New books from Iceland: Björn G. Björnsson

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The doorbell rang and when I went to see who was there, I found a package that said, “Iceland Post”. When I opened it, there were four books that I am happily adding to my library. The photographs, text and design for all four books are by Björn G. Björnsson.

The books are Large Turf Houses, Turf Churches, Writer´s Homes, 18th Century Stone Buildings. The books have minimal text but it is helpful in explaining the significance of the pictures. In 18th Century Stone Buildings, there is a quarter page description of VIÐEY HOUSE. It says, in part, “In 1752-5 the Danish authorities built a fine residence on Viðey Island off Reykjavík for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, known as the Father of Reykjavík. Desgned by Danish court architect Niclai Eigtved, Viðey House was the first stone building in Iceland.“

NES HOUSE is described as “Iceland‘s first Surgeon General was appointed in 1760, and in 1761-7 a residence was built for him at Nes on the Seltjarnarnes headland, and it remains little changed.“

In the book, Writer‘s Homes, there are pictures of Halldór Laxness´s home, GLJÚFRASTEINN.“Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík in 1902, and published his first book in 1919…from 1945 his home was at Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær).” There are pictures from the Culture House/Old National Library from SNORRSSTOFA, from Jónas Hallgrímsson’s Hraun, Oxnadalur.

The book, Turf Churches, is a delight. It brings together images of churches in a way that allows this viewer to bring together many disparate images seen over the years. Among others is the church Saurbær, Eyjafjörður and the Núpsstaður Chapel. As with all the books, the presenting of these buildings both from various views of the exterior and the interior gives the mood of the buildings. It is easy to imagine those hardy Icelandic families riding up to the Núpsstaður Chapel in the 1700s to worship, visit, gossip, court, chew some snuff and even have a drink or two. Nice details are included in these short descriptions. For examples ‘Hannes Jónsson of Núpsstaður was a renowned mail-carrier in the days before the nearby glacial rivers were bridged; he guided travellers across the perilous rivers on horseback.”

Large Turf Houses will be a favorite of visitors. It will be hard not to buy this book after visiting some of these houses. Icelandic North Americans frequently talk about the turf houses they have visited. They are fascinated in places that help them to see what living conditions were like for their ancestors before the great emigration. Admittedly, this collection of large turf houses is a bit misleading as to actual living conditions. Most of our ancestors didn’t live in places like Glaumbær or Laufás. Þvera, for example, “was built in the latter half of the 19th century. On either side of the entrance are two reception rooms.” However, as I write mostly about foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C and these visitors, being wealthy aristocrats or clergy of high social status, they did not stay with poor farmers and fishermen. They stayed with the upper class, the kind of people who lived in these large turf houses. These pictures give a real sense of what life could be like in Iceland if you had good land, some money and good political connections.

As a North American Icelander, if there is such a thing, I’m grateful to Björn, for these books. The exterior and, perhaps, more importantly, the interior shots of the various buildings provide a clear view of what life was like for some Icelanders during the 19th C. According to his biography, Björn has worked as a designer with RÚV national TV. He also has designed sets and costumes for theatre, TV and film. He designs exhibitions for museums and visitor centres. He has made 70 TV programmes on historic buildings and sites and Icelandic cultural heritage.

They are expecting 900,000 visitors in Iceland in 2015. I expect that the visitors to the turf churches, the large turf houses, the writer´s homes, the 18th Century stone buildings, will carry away a large number of these books. If you want to have copies, I´d suggest that when you are next in Iceland, you buy them before the visiting hordes appear.

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