Last June, when the moving van rumbled up to the Portland Place entrance of London’s Swedish embassy residence, one of the grand 18th-century houses built by Scottish neoclassical architects the Adam Brothers, it came bearing the newest ambassador’s possessions: a set of antique chairs, over 100 book cartons and a box of Lego. After a long succession of grey-haired, 60-something male eminences, the latest Swedish envoy to London is not only blonde but a working mother to two young boys, aged six and nine. At 46, Nicola Clase is also the first woman in the post.
“We had not had a single woman ambassador for any of the bilateral postings in London, Washington or Paris,” she says, from the first floor formal dining room, painted an 18th-century blue and festooned with typical Adam neoclassical, decorative plastering. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, and wearing a pinstriped suit, Clase talks from across a candle-lit breakfast table flanked by marble busts. Who are they? “More sort of noble Swedish people,” she says, wryly.
A security and Asia specialist who joined the foreign service in 1991, Clase arrived in London after a second stint as a visiting fellow at Harvard, and four years as chief foreign policy adviser to Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister.
The middle child of an oil engineer, Clase, whose brother and sister both happen to be award-winning architects, was born in the Netherlands and grew up near Gothenberg in Sweden. When her parents moved abroad, she stayed on with her grandmother. She met her husband, Andrew Schenkel, an American economist, in a telephone booth in Beijing in 1986. “I was making a phone call and bumped into Andy. There weren’t many foreigners there.” Now a fluent Mandarin speaker, Clase had enrolled at the Beijing Teachers’ College. “At the time, people couldn’t quite understand why you were studying Chinese.”
A second date with Schenkel in Hong Kong led to a gruelling bicycle trek across Africa two years later: “He thought it would be a good idea for me to get some fresh air, experience the real world, so we got on our bikes.” The endurance training must have come in handy when she was called back by future finance minister Anders Borg, then 37, to become part of the young team that took over the prime minister’s office in 2006. “There were five or six of us … covering the world.” With a newborn and a toddler, Clase and Schenkel shared parental leave, Swedish-style: “That’s why you need a husband who is supportive.” Their permanent home is a cottage in the Stockholm archipelago surrounded by wild berries.
The London residence, built between 1776 and 1780, was part of Robert and James Adam’s brash development scheme to create mini-palaces along Portland Place; when the recession from the American war of independence hit, houses were downsized to 18th-century McMansions. Bought for the Swedes by then-ambassador Baron Erik Palmstierna in 1921 on a 999-year lease, the house was recently restored to its original splendour, complete with Roman wall frescoes inspired by Robert Adam’s Grand Tour and a three-storey staircase that ends in a giant skylight. The second-floor reception room is the most authentic but even the brass doorknobs have been polished to their original shine, with no tell-tale children’s fingerprints.
There are, however, traces of Clase’s boys in the downstairs library, the only room that has not been returned to its 18th-century state, and where two giant spaceship models take pride of place. “We spend quite a bit of time in the library. It’s the first time I’ve been able to fit most of my books on the shelves.” What do her architect siblings think of the house? “They are always very discreet. They’re into very modern architecture.” Clase would like to showcase contemporary Swedish art and design in the house, which is also environmentally friendly: 30 years ago the eco-savvy Swedes installed double-glazing on the windows.
Recently, the residence was put to maximum use when four diplomat apartments were carved out of the annex and side of the house, turning servants’ quarters into quarters for diplomatic staff. Clase and her family live on one of the reconstructed floors, in a light but modest apartment with only a kitchenette: “As an ambassador, they don’t expect you to cook. But a modern family needs a kitchen. We manage.” Ever the functional Swede, Clase is thinking of squeezing out yet another diplomat’s apartment from the building. But from where? “The basement,” she says. “It’s a fantastic building. There is a lot of unused space.”
So as a senior diplomat, how does Clase cope with the demands of work and children? “When I worked for the PM, you were always on call. Compared to that, this job is relaxed.”
Not that the past few months have been exactly uneventful. Her tenure has included a thwarted Stockholm suicide bomber and the WikiLeaks drama, although she has not been directly involved in the case. She will not discuss the rape charges and possible extradition of founder Julian Assange except to dismiss talk of conspiracies. “You have to understand Swedish law. Prosecutors in Sweden are acting independently on individual cases. There is no connection to the political sphere.”
Clase’s links with David Cameron’s team remain strong; there is a natural affinity between fellow conservatives of the new generation. Have the cash-strapped Brits tapped Clase for hints to the Swedish model? “When British politicians take an interest in Sweden, it will be primarily on welfare reform, Swedish free schools, day-care centres,” she says.
Down in the stairwell, we pass two bags stuffed with books: titles include Ballistic Missile Proliferation and Institutions of the European Union. Clase’s face falls: the books must go. “I fall in love with my books so parting with them is a big problem.”