Ankarcrona’s Algerian Adventures
Treasures from the Archives
Henrik Ankarcrona was born in 1831 at Runsa, an estate in Uppland. He attended military college, where he also learned to draw and paint, at Karlberg on the outskirts of Stockholm.
As a 27-year-old lieutenant in the Svea Life Guards, Ankarcrona set out for Algeria via Paris to enlist in the French army. He fought for France in the colonial war in Morocco in 1859–60. After France and Morocco had signed a peace treaty, another war started, this time between Spain and Morocco. Ankarcrona sought permission from the Svea Life Guards to accompany the Spanish army and ventured forth into the desert once more.
He described his experiences in detail in an article entitled “Memories of two military campaigns in Africa”, published posthumously in Ord och Bild in 1917. Henrik Ankarcrona watched – sometimes from amid the hail of bullets, sometimes at a distance on horseback – as villages were set on fire and prisoners of war were burnt alive or decapitated and their bodies left by the roadside. War was as terrible then as it is today. He contracted cholera, which was cured by opium pills, and encountered Riffian bandits in the morning mist at the Fondak pass. Ankarcrona drew many sketches during his campaigns, but most went missing, presumed stolen, on the way back to Sweden.
After returning to Sweden, Ankarcrona focused on painting and won critical acclaim for his scenes from the Atlas Mountains, “… which are remarkable for their vivid arrangement, beautiful atmosphere and picturesque treatment of the subject matter …” Many of the paintings depicted battles in wide-open desert landscapes, with Arab soldiers on camels fleeing from the French army.
At an exhibition at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1863, King Karl XV purchased “The Battle of Uad-Ras in Morocco, 23 March 1860” and Ankarcrona made his name as an artist. He subsequently contributed several more paintings of battles in Morocco to the newly built Nationalmuseum’s opening exhibition of Scandinavian art in 1866.
With this in mind, it is interesting to look inside the box labelled Ankarcrona in the Nationalmuseum archives. It contains a collection of photographs, probably taken on a return visit to former battlefields in Algeria. According to the notes on the back, most were taken in Algeria’s Biskra province in 1891–92. They were sent to the archives by a printing company, Sveriges Litografiska Tryckeri, in 1952 “in case they are of interest”. The archive box also contains an article about Henrik Ankarcrona from Svenskt Konstnärslexikon and a deed of gift.
The photographs are small paper copies with drawing-pin marks in the corners. They probably served as models for paintings of oriental motifs. They depict landscapes and people, local residents and French soldiers, horses, gyrfalcons, dogs and camels – a far cry from the staged battle scenes. In one of the roughly 200 photographs, the proud owner of a long-legged camel calf is seen posing next to the mother camel.
Another photograph shows an artist with his easel on a sand dune and a young assistant shading him with a parasol. In another picture the assistant is seen turning cartwheels for the camera. A favourite picture from the collection is that of Consul General Nordström, his coat flapping as he makes his way through the cedars at Téniet-el-Ad on a wet and windy Christmas Eve in 1891.
Ankarcrona was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1865. Nationalmuseum’s collection includes several of his works.
A fascinating book (in Swedish) on the subject of orientalism in 19th-century Swedish art is "Bilden av orienten, exotism i 1800-talets svenska visuella kultur" by Tomas Björk, professor of art history at Stockholm University.
Read Ankarcrona’s article in Ord och Bild (in Swedish) recalling his two military campaigns in Africa ”Minnen från två fälttåg i Afrika” at Projekt Runeberg.
//Gertrud Nord, Archivist, Nationalmuseum Archives