Saturday, 24 June 2017

A Sensation From Skövde: The Henning Grenander Story


The son of Alfred and Julia (Hvalström) Grenander, Henning Gunnar Esaias Grenander was born August 4, 1873 in Skövde, Västergötland, Sweden. His father was a banker and he was one of seven siblings. He got his start on the ice as a school boy in Skaraborg. "At my school skating was actually made compulsory. We had to go to a neighbouring rink two or three times a week for the purpose of practicing." he recalled in "The Boy's Old Annual". By the age of fourteen, he won a school competition in skating in Stockholm, which according to "Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 33", he followed up with wins at junior competitions in several Swedish towns. Two years later at age sixteen, he was considered age eligible to compete against 'the big boys' in the senior ranks.


Though he represented the Stockholms Allmanna Skridskoklubb when he started competing
internationally, Grenander's considerable talent led to an invitation to train at Prince's Skating Club in Montpelier Square, London as a protege of The Duchess Of Bedford, who was an early advocate in England for skaters practicing the Continental Style. He first gained attention internationally when he appeared at the controversially judged 1893 European Championships in Berlin as a twenty year old then disappeared from the competitive arena for five years... but disappear from the ice he did not.


Grenander was known as one of the finest skaters in the Continental Style of his era and particularly so as an excellent free skater with much flexibility and grace. He wore pointed skates and included spirals in his free skating program, which was the exception and not the norm at the time. In his 1930 book "Modern Figure Skating", T.D. Richardson noted that "Mr. Henning Grenander used to make a very beautiful figure out of them, and at his speed, it is difficult to conceive any one footed movement more attractive, particularly when used in conjunction with toe spins or loops." Although best remembered as an exemplary free skater, his school figures were far from shoddy. Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams wrote in 1900 of Grenander: "He is certainly the finest performer of loops I ever saw." Speaking of loops, ISU historian Benjamin T. Wright noted, "Grenander was known for his prowess in free skating and there had been a long held belief that he was the first to perform a double jump (the loop, but not in competition)."


In 1896, Grenander demonstrated the Continental Style at the National Skating Palace in London. Two years later, he returned to the National Skating Palace and won the World title, defeating two previous World Champions and earning both admirers and detractors. Though practitioners of the English Style abhorred his style of skating, Grenander's graceful free skating sparked a whole era of copycats in both England and Continental Europe. British skater Arthur Cumming literally followed him around like a puppy at Prince's and attempted to copy his every move. Grenander, in turn, was one of the judges who helped Cumming win the silver medal in the special figures event at the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London,

Grenander's special figures, circa 1892

Captain T.D. Richardson noted, "Everyone, with of course varying degrees of success, tried hard to emulate the wonderful style of the graceful young athlete Grenander: in fact I think one is justified in saying that his extempore demonstrations on Sunday afternoon, when quite spontaneously, all the skaters would clear a large space in the middle of the rink and, no matter who was giving the usual formal exhibition, Henning would signal to the orchestra, which would perform quietly some waltz or mazurka or other piece, and he would play about just as the mood and the music made him. There was no set programme, and what is more there was no jealousy or annoyance by the advertised exhibitioners none that I ever heard."




Grenander remained in London and divided his time between 'medical practice' (giving Swedish massages) and teaching skating at the Prince's Club. He was rather popular with the ladies too. Aristocrat Sydney Freeman-Mitford, The Baroness Redesdale wrote in her diary of her affection for her skating instructor: "I would do almost anything he asked me. I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me." We don't know if The Baroness ever got to play tonsil hockey with the Swedish masseur, but it wasn't long before he was off the market. He met his wife Isabella Wilson on - of all places - the ice. They tied the knot on November 21, 1901 in Marylebone, London at the Parish Church of All Saints Margaret Street.


The Grenander's wintered at the popular skating resorts in St. Moritz. Harry Stone, the author of "Ski Joy: The Story of Winter Sports" recalled the couple's visits to the Swiss skating resorts thusly: "Very good looking, (Grenander) would simply idle around the rink. Suddenly, apparently just as the mood took him, he would break into a dazzling display of world competition standard, for he had been world champion in 1898 and had given the first exhibition of the Continental style in London. After attracting quite a crowd, he would just as suddenly break off and start skating ordinarily as though he was quite another person. His wife owned the famous dress shop Lucille. So she was not given to wearing black tights but a multitude of different coloured petticoats which frothed as she whirled round the rink."


T.H. Deane of Knightsbridge, London manufactured 'The Grenander', a design of round toed iron skate popularized by the Swedish star. Grenander continued to command attention on the ice well into his forties, partnering two time World Pairs Champion Phyllis (Squire) Johnson in Valsing competitions at the Prince's Club. Even after World War I, skaters were still emulating his style... or being taught by coaches who did. Although often overshadowed by his Swedish successors Ulrich Salchow and Gillis Grafström, he has been largely ignored in modern accounts of figure skating history largely because he really didn't enter many competitions... which is unfortunately often the measure of one's true impact on the sport.


Surviving two World Wars, Henning Grenander passed away on March 11, 1958 at the age of eighty five. At the time of his death, he was retired and living at the Ashley Court Hotel in Torquay, England. How incredible it must have been for him to see free skating develop as it did and how unfortunate it is today that his influence hasn't been the credit it duly deserves.

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