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The History of Solvang, the Heritage of Denmark  
  VIGGO BRANDT-ERICHSEN

The scholar seeks, the artist finds. — Andre Gide

By Connie Cody

Originally published in Inside the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine, Summer 2006, with additional photos and sidebars by Elverhøj Museum. Also available is a biographical book about Viggo.

Viggo Brandt-Erichsen was a member of the Rancheros Visitadores and was in the Los Gringos Camp. When he was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in 1955, a calf skin signed by all the members of the Los Gringos Camp, including Walt Disney, was buried with him.

Viggo Brandt-Erichsen first saw the rolling hills and statuesque oaks of the Santa Ynez Valley when he was living in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. At a New Year's Eve gathering his friend Paul Draper showed home movies of his horseback trek in the Valley with the Rancheros Visitadores, one of the largest riding groups in the world.

Viggo at work on his last major sculpture, which was for the Rancheros Visitadores. The piece was never fired but Patt had a plaster cast made in hopes of casting a bronze someday. The original is owned by the Rancheros in Santa Barbara.

An avid horseman, Viggo was interested in the Rancheros Visitadores (he later became a member), but it was the beautiful background scenery of rolling hills surrounded by mountains that really caught his attention.

Enchanted with the vision, he and his artist wife, Patt, soon planned a visit to California to find out, as Patt later wrote, "what kind of cultural life was there to accompany the gorgeous scenery."

A few months later Viggo and Patt packed their three children into a brand-new Plymouth convertible and headed west, towing a camping trailer behind them.

Viggo Brandt-Erichsen was 53 years old and a worldly, renown European sculptor. Born in Faxe, Denmark, in 1896, he left home at 14 to become an artist. Except for the time he studied art in Copenhagen, he lived the next ten years in tents, small shelters and cabins in the woods and wilderness areas of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, carrying everything he owned in a pack, hiking in the summer months and on skis in the winter.

Good fortune smiled on the young lad one day shortly after he left home. He was sketching two kid goats at play, and a stranger looked over his shoulder, then asked where he had received his training.

Upon learning of young Viggo's desire to become an artist and that he had no money or training, Gustav Vermehren introduced himself as owner of a well-known private art school in Copenhagen and offered him a two-year scholarship.

Viggo studied at the Gustav and Sophus Vermehren School of Art and then returned to his vagabond life in the Scandinavian wilderness where he perfected his art by creating drawings, woodcuts and paintings of nature.

1915 painting
This painting by Viggo from 1915 is the only one of his paintings we have seen (it appeared at an auction in Sweden in the early 1990s). All of his paintings were left in Europe when he emigrated to the United States, after which his work consisted of sculptures and woodcuts. [Elverhøj Museum]

He left the woods to complete his compulsory 18 months in the Danish army and, after an accident at sea, ended up recuperating in England where he learned the art of coppersmithing.

Paris was then the center of the art world. Viggo moved to Paris and became a student of the well-known sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. He also joined an art group, "Les Amis de Montparnasse." He became friends with fellow member Pablo Picasso during those heady years, and they occasionally painted together.

A rising artist in the Paris art world, Viggo's wood engravings were accepted at the 1924 Paris Spring Salon and attracted recognition from buyers. He met a beautiful American woman who was living in Paris, Dorothy Caldwell, they fell in love and married. The following year their daughter was born.

Sadly, something went terribly wrong during childbirth: the newborn died and her mother became gravely ill. Before she died, Dorothy had Viggo promise to bury their ashes under the shadow of Mt. Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

In 1926 Viggo set sail for America bearing the ashes of his wife and infant daughter. Upon arriving in New Hampshire, he took up residence at a hotel in downtown Jaffrey and spent the next two years carving a beautiful granite mausoleum for his wife and infant daughter.

The grief-stricken sculptor was welcomed into the townsfolks' homes in Jaffrey and ended up living there for the next 23 years. He became an American citizen and continued his sculpting career, creating two heroic monuments during those years, one to commemorate those who had died fighting World War I and the other for those who died fighting World War II.

LEFT: Thor Brandt-Erichsen sits beside the Buddies Monument carved from a 56-ton granite boulder over the course of three years by his father, Viggo Brandt-Erichsen. It was dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1930 in Jaffrey's Memorial Park. The plaque at the base lists the 104 Jaffrey men who served in World War I. RIGHT: The Gold Star Mothers Memorial at the opposite end of the park, which names the nine Jaffrey men who died during World War II, was dedicated in July 1948. Photo of unveiling by Ray St. George, Palace Studio, Jaffrey. [Elverhøj Museum]

Viggo built this little Danish studio in Jaffrey for his sculpting. [Elverhøj Museum]

Viggo's second wife and Thor's mother Joan Crowley died of cancer when Thor was four. Viggo created the above ceramic grave memorial for Joan in Jaffrey. It has since been vandalized and the surviving pieces removed. [Elverhøj Museum]

A long-time friendship between Viggo and fellow artist Martha (Patt) Mott developed into something more serious, and the two were married on Thanksgiving Day in 1945. Patt and Viggo communicated on an artistic level and inspired each other in their mutual careers. Born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Patt received her formal art training at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Student's League in New York and the British Academy in Rome, Italy.

It was autumn of 1949 when the Brandt-Erichsen's Plymouth turned off Highway 101 at Buellton and headed east for Solvang. Paul Draper had mentioned "a Scandinavian town of some kind near the Old Mission," but they had no idea Solvang was a Danish settlement. As the only Dane in Jaffrey, Viggo had become accustomed to not using his native language.

When they pulled up the hill into Solvang, Patt wrote that Viggo was astonished when he saw Bethania Lutheran Church and yelled out "There's a Danish country church!"

Patt recalls that day vividly, mentioning "an odd conglomeration of Spanish-style buildings, typical Old-West store fronts and an imposing spot called Copenhagen Square, surrounded by large buildings in typical Danish style, even to imitation thatch, storks and Bindingsverk (beamwork). This hodgepodge was, strangely enough, extremely quaint and attractive, and everything was as neat as a pin." Had Solvang passed the cultural test?

It took one day in the Valley for Viggo and Patt to make a decision to stay. They rented a home and pastures in Ballard, sent for their horses back East, enrolled the children in school and bought six acres of farmland in the center of Solvang-from Alisal Road to "the canyon" just off today's Third Street-and broke ground in November.

Viggo's oldest son Thor says, "My dad donated easement for three roads to the county on the condition that he be allowed to name our street. He called it Elverhoy Way, after the name he gave our home. One of the reasons he chose the name Elverhøj is that he identified with the woods, forests and nature, having lived so many years in the wilderness. The Elverhøj legend, which the play is based upon, is very much associated with nature."

Thor Brandt-Erichsen at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art points out his old bassinet on display in what was once his bedroom. Viggo made the bassinet and painted scenes from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales on the side.

Viggo (center) with the Rancheros Visitadores as they complete one of their rides at Mission Santa Ynez. Photo by Hans Sorensen. [Elverhøj Museum]
 
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