S. E. Waller, artist, 22, gift to Iceland

 The Empty Saddle by S. E. Waller. A friend brings a horse back from battle. The owner is dead. The new widow stands on the balcony.

Six Weeks In The Saddle, by Samuel Edmund Waller, was published in 1874. He traveled to Iceland in the summer of 1872 and spent six weeks with three horses and his local guide, Bjarni. He should have had six horses but the demand for Icelandic horses was so great that the price had doubled before he got to Reykjavik. He didn’t have a lot of money. He’d been making a living by illustrating books.
The astounding thing is that he was born in 1850 and, in 1872, was only 22 years old. He made the trip on a small Danish ship. He arrived by himself in Reykjavik, bought three horses, hired his guide, packed  his belongings onto one of the horses, and went off on a six week adventure filled with danger and hardship. He went to Iceland because he’d read Njal’s Saga and had fallen in love with it. As an artist, he wanted to sketch the landscapes of the saga, plus he wanted to experience as much of Icelandic life as possible.
No wonder he was made so welcome in Icelandic homes. In 1872, there were still no roads. Farms were very isolated. Foreign visitors to any individual farm were rare and, in many cases, the foreigners stuck to themselves bringing tents and food and, except for the guides, being self-sufficient. The big draw were the geysers. They were one of the wonders of the world. Others land in Reykjavik, rent horses, hire guides and drovers, make the trip to the geysers, return to Reykjavik, then they go home.
Waller wanted none of that. He had little money. However, even if he’d had the price of three more horses, he’d have wanted to spend time with Icelanders because he was in love with the sagas and the landscape.
No wonder he was so welcome everywhere he stopped. No wonder the young women played games with him, sang with him, played music for him. While they were exotic to him, he must have been every bit as exotic to them. A young man from England, appearing suddenly, congenial, talented, educated. No wonder beautiful young women kissed him on the cheek.
How exotic he must have appeared can be seen in some of his comments at the end his book. He says, “All over the country I was asked questions upon political economy, the condition of Denmark, the best way of bridging the river Thjorsa, and all varieties of engineering. I was asked to translate Latin and Greek…if I knew the Queen and had spoken with  her..I was asked questions upon fish-curing, upon law-making, and upon currency.
These are people who want to know all sorts of things, who know that knowledge is out there in the wider world, they want to know everything, everything.
One of the last places he visits is Thingvalla. He describes it in detail and tells a bit about its history. “It is impossible to give any idea of the feelings of deep interest with which I regarded every inch of this romantic spot, and tried to imagine what an appearance it must have presented 900 years ago. I wondered where Hallgerda’s booth was. I know that it was just down by the water that Gunnar first saw her sitting in the doorway. Njal‘s booth too, was some two or three hundred yards down the river on the other side. It was here that the desperate battle took place between Njal´s assassins and his avengers, and it was between the water and the lava that so many of t hem were killed.“ How many of us know Njal‘s Saga that well?
Waller’s father was an architect and Waller spent a short time as an apprentice to him;  however, he never practiced architecture but, instead, pursued  his dream of being an artist. He went to art school. He worked for a brief time on a farm and learned to love animals. He was passionate about horses and they figure largely in his paintings. His paintings received acclaim and he had numerous exhibitions at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1902. He died in 1903 at the age of 53.
If you put his name into Google, you will see a large number of his paintings. They are romantic, sentimental, dramatic, nostalgic, and command high prices. Copies of them are widely available.
I, for one, am glad he made his trip to Iceland and wrote Six Weeks In The Saddle. I’m pleased that I discovered it for it gives a very different view of Iceland and Icelanders than the accounts of many of the explorers and scientists or professional travelers.

3 thoughts on “S. E. Waller, artist, 22, gift to Iceland

  1. Hi William, I found a large print of 'The Empty Saddle' signed by Waller in my Grandmother's possessions. It is not in very good comdition, but we have had writing students come and use it for inspriation. I am trying to find more information about him and come across your blog. I am going to find a copy of his 'Six Weeks in a Saddle'. thank you Ann-Maree in Australia

  2. Sæll Valgarðsson. Ég er að skrifa smá blaðagrein um bók Wallers. Veist þú eitthvað um orginialana af myndum hans frá Íslandi. Í fljótu bragði sé ég þær ekki á netinu. (Hello. I’m writing a small journalist article about Waller. Do you know anything about originals of his paintings from Icelandi. In a quick glance I don’t see any of them on the web.) Best regards, Bjarni Hardarson bookseller and journalist, tel 8973374

    • Hi Bjarni,
      Waller became famous for his romantic paintings. I expect his early work to have been collected by public galleries and private collectors. I made no attempt to track them down. What is on the web are his later works. They were reproduced as prints and hung on the walls of many homes because of their technical excellence and sentimentality.
      Bill

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