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Reviewed by:
  • Hugo Backmansson: Konstnär, officer och äventyrare
  • George C. Schoolfield
Tom Backmansson, Marju Rönkkö, Marie-Sofie Lundström, Tutta Palin . Hugo Backmansson: Konstnär, officer och äventyrare. Helsingfors: SLF, 2010. Pp. 233.

Long ago, Kiplingites received their notion of the battle-painter's tragic fate from Dick Helgar in The Light That Failed (1890). Cast aside by his beloved Maisie, his masterpiece, "Melancholy," destroyed by that "little devil," the Cockney Bess, rapidly going blind, "done and done for," Helgar returns to the British expeditionary force in the Sudan and to his faithful friend, the reporter Torpenhow. Crying "Put me, pray, in the forefront of the battle!", he is shot by the Fuzzy-Wuzzies. "His luck had held to the last, even to the crowning mercy of a bullet through the head."

Hugo Backmansson (hereafter HB), "artist, officer and adventurer," had even better luck than Helyar. Born in 1860, a son of the director of Åbo Castle's supply depot, he lived to ninety-three, succumbing to a fall from a streetcar. Among his five siblings, HB was closest to his sister Mathilda or Matti, married to Hjalmar Carpelan, the brother of Tor Carpelan, the Nestor of Finland's genealogists. HB's correspondence with them, on deposit at Åbo Akademi, provides much material for a "biographical reportage" (9-91) by his grandson Tom Backmansson (hereafter TB). Early showing a talent for drawing (and for schoolboy mischief), he was given lessons by a pioneer of Finland's art, R.W. Ekman (1808-1873), as well as some training with Walter Runeberg, the sculptor son of the immortal Johan Ludvig Runeberg. (Too bad that TB's book was not available to Rolf Numminen, who wrote the entry on HB in Finskt biografiskt lexikon [74-75], reviewed in Scandinavian Studies, 2010: 471-80.) In 1874, he was sent off to the Finnish Cadet School at Fredrikshamn-Hamina, the military academy founded in 1821 by Alexander I and closed in 1903, in the course [End Page 267] of Nicholas II's foolish Russification program. Gustaf Adolf Gripenberg memorialized the institute in Finska kadettkåxren och dess kamratskap (1912, The Finnish Cadet Corps and its Comradeship), in which some non-disapproving pages (227-35) are devoted to hazing. Its best-known enrollee was Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, expelled in 1886. The corps of cadets and the faculty were almost entirely Suecophone, but there was, of course, a heavy emphasis on instruction in Russian. HB flourished at Fredrikshamn, and brought out a book of illustrations in 1892, Teckningar ur Kadett-Lifvet (Sketches from Cadet Life). Its colorful cover and a couple of the sketches are reproduced (16-8), as well as a picture of a bugler (94).

Posted to St. Petersburg in 1881, and to the prestigious Ismailov Regiment of the Life Guards, HB thus became one of the numerous Finland-Swedish holders of commissions in the Czars' extremely heterogeneous armed forces, a phenomenon presented to astonished Anglophones in J.E.O. Screen's "Våxr landsman": Finnish Officers in Russian Service (Åbo, 1982). The tag in the title is taken from Jac Ahrenberg's novel on the subject. (Again, Mannerheim's case is the most famous.) In 1884, the dashing HB made the mistake of marrying Lydia or Lily Alexander Grüneisen, half Baltic-German, half Norwegian, a budding mezzo-soprano (she took the stage-name Dover-Backmansson), a choice of bride disapproved by his regiment. (See TB, 19, and Palin, 208: there are several doubtless unavoidable repetitions in the book.) Within six months, HB was transferred to the staff at his old school, where he remained until 1891, teaching drawing and Russian. He tried to return to his former unit, but was rebuffed, succeeding only in getting sent to another regiment in Moscow (which city and assignment he evidently disliked); after a year there, he wrangled a return to his St. Petersburg stomping grounds and finished a course at the General Staff College in the autumn of 1894.

All the while, he had cultivated his artistic penchant, and, by means of a large and partly executed picture of the late Alexander II (1845-1894), while still the Czarevitch, surveying the Bulgarian battlefield terrain...


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