Ulla Ehrensvärd was an internationally famous cartographic historian, art historian, and cultural historian. For many years she was the head of the Kungliga Bibliotek (royal library Stockholm) maps and charts department and in 1990 she was awarded a professorship.
Ulla Ehrensvärd was the foster daughter of Signy and Baron Carl-August Ehrensvärd, a major who worked in insurance. She had been born in Stockholm to Svea Johansson, an unmarried servant girl, and then adopted by the Ehrensvärd couple in 1930 (officially in 1932). Her biological father was Josef Carlsson, from Lund, who later became editor-in-chief of Svensk Uppslagsbok.
Having completed her school education in Stockholm at the reputable Nya Elementarskola for girls (the Ahlström school) Ulla Ehrensvärd gained her school-leaving certificate in the school’s classical studies section in 1946. That same year she began to read art history at Stockholm college. Her Bachelor’s thesis focused on the artist Carl August Ehrensvärd (1745-1800). After gaining her Bachelor’s degree she then gained her licentiate in art history based on a dissertation entitled ‘Landskapet i Augustin och Carl August Ehrensvärds konst’. She defended her doctoral thesis on the medallist Erik Lindberg in 1975 and became a docent that year. The government awarded her the title of professor in 1990.
Ulla Ehrensvärd was a multi-talented individual. She was also an accomplished pianist who drew very well. From an early age she was interested in literature, art, and cultural history and sought out older, talented friends and role models such as the author Ingegerd Granlund, her teacher at the Nya Elementarskola, and the author Erik Blomberg. Her diaries reveal the numerous cultural events she attended and museum visits she made during her youth and student years. In addition, from 1944-1945 she served as a volunteer air warden, known as ‘tornsvala’ (swift), at Björnön in Jämtland. Her dearly beloved adoptive father died in 1935 and from then on Ulla Ehrensvärd was largely brought up by her mother. Her mother shared her cultural interests but did not fully understand Ulla Ehrensvärd’s zeal for studying and scientific knowledge.
Ulla Ehrensvärd’s interest in books and art became definitive for both her life and her career. She held down her first jobs as librarian at Stockholm stadsbibliotek (city library) in 1946, at Vitterhetsakademien (academy of sciences) in 1950, and at the Kungliga Bibliotek from 1953-1959, whilst she was studying and making brief visits to the Swedish National Archives and Carolina Rediviva (Uppsala university library) in 1952, as well as during the period she spent as an assistant at the department of art history at Stockholm college from 1949-1951. A stipend from the Sverige-Amerikastiftelse (Sweden-America trust) in 1962 allowed Ulla Ehrenvärd to spend a year in the USA, after which she was hired by the Kungliga Bibliotek as head of the maps and charts section. She was employed there from 1963-1982. She became chief archivist at the Krigsarkiv (Military Archives) in 1983, where she remained until 1992.
Her research was broad and varied, and her list of publications comprises more than 300 titles, covering map history, art history, book art, medal art, Scandinavian cultural history, and work on the Far East. Her best known work is her thesis from 1974, Medaljgravören Erik Lindberg 1873-1966, which included catalogue section released in 1988 to very favourable reception within the art history and numismatic circles. Equally well-known is her Den svenska tomten, from 1979, which sold very successfully and was also released as an audio-book and in braille. In 2006 she published – in several languages – Den nordiska kartans historia. Her other publications which deserve note are Mare Balticum, from 1995, on the 2000-year history of the Baltic Sea; Topographica Estoniæ, from 2001, which is a thorough survey of maps and drawings of Estonia held in Swedish collections; and Cartographica Poloniæ 1570-1930, from 2008, a work on Polish maps held in Swedish collections and which received a merit of honour from the Polish government in 2010.
Ulla Ehrensvärd was a very meticulous researcher who did not tolerate shoddy work either by herself or by others. Her research methods, which followed the traditional empirical approach, show both breadth and depth. Testimonials from the time of her earliest jobs mirrored what had already been true of her school marks, namely that she took an orderly and thorough approach to her work, and that she possessed an aptitude for scholarship and intellectual acuity. The title of her 2003 festschrift was Accurata description, in reflection of this aspect of her activities. Further to this, her particular skill as a cartography historian was her application of her knowledge of art history to maps. Through her studies of map coloration, and the quality and watermarks of map paper, she brought innovative developments to cartographic research methodology. Similarly, she was greatly intrigued by the history of technology. Her cultural history interpretations involved understanding the artist’s and cartographer’s perspective and craftsmanship, as well as the entire creative process of the subject and the maps.
Ulla Ehrensvärd was heavily involved in numerous research projects, exhibitions, and held a variety of organisational and board-membership positions throughout her life, largely within the sphere of cartographic history, but also within the wider spectrum of cultural history. She was particularly interested in contacts with The East, as well as with Finland, Poland, and Russia, and also Turkey – and these interests were reflected in her travels, publications, and exhibitions. Of special note are the following exhibitions: ‘Atlasen genom tiderna’ (the atlas through time), from 1966; ‘De historiska förbindelserna mellan Sverige och Turkiet’ (historical ties between Sweden and Turkey), from 1977; and an exhibition on Swedish land plots in 1978 which almost came about by sheer accident. When a substantial portion of the Kungliga Bibliotek material for a planned exhibition was lost in a robbery Ulla Ehrensvärd inventively pulled an entirely different exhibition together from what they had left to offer. This resulted in an exhibition on land plots and the popular book on the same.
Similarly her engagement in various organisations and boards spanned a broad spectrum of cultural history. Ulla Ehrensvärd was the secretary of Svenska forskningsinstitut (Swedish research institute) in Istanbul from 1976-1988, and then served as chair of Svenska Istanbulinstitutes vänner (friends of the Swedish Istanbul institute) from 1988-1998, as well as for Svenska Orientsällskapet (Swedish-Oriental association) from 1995-2003. She was also the secretary of the Kartografiska sällskap (cartographical association) section for historical maps from 1968-2001 and the Swedish representative at the International Cartographic Association from 1972. She was elected onto the Sällskapet för utgivande av skrifter rörande Skandinaviens historia (society for the publication of manuscripts on Scandinavian history) in 1978 and into the Carl Johan association in 1986. Her interest in Swedish relations with The East and her research into the Carolinian-era diaries led to her serving as a board-member and club-master of the Karolinska förbund (Carolinian association) for many years, from 1981-2010. The Ehrensvärd family history certainly contributed to her interests in Finland, militaria, and naval studies. She became an honorary member of Kungliga Örlogsmannasällskap (royal Swedish society of naval sciences) in 2003. She was elected into the Kungliga Vitterhetsakademi (royal academy of sciences) as member by correspondence, number 264.
Ulla Ehrensvärd could be both strict and demanding in her professional life, but she was also very good-humoured and approachable, both professionally and privately. She was unattached, which was perhaps a consequence of the particular form of professional and research career that she led, involving long hours at her desk, in the archives, and constant research travels abroad. She had no shortage of close friends, however, including both friends and family, whom she would entertain with endless stories and humorous anecdotes. She had a slightly complicated relationship with the Ehrensvärd family: as an adoptee she was never fully accepted within the official records, but she, nevertheless, prioritised the family and many of her activities touched on areas found within genealogical studies: military history, naval studies, and numismatics.
Her family was one which had suffered significant financial losses in the Kreuger crash of 1932 and, despite Ulla Ehrensvärd’s certainly privileged upbringing, following her father’s death she had no major financial cushion to rely on. The sums she earned as an adult librarian were meagre and did not cover the costs of research trips, hospitality, and the like. To cover these expenses she had to pay for them herself. The expectation nevertheless remained that she would work for free in a variety of contexts: this may have been accentuated by the fact that she was a woman, and that she had a name of noble origins. Despite the constant worries of pressures of time and money, she never let herself be defeated by them and continued producing new articles, finding new research projects, and commissions. Her many public recognitions serve as important evidence of the wider significance of her activities. Following her retirement she had the opportunity to complete some of her larger and more important works, and she remained busy working on several manuscripts – some of which were dictated onto tapes – right up to the end of her life.
Ulla Ehrensvärd died in Stockholm in May 2015. Her funeral was held in the Gustav Adolf church and she is buried at the family grave in Solna cemetery.