In striking contrast to the staid neoclassical style of the royal pavilion at the Hagaparken in Stockholm, lie the Sultan’s Copper Tents designed by Louis Jean Desprez.
Somewhere in France, an underground revolution is slowly brewing; one that will upheave the country’s unrelenting monarchy and reign glory for the third estate. In other parts of Europe, at the peak of its Enlightenment-era, intellectuals and free thinkers are rewriting their social and political ideals-stirring throngs of people from varying walks of life including, ironically, the aristocrats. This is 18th century Europe—a period of intellectual, social, and political ferment.
Gustav III:s paviljong | Yvonne Larsson
It is in this climate that Gustav III, King of Sweden commissioned the Swedish architect, Olof Tempelman, to build a royal pavilion at the Hagaparken in Stockholm. In striking contrast to the staid neoclassical style of the pavilion lie the Sultan’s Copper Tents, designed by the French painter Louis Jean Desprez during the years 1787 to 1790. Originally built as a set of three buildings for the palace guards, they make for a particularly distinct sight set in the massive greens of the Swedish park.
It’s mimicking of a Sultan’s encampment, clad in decoratively painted copper plates, could be passed off as merely yet another Turquerie adaptation by the west. Similar to other aristocrats in Europe, Gustav was keen to embrace the wave of Orientalist culture (all things east, as far as they’re concerned) that heightened one’s elite status in society: sophisticated and worldly. Today, Gustav is regarded as a great patron of art, a benefactor of the performing arts and literature; founding the Swedish Academy, the Royal Swedish Opera, and the Royal Swedish Ballet under the umbrella of his Royal Theatre. His vast collection of sculptures amassed on his trips to Italy is housed in the Royal Palace’s galleries.
Influenced by the French philosopher Voltaire, the Swedish king enacted wide-ranging reforms aimed at economic liberalization and social reforms. He spent a substantial amount of public funds on various cultural ventures—commissioning a host of ambitious architectural projects, many of which never got completed.
As someone with a keen interest and eye for design, he produced many of the initial designs for the Royal Pavilion. The copper tents facades were only built on the side facing the main lawns- painting the desired image of an Ottoman Sultan’s encampments by the edge of the forest. The middle tent was rebuilt completely by the palace architect after being destroyed by a fire in 1953.
Today, the copper tents house the Haga Park Museum flanked on either side by a restaurant and accommodation. The Hagaparken, founded and developed by Gustav III is the country’s first National City Park, the Pavilion and Sultan’s tents, a national monument. Tragically, it was from this very pavilion that King Gustav dined and left for the fateful masquerade ball at the Opera where he was shot in an aristocratic-parliamentary coup attempt, succumbing to the wound 13 days later.
Like many contemporary sovereigns of his time, he was an advocate of the French enlightenment; a proponent of enlightened despotism—an interesting aspect of the Age of Reason. An enlightened despot acts as an authoritarian leader who exercises their political power based on the principles of Enlightenment; they believe that they are destined to rule by social contract and not divine right. This translated into monarchs consulting intellectuals of the cause on various political and social reforms; they claimed to have their subjects’ interest at the heart of their governance. The two ends of the spectrum of this movement as I see it, are enlightened despotism or liberal democracy.
One wherein absolutists hold all their power and act as dictated by reason and justice and the other, a textbook democracy wherein the people elect their government.
Sweden and France at this particular time in history embodied these two variants.
At the time that the Pavilion and tents were built, they made a bold statement of the resounding ambition of the King and his modern ideas, refined taste, and interest in cultivating a rich cultural heritage for the nation; albeit receiving criticism for unwarranted extravagance and poor use of the people’s money.
Today, they stand an important testament to the country’s turbulent history, much like many others. Royal heritage is more often than not, built on the sacrifices of the faceless underprivileged. When we try to analyze structures of historical significance, it is important to key in the circumstances that surround its birth; to understand the climate of the time, where the power lay, who benefited from it, who suffered because of it, and so forth.
Our love story with heritage is but a reflection of our desperate search for meaning, for context; to understand where we come from and where we might go. Each time we delve into history’s tumultuous depths, we unravel yet another layer of her modestly hidden secrets.