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Otto Meyer – Art caster

During the first half of the 19th century it was common for artists to have their bronze sculptures cast abroad. Swedish art casters were lagging well behind in technical terms. However, by the end of the century the situation had changed, and several innovative Swedish casters were able to establish themselves. One of these was Otto Meyer's art, metal and zinc foundry, which would go on to become one of the leading art foundries in Sweden around the end of the 19th century.

It was actually pure coincidence that Otto Meyer ended up as an art caster, at least according to the man himself. His parents were immigrants from northern Germany and settled at Malmtorgsgatan 10, just off Brunkebergstorg in Stockholm. It was here that their son Otto was born in 1852. As well as being their home, the property also housed a lithographic printing works, run by his father, Johann Friedrich Meyer.

An art caster is born

When representatives from German foundry firm Lenz & Heroldt from Nürnberg were in Stockholm casting an equestrian statue of Karl XII, ordered by the Royal Mint, they needed an errand boy and interpreter for their temporary foundry. Professor Heroldt contacted court lithographer Meyer, who in turn recommended his son. Otto was offered the job and thereby ended up on the path that became his future career. Otto's role switched quite soon from being a general dogsbody to being an apprentice in art casting and chasing. His talent was obvious. Professor Heroldt gave him a good testimonial and recommended that he undertake further study, which Otto did at the end of the 1860s – at both the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts' preparatory school and the Handicraft School (now the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design), where he studied modelling and linear free-hand drawing.

During his time with Lenz & Heroldt, Meyer was involved with casting several works, including Johan Peter Molin's celebrated fountain at Kungsträdgården in Stockholm. This proved to be a dramatic project, as Otto was an eyewitness to an accident in which art caster George Heroldt's legs were crushed under a block of plaster. Heroldt died 24 hours later from his injuries. Work on the fountain was temporarily suspended and the German art casters went home. They chose to complete the remaining components in Nürnberg, and Meyer travelled with them to assist. The pre-cast components were then sent up to Stockholm and assembled. At least one of the six swans encircling the fountain was made by Otto. He subsequently remained at the foundry in Nürnberg as an apprentice for three years before returning home.

Successful years

It is unclear when Otto actually started his own foundry. He probably began at the end of 1873, when he returned from Nürnberg, but he did not set up his firm until two years later. The first certificate of registration is from 1875. Initially he rented space at a brass foundry on Surbrunnsgatan, but as the business grew he was forced to move premises several times. In 1900 the company finally ended up at Vestmannagatan 71 (now Västmannagatan 81).

This was where Otto Meyer achieved true success. Between 1900 and 1917 he cast no fewer than six equestrian statues, including Karl IX at Kungsportsplatsen in Gothenburg, also known as "kopparmärra" (copper mare) by the locals. The modelling was done by sculptor John Börjesson. It was unveiled in 1904 by King Oscar II. Other examples include the monument to Magnus Stenbock in Helsingborg – also a work by John Börjesson. Another noteworthy sculpture from the Meyer workshop was St. George and the dragon, which stands in Köpmantorget in Gamla Stan in Stockholm. The St. George sculpture was unveiled in 1912, and is modelled on the mediaeval wood sculpture in Stockholm Cathedral. The modelling was by sculptor Alfred Ohlsson. The nearby sculpture depicting the princess was installed a year later.

However, Meyer did not just cast monumental sculptures. The business also undertook production of numerous statuettes and busts made by well-known and lesser-known artists. Their range included everyday items too, such as ashtrays, candelabra, book ends, door handles, light fittings and urns, also made by artists and designers to fit the style ideal of the period. During the 19th century a great deal of building ornamentation was also cast, primarily in zinc. Such ornamentation was often classical and drawn from earlier styles to create what were deemed to be suitable façades, for example, meanders, corbels, capitals, acanthus leaves and mascarons.

Tougher competition

In 1895 a new art casting firm was established, which would go on to become one of the Meyer foundry's main rivals. The owner was one of Otto's former employees – Herman Bergman. The young Bergman would prove to be both an accomplished craftsman and an enterprising businessman. He was adept at drawing attention to himself and his foundry, and he succeeded in gaining support from both journalists and important artists. Otto Meyer had previously enjoyed repeat custom from well-established sculptors such as John Börjesson (1835–1910), but when a new generation of artists appeared on the scene many chose Bergman's art foundry instead. It naturally signified a loss of prestige for Otto Meyer that artists such as Carl Milles (1875–1955) and Carl Eldh (1873–1954) turned to Bergman's.

New consumer habits

In 1919 at the age of 67 Meyer was ready to retire and decided to hand over to a younger talent. One of his former apprentices, Arne Spanier, bought the foundry, which at that time had 50 employees. Spanier had started at Meyer's in 1900 and had extensive experience in the industry. But although Spanier gained a number of important casting commissions – for instance, parts of the decoration for Stockholm City Hall and Skogskyrkogården cemetery – Bergman remained the favourite of the cultural establishment.

However, the really big threat came around the mid 20th century. People adopted new consumer habits. Instead of buying bronze statuettes and other works of art, they wanted to spend their money on other things, such as new cars and package tours. By 1973 the art foundry could no longer battle on, and Arne Spanier's son, who had by then taken over, filed a petition for bankruptcy against the company.

FREDRIK WEISS
From the magazine Företagsminnen published by The Centre for Business History