Fjallkona – Iceland’s Lady of the Mountain

Zwecker - Lady of the Mountain - Iceland
Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814-1876). The Lady of the Mountain. Watercolour, mid 1860s. Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum. (George E. J. Powell Bequest, 1882)

As Britannia is to Britons, Italia is to Italians, and Germania is to Germans, so too is Fjallkona – The Lady of the Mountain – to Icelanders. Yet all but a handful of scholars know that the first ever female personification of Iceland was commissioned from a German artist by a Welsh patron.

The painting was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University in 1882 and is housed in the School of Art Museum.

It was with much anticipation that Gudmundur Oddur Magnússon, Research Professor at Iceland University of the Arts, and artist Unnar Örn, arrived in Aberystwyth this week to see the original painting of an image that is now so embedded in Icelandic culture.

Iceland Vistors
Unnar Örn (Artist, Reykjavik), Neil Holland (Senior Curator), Peter Jones (research facilitator, London), and Gudmundur Oddur Magnússon (Research Professor, Iceland University of the Arts, Reykjavik).

Gudmundur believes that they are the first Icelanders to see the artwork since it was painted in the mid 1860s prior to its publication as a wood engraving in 1866.

Though the black and white engraving was subsequently copied and reinterpreted over some 160 years, beyond Aberystwyth the existence of the original painting – in colours – was until now forgotten.

The image of The Lady of the Mountain, as executed by German-born, London-domiciled painter Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814-1876) is now a national icon. It has appeared on postage stamps, T-shirts and mobile phone cases. Each year on June 17, Iceland’s National Day, Icelandic women commonly dress as Zwecker’s Fjallkona.

The original painting of The Lady of the Mountain was commissioned by George E. J. Powell (1842-1882), heir to the Nanteos Estate, three miles south of Aberystwyth.

It was the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that suggested Powell contact Cambridge University scholar Eiríkur Magnússon. He shared Powell’s passion for Icelandic sagas. Magnússon had taught Old Norse to Arts and Crafts artist-designer William Morris who, in the 1870s, journeyed to Iceland in Powell’s footsteps.

Together Magnússon and Powell translated folk tales collected by librarian and museum director Jón Arnason. Icelandic Legends was published in two volumes by Richard Bentley in London in 1864 and 1866. Powell made several trips to Iceland at a time of growing national consciousness, amid campaigns for independence from Denmark.

As Neil Holland, School of Art Museum senior curator reveals ‘Powell was a supporter of the Icelandic nationalist and writer Jón Árnusson, giving him £1,500 ostensibly to write a definitive history of his homeland which was never completed.’ Gudmundur considers Powell to be the ‘godfather of Icelandic independence.’

As Dr Harry Heuser, Lecturer in Art History and Powell scholar, has pointed out, ‘this attention to language and culture does not mean, as some commentators suggested, that Powell was indifferent to Welsh culture. What some have read as a betrayal of his heritage is rooted in Powell’s unhappy family life and his difficult relationship with his father, which led Powell to forge an identity for himself beyond the squirearchical society of Wales.’

In fact, Powell did much for Aberystwyth. He contributed to a number of local causes and served as president of the Aberystwyth Literary Institute and Working Men’s Reading Room. He was determined to share the wealth of the knowledge he gathered abroad with the people of Aberystwyth, and it is owing to his bequest to the University that Zwecker’s Lady of the Mountain has remained in our town.

The first volume of Icelandic Legends carries numerous illustrations commissioned by Powell from Zwecker, the famed illustrator of Scottish missionary David Livingston’s Last Journals and Welsh journalist cum explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s How I Found Livingstone.

Zwecker’s painting of The Lady of the Mountain served as frontispiece for Magnússon and Powell’s second volume of translations. Fjallkona established Iceland as the Motherland, counter to the notion of the Danish King as Father.

After the watercolour was transcribed into black and white and engraved onto boxwood by George Pearson, Powell retained ownership of this painting as well as Zwecker’s other illustrations for Icelandic Legends. He remained friends with Zwecker and was in regular correspondence until the artist’s death in 1876.

Zwecker closely followed Magnússon’s specifications. As Magnússon described in an 1866 letter to Jón Sigurðsson, leader of the Icelandic independence movement:

The picture of the woman is to represent Iceland, thus she has a crown of ice on her head, from which fires erupt. On her shoulder is the raven, Iceland’s most characteristic bird, Óðinn’s ancient friend and the favourite of poets, a great and knowledgeable carrier of news. Over the seas flutters a seagull, but across the surf of time and history are borne rune-staves to the land and up into the embrace of the woman, and she has picked one of them up. This is intended as a symbol of our land of literature and history. It is night, with a starry sky and the moon up. Behind are mountains, moonlight on the ridges.

Gudmundur is working towards a publication and exhibition in collaboration with the National and University Library of Iceland. He believes that when fellow Icelanders learn of the existence of the earliest surviving embodiment of Icelandic national identity, they will be beating a path to Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth University’s Head of the School of Art, Professor Robert Meyrick said that ‘we were aware of importance of Powell’s bequest of paintings, objet d’art, books and bound volumes of correspondences, but we had not until now appreciated the great cultural significance attached by the people of Iceland to our painting of The Lady of the Mountain.’

For more information:

Harry Heuser

Neil Holland

The School of Art Museum has now posted Zwecker’s painting The Lady of the Mountain on Wikipedia Commons for all to appreciate.

Katie Middlehurst writes about her AberForward experience – Summer 2019

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

There are few greater pleasures than spending an hour, or two, perusing and discovering works of art; gorging on colours and textures, meditating on concepts new and old. To hold, to witness the art in the form of an object, not merely a reproduction or an illusion on a screen, transforms a potentially passive experience into an intimate and engaging one. I eagerly anticipated enjoying such delights during my summer internship at the School of Art. Continue reading

ArtUK Sculpture Project – George Powell of Nanteos/Prosiect Cerfluniaeth Art UK– George Powell o Nanteos

George Ernest John Powell

An exciting new collaboration between Aberystwyth University, Art UK and the Penparcau Community Forum is set to explore the sculpture collection of George Powell of Nanteos. The project is the result of a grant awarded by ArtUK as part of their Sculpture Around You programme which aims to engage communities with their sculptural heritage. Continue reading

An Essay and its unexpected Aftermath

“Even essays can grow if fed and watered.”

These wise words come from our very own postgraduate student Gerry McGandy who contributed his undergraduate essay Who were Edward J. Burrow and Richard Eustace Tickell and why did they record The Vale of Nantgwilt in 1893? to this blog back in 2017.

Artist Kate Green came across his text and contacted Gerry, telling him about her latest project called ‘Walking the Pipe’. She told him that the essay was helpful and led to further research by her; to the extent that she purchased a copy of the book in which the discussed prints, which we hold in the School of Art collection, were originally published.

By now, the project has at least two artists and two musicians, including Gerry, collaborating. They intend, for example, to base a song on the memoirs of a woman called Hetty Price, of life in the valley before the dams and her sorrow at its passing.

So, all you weary students who suffer from writer’s blog and/or general ‘essay fatigue’: take courage and carry on writing. You never know what might come of it!

See the poster for more information about all events Kate and her fellow artists have planned. It surely looks very interesting, and we wish her all the best with her project.

Walking the Pipe 2019

AberForward intern Emily Willis writes about her placement at the School of Art

Annabelle (right) and Emily (left) putting up the Print REbels exhibitions

Prior to this work placement I had no experience working in a museum or gallery and was keen to find voluntary or employment in this sector. So, when the opportunity of a four-week paid work placement in the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University arose via the AberForward scheme I immediately applied. Luckily the duration of my placement as a Curatorial and Technical Support Assistant came at a most opportune time to experience the whole process of preparing, installing and uninstalling an exhibition. Continue reading

22nd – 24th March 2019: A Weekend for (not only) Silent Movie Buffs at the Old College & Aberystwyth Arts Centre

neil brand thumbnail.jpgBroadcaster, composer, musician and Aber alumnus (!) Neil Brand will give two talks about silent movies, and his new score for Underground, a classic British silent film, will be played by Philomusica under conductor David Russell Hulme.

Neil Brand Invitation copyNeil Brand Invitation copy II

Please click on the links below for more information and to book tickets for the events at the Arts Centre.     Website head Philo

neil brand

For more information about Neil Brand, please visit his website: