In Benjamin Rapaport’s book “A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes” from 1979 are, among a large number of old famous manufacturers of pipes, only Swedish pipemaker mentioned, Helena Sophia Isberg. Rapaport certainly believes that she sculpted in meerschaum, but we know better. She was born in Småland (a landscape in the southern part of Sweden) but moved at a young age to the city of Motala, and her material is almost always densely grown birch. She was a real celebrity.
An Isberg-pipe is of course something to covet for a collector. Imagine my delight when I was at the local city auction in Lund and managed to call in a beauty that probably only I seemed to know who made it. But there’s only one way to ascertain that the pipes are genuine and that is to go to Motala Museum, which has a large collection of her works. Sure, my pipe was “real”, but unsigned like everything else she did. Beautiful brown in the best condition with the exception of a few small cracks. The decoration in low relief consists of a deer attacked by four hungry dogs, made before she was becoming bolder and almost exposes her figures and foliage from the block. Silver stamps can not be interpreted excluding the Swedish cat foot.
Father Johan Isberg moved in 1840 from Säby, where he was first working as a tailor and later as a turner, to Motala with his wife and their two children. Jacob was born in 1815, Sophia in 1819. Motala became in 1823 a so-called free market town, open for trade without restrictions. John established himself as a turner, all home appliances were at this time handicraft products. The children helped and especially Sophia soon became known for her skill with the tools. Snuff boxes, barrels, napkin rings and a lot of other things found their buyers.
Sophia’s happiness was made when she met Count Otto Mörner, who came across one of her carved pipes. In 1847 he arranges so that this pipe could participate in the “Exposition of Swedish handicraft products” and was sold for 20 crowns. Sophia received a bronze medal, and the professor of sculpture in the Academy of Fine Art’s, KG Qvarnström, went to Motala to persuade her to go to Stockholm to continue her education. But Sophia remained at home. She did, however, love to receive pictures with historical motifs, her great interest. She used them as models in their carved images. She eventually made magnificent pieces that were exhibited at major exhibitions in Europe. Several of these medals award-winning works can today be seen at Motala Museum.
Despite her modesty, she was known outside the narrow circle in Motala. Also her brother was very skillful, but a wonderfully sculptured spinning wheel at the museum is the only known object from his hands. Brother and sister lived together in a small house with two rooms, Jacob had his workshop in the kitchen and Sophia in the chamber.
Much of what is told here is taken from a beautiful little book published by Motala museum in 1993 as well as from an older book written by Bengt Cnattingius, also published by the museum in 1930 and with a valuable catalog of a large number of Sophia’s objects.
Sophia Isberg die 1875. My visit in Motala is coming to an end. But before the train takes me to Lund, I go to the cemetary to put a flower on her grave. Sophia Isberg really is a pipemaker well worth our attention.