Johan Fredrik Martin (1755-1816) after Elias Martin (1739-1818), Stockholm sedt från Mose-Backe på Södermalm, 1805, etching and aquatint, 465 x 720 mm, Maps 35690.(15.).

Topography, iron-making and national identity in the 18th century – A British–Swedish comparison

Mikael Ahlund explores the role British topography played in Scandinavia, paying particular attention to two Swedish artists, brothers Elias (1739-1818) and Johan Fredrik Martin (1755-1816). Having studied and worked in London, when they returned to Sweden in 1780 the brothers emerged as the country’s leading topographical artists, their paintings and drawings addressing contemporary debates about national identity, economics, and social order.

This article will take a Nordic perspective on the challenges of finding new ways to understand the roles topography played in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When it comes to landscapes and topographical images, British influences had a profound impact in Sweden during this period. From the 1760s, a number of Swedish painters and printmakers travelled to London. This article will discuss how ideas and models were picked up and transferred to Sweden, the similar ways in which place-related images were used, and how they took on new layers of meaning in both of these countries.

Stockholm sedt från Mose-Backe på Södermalm

Johan Fredrik Martin (1755-1816) after Elias Martin (1739-1818), Stockholm sedt från Mose-Backe på Södermalm, 1805, etching and aquatint, 465 x 720 mm, Maps 35690.(15.).

This print after a painting by Elias Martin shows Stockholm from Mosebacke, in the north-eastern part of Södermalm

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These circumstances will mainly be discussed through Swedish images but the topic is also traceable through engravings and topographical literature which is held by the British Library. This excursion to the North will therefore also illuminate the rich collections of this institution – as in the engraved view of Stockholm by Johan Fredrik Martin, executed after a painting from 1786 by his older brother Elias Martin. These collaborative Swedish artists and brothers had a crucial role in connecting 18th-century Sweden to Britain.

Elias Martin (1739–1818) was one of the Swedish pioneers in England.[1] He arrived in London in 1768 and was to stay for the next 12 years. After a few years he was joined by his younger brother Johan Fredrik Martin (1755–1816), who came to assist with the production of engravings in the expanding studio. Their output included a great variety of subject matter, but the main focus was on landscapes and topography. Among many other things, they executed a number of watercolours of the English countryside: country house portraits, rural views, townscapes, and different sights in the landscape, as in the watercolour of the Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale, caught when it was still under construction in 1779.

Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale

Elias Martin, Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale, 1779, watercolour, private collection

Discovered in 1997, this important watercolour by Elias Martin shed new light on how the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale was constructed

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Many of Martin’s pictures of London also survive – large scale oil paintings such as the view of Hanover Square, as well as numerous drawings and watercolours of different parts of the city. During this period, Elias Martin also completed a number of images of the River Thames and its bridges. A repeated motif was the construction of Blackfriars Bridge in 1769. A preparatory sketch reveals that at least two oil paintings of the subject were finished.

View of the Thames with Blackfriars Bridge under construction

Elias Martin, View of the Thames with Blackfriars Bridge under construction, 1769, pen and ink, wash and watercolour, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

In this preparatory sketch by Elias Martin, Blackfriars Bridge is shown from the southbank of the Thames during the final stages of its construction in 1769

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Generally, Elias Martin was surprisingly successful during his London years. In 1770, he was elected Associate Member of the Royal Academy by the help of the influential and Swedish-speaking William Chambers who tended to support Swedish immigrants and visitors to the city. In the 1770s, Martin attended different activities at the Academy and participated frequently in the yearly exhibitions.

In the Academy circles and in Chambers’ social circle, he surely encountered Paul and Thomas Sandby, and as his output reveals, Martin was well aware of their artistic achievements. The centre of Martin’s business from 1774 was his studio in Leicester Fields which is depicted in a drawing by the Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, made when he visited London in 1779.

Elias Martin’s studio in London

Johan Tobias Sergel, Elias Martin’s studio in London, 1779, pen and wash. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Elias Martin is depicted in his Soho studio, standing to the right of the creator of this sketch, Johan Tobias Sergel

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In this picture, Sergel is entering from the left and Martin is standing in the middle with brushes in his hand. With works on display in the window and on the show stand to the right, this drawing provides insight into the commercial side of the studio practice in London at the time.[2]

In 1780 Martin returned to Stockholm and started with great energy to apply the lessons learnt in London. His intentions at this point are recorded in a letter to the Swedish King Gustav III as he sought financial support.[3] The text also reveals Martin’s expectations of the Swedish art market at the time and the main focus here is on the production of topographical pictures. In the letter, Martin describes his plans to travel around Sweden to study nature, historical sites, and what he calls ‘the character of specific regions’. He further points out that the sketches and watercolours made on these painting tours will be engraved by his brother in Stockholm and sold at reasonable prices on the market. Obviously Martin, with his highly developed sense for business, recognised a potential interest in topographical images in the North.

Martin’s output after his return to Sweden also illuminates the relation between landscape painting and topographical imagery at this time. On the one hand, he tried to establish himself as a landscape painter in the Grand Manner; he executed a vast number of ideal landscapes inspired by Claude, or by Wilson or Gainsborough, and the two reception pieces he submitted to the Royal Academy in Stockholm were landscapes of a more pretentious and Italianate character. But at the same time, his depiction of real and recognisable places in the Swedish countryside was certainly not a subordinate category in the Martin studio.

It is also significant that it is this topographical side of his output that he first and foremost promotes in the letter to the King in 1780. Both in the attempt to evoke royal patronage and in targeting the broader public, creating accurate depictions of contemporary Sweden was at the heart of Martin’s pictorial world. There is no evidence in 18th-century Swedish commentary of a tendency to make any valuating distinctions between landscape painting and topography. The King and the royal family commissioned both categories from Martin’s studio and among the pictures Martin sent to the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, ideal landscapes hung side by side with specific Swedish views in different techniques and sizes.[4]

Travelling around the country, Martin pioneered the artistic discovery of the Swedish countryside, depicting landscape scenery, historic monuments and places that had never been captured in images before. Looking at this pictorial mapping of Sweden, inspiration from Paul and Thomas Sandby was surely an important factor. This is not least evident in the ambitious series Svenska vuerSwedish views – which was started by the Martin brothers in 1782 and became one of the great successes on the Swedish print market.

Images taken from such series became popular as print-room decorations in wealthier homes, or were reproduced on the tops of tea-tables and similar items. Surviving records of the subscribers to Martin’s graphical series give evidence of the social span of their clients.[5] Members of the royal family and the nobility are here mixed with a large number of buyers from the up-and-coming and wealthy class of merchants, ship-owners and industrialists. Similar to Paul Sandby’s images of Britain, series like Swedish views revealed a country in transition. In these images, the specific Nordic landscape was interwoven with glimpses of a thriving economical life – making agriculture, mining, iron-making and other rural industries essential to a new vision of Sweden as a prosperous nation.

The Iron Mine at Dannemora

Elias Martin, The Iron Mine at Dannemora, 1780s, watercolour, Vitterhetsakademien, Stockholm

Elias Martin’s watercolour shows the open iron ore pit at Dannemora, in Uppsala, Sweden

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Travel writing and topographical images

But how did these new groups of consumers understand these pictures? What attitudes and values formed the mindset of these contemporary observers? One way of approaching the works of Elias and Johan Fredrik Martin from an 18th-century perspective is by looking at them in the light of the topographical literature of the period. This genre, partly influenced by the writings of Carl Linnaeus, went through a very vital phase in Scandinavia during the 18th century and a number of these literary descriptions of Sweden are present in the British Library’s collection – for example Johan Fischerström’s Description of Lake Mälaren.[6] Published in 1785, this is a fascinating account of the specific nature of the Lake District in central Sweden. Fischerström’s book is a marvelous blend of scientific ambitions in the tradition of Linnaeus and the promotion of certain political ideas, all interwoven with the new picturesque ideals, here expressed really for the first time in Sweden.

Another illuminating example of travel literature published in Sweden at the time is Pehr Tham’s popular and very personal account of a journey through the southern part of the country in 1796, in which he picks up a number of current issues when describing the landscape. The most read and spread topographical work in late 18th century Sweden was however, the travel letters of Jonas Carl Linnerhielm.[7] Published in three volumes, these letters are accounts of the author’s relentless journeys through different parts of the country from the 1780s and onwards. Following the example of Fischerström, Linnerhielm’s letters are also a fascinating blend of picturesque ideals and strong opinions on various political and economic matters. One reason for their popularity was surely the fact that they were illustrated by engravings after his own watercolours, making them one of the first illustrated travel accounts to be published in Sweden. Like the works of Fischerström and Tham, Linnerhielm’s books are also represented in the British Library.

One significant theme in all these texts is the repeated references to the pictures of Elias and Johan Fredrik Martin. Allusions to images are made by these travelling writers not only in connection to a general use of a picturesque terminology, but rather in direct reference to the work of the Martin brothers. In 1785, when describing a certain landscape, Fischerström concludes his observations by highlighting Elias Martin’s paintings as truthful depictions of the sceneries in question[8], and similar examples can be found among other writers such as Tham and Linnerhielm, who interrupt themselves to comment on the engravings by the Martin brothers and highly recommend the reader to acquire these pictures.[9] One conclusion to be drawn from this interaction between texts and images concerns the profound impact that the Martin pictures had on Swedish society. They were obviously well-known, and became even more famous through these books. When looking at Martin’s pictures through the filter of contemporary travel writing, these texts thus provide us with unique opportunities to understand the inherent messages that these pictures carried or that was imposed upon them.

Topography, politics and iron-making

At the hands of these writers, nature was often turned into a stage on which different arguments and ideas concerning politics and social issues were projected. Turning to specific groups in society or taking stands for certain interests, these topographical publications were not neutral when it came to creating a concept of the countryside. These texts contain, when referring to the contemporary pictorial mapping of Sweden, a tendency to connect these images to various arguments in the debates of the period. This can be illustrated by Martin’s many depictions of the specific Swedish iron-making estates. Located in the mid-Swedish countryside, they produced iron of an extremely high quality for the export market, making them enormously important to the Swedish economy. It was among the owners of these ironworks that Martin found his most important patrons – those united in political networks, such as the influential Patriotic Society which was deeply engaged in public disputes, and besides a more general patriotic aim, was fighting for different financial reforms that would favour the rural industries, rather than the urban. Several of the topographical writers were included in these circles and were themselves members of the Patriotic Society, and when they portray the countryside or the rural industries as beautiful or idyllic, their texts take on a distinct political dimension. But not only writers such as Fischerström, Tham, and Linnerhielm were members of the Patriotic Society – Elias Martin was also included in this circle, being elected a member in 1787.[10]

View of the Iron-making estate at Leufstabruk

Elias Martin, View of the Iron-making Estate at Leufstabruk, 1793, oil on canvas, private collection

As this painting by Elias Martin shows, the forge at Lövstabruk was set within the tranquil and elegant surroundings of a country estate

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Elias Martin’s many images of the iron-making estates must be looked at with this context in mind – as in the example from Leufstabruk, the largest iron-producer in Sweden at the time. When depicting these places, Martin created a Swedish version of the English country-house portrait, where the manor house is shown embedded in greenery and the pond that supplied water power to the forges and hammers is turned into an elegant water reflection in the foreground. By different means Martin underlined the pastoral beauty and social harmony of these communities, as in the painting of Leufstabruk, in which the owner Charles De Geer is strolling with his son, speaking to women, children and workers. At the same time, the artist has hidden the chimneys, the smoke and the industrial constructions behind leafy vegetation or classical buildings.

In both images and texts it thus became a repeated motif to describe these iron-making estates in this manner as model villages of beauty, pleasure and social harmony – in stark contrast to the questioned urban industrial compounds developing in cities like Stockholm. Topography became an instrument to promote the interest of the regional iron business, and these statements were spread even further through engravings, focusing on the manor house and on the pastoral surroundings, with the industrial installations barely visible in the background.

Aspa Ironworks

Elias Martin, Aspa Iron-work, about 1798, oil on canvas, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The forge at Aspa is depicted within lush forest in this painting by Elias Martin

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Another aspect of Martin’s images that took on a political dimension concerned the depiction of woodland. In a view of Aspa ironwork in the middle of Sweden, painted and engraved in the 1790s, the manor house and the industrial installations are embedded in a forest landscape. In the light of the political debates and the topographical descriptions of the period, however, the stretch of woodland also plays an ambivalent role in the painting. On the one hand it reflects a growing fascination in the Nordic wilderness, but on the other hand it also symbolises a wealth of natural resources. Fundamental to the iron industry was a good supply of wood, the sole fuel in Sweden for this energy-demanding production. During the second half of the century, a serious concern rose that this natural resource was not unlimited and that a threatening shortage of wood was a danger to the economical wealth of the entire nation. This question was indeed one of the dominating issues of the political and economic disputes in late 18th century Sweden, and it was thoroughly commented upon in the written descriptions of the iron-producing estates. Groups with other economic interests, in opposition to the iron-work owners, were using the fear of a wood shortage as an argument for putting production restrictions on the rural iron works, and responding to that, the owners argued that this fear was exaggerated and tried instead to promote a vision of endless resources of woodland surrounding their estates. In the light of this intense debate, the pictorial connection between iron works and woodland in Martin’s paintings seem to have a double meaning. This association between industrial architecture and natural surroundings in his pictures was also commented upon in his own time, and as Stephen Daniels has pointed out, images of woodland in British art of the period had similar connotations.[11]

A new vision of Sweden

The last theme to be addressed here concerns the question of topography, landscape images and the search for a new national identity in 18th-century Sweden. In 1799, when describing the landscape south of Stockholm, the writer Pehr Wahlström remarks that he: ‘always has been convinced that the nature of our Fatherland is not inferior in richness, variation and beauty to other countries’. And he continues: ‘the Swedish nature offers sights to the eyes that even Italians and Spaniards have to admire’.[12] Similar declarations were made by all the authors mentioned in this article. Tham proclaims the superior beauty and moral qualities of the Swedish landscape compared to celebrated foreign sites, and in these passages he again directly refers to the works of Elias Martin, specifying his pictures as arguments for this conclusion.[13]

This method was also explicitly used in the works of Jonas Carl Linnerhielm. In the first volume of his Letters from Travels through Sweden he emphasises the need for a new appraisal of the Nordic nature; something that he considers to be a corner-stone for a new sense of a national communion. In the introduction he states: ‘I have traveled to see my Fatherland, because it deserves to be seen. […] We do not have the Alps of Switzerland, nor the magnificent buildings of Rome nor the statues of Greece. But our mountains often carry scenery of grandeur and proportion, and our valleys and lakes have both beauty and sweetness.’ He continuous by mentioning the presence of ancient ruins in the Swedish countryside: ‘The Nordic monuments carry a Northern simplicity – the burial mounds and stones are still standing in the landscape, after so many generations'.[14] In this manner Linnerhielm tries to unite nature and history, and at the same time presents a Nordic equivalent to the temples and ruins of Roman antiquity.

Alvastra Monastery

Jonas Carl Linnerhielm (1758-1829), Alvastra Monastry, 1788, etching, published in Bref under resor i Sverige (Stockholm, 1797), 10281.k.5 (plate between pp.66 and 67)

This view of the ruined monastery at Alvastra was published in Bref under resor i Sverige, Jonas Carl Linnerhielm's account of travels around Sweden

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This method of turning nature into an instrument for a national self-assertion is something that runs through most of the topographical texts published in Sweden during the last decades of the 18th century. This constant desire to relate nature to national identity therefore suggests another important dimension in Martin’s pictorial world. This can be illustrated by a watercolour from Tyresö south of Stockholm – a typically Swedish countryside view in which the patriotic theme is stressed by the presence of a Swedish flag swaying over the landscape. The yellow cross against the blue background is clearly visible against the sky to the left.


Elias Martin, View of Tyresö, 1780s, pen and watercolour, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The Swedish flag flies at left in this view of the nation's industrial hub at Tyresö

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In his letter to the King in 1780, Martin had declared the pictorial mapping of his native country as his main task after his return home, bringing together nature, history and contemporary Sweden in his series of engravings. Turning to the King, Martin’s project coincided with other attempts by Gustav III to promote a new sense of a patriotic affinity which were expressed in different royal reforms regarding dress and fashion, history writing and the use of the Swedish language in literature, theatre and opera. When Gustav III decided to support the Martin brothers in 1780, this patriotic agenda surely played an important role, recognising topography as a useful instrument in this venture. Words like ‘patriots’, ‘citizens’, and ‘the Fatherland’ also echo in the advertisements Martin put in the Stockholm newspapers, inviting the public to subscribe to his graphic series or visit his studio.[15] Also when marketing his pictures, this patriotic dimension became visible.


The second half of the 18th century was a period that saw the first real development of a domestic movement of tourism in Sweden. Historical sights, nature, waterfalls, and even the celebrated iron-making estates, became popular destinations for excursions among the Swedish elite. This movement coincided with a vital development of travel literature and other forms of topographical publications, as well as with the artist’s discovery of the Nordic countryside. In texts and images a new vision of Sweden emerged, in which history became interwoven with the building blocks of a contemporary and future prosperity. Accounts of the agricultural landscape and the mining and iron industries were mixed with descriptions of the monuments of the past and seen through the filter of a picturesque interpretation of Nordic nature.

As in Britain, a patriotic element thus played a crucial role in the Gustavian culture, when writers, artists, travellers and tourists started to turn their eyes towards nature. In the topographical literature, and in the Martin brothers’ pictorial discovery of the Swedish countryside, this patriotic theme corresponded with various other attempts to forge a new sense of community. Engraved series like Swedish views must be seen as part of this broader movement – in Martin’s images, nature, history and the contemporary prosperity were woven together in a vision of a new national identity.

In this development of topography and place-related landscape images, as the Martin brothers clearly illustrate, British models and prototypes were imported to Sweden and were to play a crucial role in the visual culture of the period. But at the same time, these models were transformed to fit the Swedish art scene. Picturesque formulas were adapted to the Northern nature and the British country-house portrait was modified to fit the depiction of the Scandinavian iron-making estates.

Like Sandby, the Martin brothers portrayed a nation that was changing in a number of fields and the Swedish landscape they captured in their pictures was not only pure, beautiful nature. Their images were also statements in a number of different debates and arguments. Landscapes in the 18th century – in reality, in texts, and in images – were an arena for different claims and opinions. Nature was never neutral – neither in Britain, nor in Sweden.

This essay is an edited version of a text first presented at the British Library’s Transforming Topography conference, 6 May 2016, kindly supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Films of the conference talks are also available here.

[1] On Elias and Johan Fredrik Martin, see Mikael Ahlund, ‘Landskapets Röster. Studier I Elias Martins Bildvärld’. PhD. Uppsala University, 2011, with a summary in English. Elias Martin’s relationship to Britain is also discussed in Ahlund, Mikael, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby in a Northern Light. Swedish Comparisons and Connections: Pehr Hilleström & Elias Martin’, British Art Journal 1 (2010): 33-40. For general information on the Martin brothers, see: Elias Martin, 1739-1818. An exhibition organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain in co-operation with the National museum and the Swedish Institute for Cultural Relations, Stockholm (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1963); Ragnar Hoppe, Målaren Elias Martin (Stockholm, 1933); Hans Frölich, Bröderna Elias och Johan Fredrik Martins gravyrer, (Stockholm, 1939).

[2] Regarding the interpretation of this drawing, see Ahlund 2011, p. 184.

[3] This letter is in the Swedish National Archives, Stockholm, Diplomatica, Anglica, 389. For further references, see Ahlund 2011, p. 208.

[4] Regarding Martin’s participation in the Royal Academy exhibitions in Stockholm, see Ahlund 2011, p. 179.

[5] This document is in Kalmar stadsbibliotek (The Linnerhielm collection). It is also published in Ahlund 2011, p. 380.

[6] Johan Fischerström, Utkast til Beskrifning om Mälaren (Stockholm, 1785).

[7] Jonas Carl Linnerhielm, Bref under resor i Sverige (Stockholm, 1797); Bref under nya resor i Sverige (Stockholm, 1806); Bref under senare resor i Sverige (Stockholm 1816).

[8] Fischerström 1785, pp. 143ff.

[9] Tham 1797, p. 66 and Linnerhielm 1816, p.135.

[10] Ahlund 2011, p. 312.

[11] Stephen Daniels, ’The political iconography of woodland in later Georgian England’, The Iconography of landscape: essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments, ed. by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1988), pp. 43–82.

[12] Pehr Wahlström, Bref till en vän under en Resa i Landsorterna (Stockholm, 1800), p. 6.

[13] Tham 1797, p. 16.

[14] Linnerhielm 1797, pp. IV–V.

[15] See Ahlund 2011, pp. 217 and 356.

  • Mikael Ahlund
  • Mikael Ahlund is an art historian who was for a number of years curator at the department of paintings and sculpture at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. In 2015, he joined Gustavianum Uppsala University Museum as Deputy Director and as Head of the university’s art collection.