatory reading in the Polish schools for many years. In the 1950’s new illustrations were drawn to accompany the stories, but they were still based upon Elsa Beskow’s originals. Elsa Beskow’s books have been translated into Arabic, Danish, Dutch, English, Faeroese, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Russian and Spanish.
About Elsa Beskow’s Illustrations
Color illustrations on the right and text with black silhouette illustrations on the left are characteristic of Elsa Beskow’s books. Nature always plays an active part in her fairytales in which flowers, trees, mountains and pinecones come to life. Her illustrations are filled with small details that fuel the observer’s imagination. This use of imagination is combined with a very meticulous rendering of various natural environments in a unique manner. Elsa Beskow’s illustrations and fairytales are also interesting from a cultural history perspective, since many of her stories detail clothing and interior decoration from the turn of the century. Elsa’s illustrations dominated picture book artwork for close to 50 years and many of the picture book artists of today have been influenced by her art. In 1952, she received the Nils Holgersson Plaque for her collected works, and a prize named after her – The Elsa Beskow Plaque – was established in 1958 by The Swedish Library Association. (Av: Viveca Ringmar/ Bonnier Carlsen, 1997 och 2003)