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.

The Great Feast at Thingvalla 1874

At Geyser, the famous water fountain has refused to perform even though a king waits expectantly. Finally, reluctantly, the king leaves because he has to return for the formal ceremonies that will take place at Thingvalla, that place where the early Icelandic parliaments were held. Here, there will be great celebrating. Many speeches will be made, many toasts drunk, many songs sung. Icelanders, famous for their choirs, will serenade the king. But the Icelanders, not quite knowing what to do with a king since none has come to Iceland before, and because they are intent on breaking free of Denmark after centuries of oppression, greet the king politely but not enthusiastically. They have little in the way of resources with which to entertain but they do their best. In Reykjavik, the banquets were made from food brought from Denmark. Here, on the great plain, most of the food is simple, Icelandic food. 
Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

 

Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)