Ester Claesson belonged to the first generation of female landscape architects.
Ester Claesson began her long training to become a landscape architect when she was 16 years old. She enrolled as a gardening student at Tomarp farm in Scania in 1900. That same year she continued her studies at the highly reputed Vilvorde Havebrugshøjskole north of Copenhagen. It was a co-educational school where men and women learned practical and theoretical aspects of gardening. When Ester Claesson gained her qualification in 1903 she was the second of her year. She then continued studying at a technical school in Vienna. From 1905 to 1907 she worked with the Austrian architect Joseph Maria Olbrich at the artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, Germany, initially as Olbrich’s student and then as his closest, and sole female, colleague, working mainly on landscape architecture. She also had other tasks. For example, she was responsible for several gardens in Mathildenhöhe with their rose gardens, summerhouses, furniture, and other details, and for the ground plans of the Frauen-Rosenhof exhibition centre for the garden exhibition at Flora in Cologne in 1906, as well as for putting forth proposals for the garden city of Am hohlen Weg in Darmstadt in 1906. Joseph Maria Olbrich was himself one of the great innovators of the art of gardening at the time, which he partly expressed in what at that time were entirely new monochrome garden settings. His significance for Ester Claesson’s development cannot be overestimated. At the same time she also had other talents; some of the drawings found in Olbrich’s drawing collections are definitely made by Ester Claesson and they reveal how they enriched each other. Her studies in Vienna and Darmstadt were partially funded through scholarships received from the Fredrika Bremer association, befitting the association’s intentions to support gardening as a suitable occupation for women.
From 1909 to 1913 Ester Claesson worked with the architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg at his Saalecker Werkstätten GMBH workshop in Saaleck, Thüringen. The lack of sources makes it difficult to determine exactly what she was working on there, but one of the agency’s commissions at the time was Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam. Schultze-Naumberg placed great weight on protecting the cultural environment and the study of old gardens, as he clarified in his major book Kulturarbeiten, which made a great impression on Ester Claesson.
Ester Claesson had already been noted as a promising landscape architect during her time as a student in Germany. A detailed report on her, including several drawings, appeared in the leading German journal Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration 1907 and in The Studio 1912, which must be seen as very significant recognition. Her career was closely followed in Sweden and she was held up as a role model for other women, including in an article entitled “Vår första kvinnliga trädgårdsarkitekt” in Idun 1907. During her time in Germany she also began to enter competitions, such as Die Woches often referenced garden competition for summerhouses in 1908, in which her entry received acclaim.
When Ester Claesson returned to Sweden in 1913 it was initially to work as a landscape architect at Adelsnäs in Östergötland for the liberal politician Baron Theodor Adelswärd, and also to work on a commission from Isak Gustaf Clason’s architect’s office in Stockholm. The latter contact had been made through Adelswärd who had used Isak Gustaf Clason to design the new main building at Adelsnäs. Ester Claesson’s prior experience with two of Germany’s most prominent architects must have made her exceedingly desirable to a property owner with artistic ambitions. Her contribution to the Adelsnäs garden is the retained sunken garden or the so-called Rotunda garden beside the conservatory which clearly displays influences from her time in Germany. Part of the commission by Isak Gustaf Clason’s office included proposals for the square in front of Riddarhuset (the House of Nobility) in Stockholm, the manors of Haneberg in Södermanland and Stjärnvik in Östergötland, as well as Sundby farm in Huddinge.
It was not long before Ester Claesson moved on from these jobs in order to open her own office in Stockholm in 1914. One of the first things she accomplished as self-employed was to enter the international architectural competition for Skogskyrkogården in Enskede 1914-1915 along with the architect Harald Wadsjö. They won the third prize for their entry. This was such a great success that it was even noted as particularly remarkable in Germany, where Ester Claesson had been active before.
Ester Claesson quickly established herself as one of Sweden’s most prominent landscape architects, not only by creating gardens but also through public appearances and publications. Her experiences and artistic development in Germany were clearly definitive for her career. The majority of the commissions she accepted as a private landscape architect consisted of new gardens or garden renovations for private individuals in the capital, in suburban residential areas, and in the countryside. Her commissioners were in the main members of the upper classes and were politically engaged, such as banker Robert Thiel, who commissioned her for his residential garden Duvnäs at Saltsjöbaden, chief district judge Emil Kinander, who commissioned her for a garden at Igelsta farm near Södertälje, 1917-1918, consul-general Robert Bünsow of Diplomatstaden in Stockholm, actor and director Mauritz Stiller, who commissioned her for a garden on Lidingö, and author Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who commissioned her for a garden at Sångs in Sjugare village in Dalarna, 1926. One of the recurring themes in these projects are wall-encircled or terraced flower and rose gardens, frequently using clear architectural shapes that were sunken, cross-shaped, or on several levels, combined with a well-developed and varied plant life comprising perennials, roses, and flowering bushes. Ester Claesson also designed summerhouses, wells, and garden furniture, which in combination made her gardens seem coherent and well composed artworks. Many of her projects connect to the architectural and aesthetic practises which she learned during her time in Germany.
Some of Ester Claesson’s other projects included residential gardens in Stockholm, such as Hjalmar Branting’s in 1914, and the still maintained HSB garden in the Humlebo quarter of Stockholm’s Röda Bergen in 1923, which she presented in the article “Gårdsplanteringar” in Vår bostad in 1926. Her two most prominent official projects were the garden she created, along with Carl Westman, for the Red Cross hospital in Stockholm around 1925, as well as the extension of Solna cemetery from around 1920 which resembles the larger residential gardens of the day in its obviously graphic characteristics with cedars and marble paths.
In addition to her career as a landscape architect Ester Claesson was also a teacher of garden design at the gardener training programme at Kungliga Lantbruksakademiens Experimentalfält from 1913 until her death in 1931. She was also widely active as a writer and public speaker, including on the radio. The titles of her articles – such as “Trädgårdsarkitektur”, 1914, “Om modern trädgårdskonst” in Ord och Bild, 1915, and “Om svenska trädgårdar förr och nu” in Svenska Slöjdförningens Tidskrift, 1915 – reveal the extent of her knowledge and interest across not only contemporary ideals but also in historical gardens. Another article, entitled “Trädgårdsanläggningskonst som kvinnligt verksamhetsfält”, 1919, shows her engagement in the professionalization of her trade and the role of women in this professionalization. It was not unusual for her design work to be complemented by a written format, such as the books Trädgården, 1923, and Rosor på friland, 1925.
Her membership in associations such as Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish handicraft association), Stockholms Gartnersällskap (Stockholm gardening society), and the Nya Idun society generated a contact network which led to commissions, whilst her connection to the journal Die Gartenkunst allowed her to maintain her connections with German colleagues. Ester Claesson’s prominent position within her profession was apparent in a series of exhibitions, such as the Gothenburg Jubilee Exposition in 1923, the international garden exhibition in London in 1928 and the general Swedish garden exhibition at the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930. Only a small number of her numerous high-quality and at the time path-breaking gardens have survived. Those which could still be seen in the early 2000s include the Adelsnäs garden and Erik Axel Karlfeldt’s farm of Sångs in Dalarna, as well as Solna cemetery.
When Ester Claesson died in 1931 she was one of Sweden’s most eminent landscape architects. She is buried at the Norra cemetery in Solna.