Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The Romanovs: Every Jewel has a Story


The new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs, is, as you might expect, a feast for the eyes, especially if you love Fabergé and late 19th century Russian jewellery – and who doesn’t? I thought, on this chilly December day, you might enjoy a peek at some of the treasures.



Fabergé Basket of Flowers Egg, 1901

I'm starting with a love story which, alas, ended tragically: Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), only child of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and heir presumptive to the throne, and the handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg who arrived in London in 1814, in the train of Tsar Alexander I who was there, as Britain's ally, for the premature Peace Celebrations to mark the defeat of Napoleon and his exile to the island of Elba. I can find no record of whether Charlotte actually met the Tsar, but she certainly met Prince Leopold, and they fell in love. She immediately met opposition from the Prince Regent, who wanted her to marry William of Orange, but Charlotte persisted and, eventually, she and Leopold were married on 2nd May, 1816.  



Princess Charlotte, portrait after George Dawe, 1817, wearing a sarafan dress

In the George Dawe 1817 portrait of Princess Charlottte, she is wearing a traditional Russian sarafan, or, more accurately, an English version based loosely on the sarafan. She is also wearing the Star of the Order of St Catherine, given to her by Tsar Alexander  I, which suggests that she might have met him.



The actual sarafan dress

The actual dress is also shown above. The sarafan is, in fact, a pinafore dress and the Princess wore it over an embroidered linen blouse. The blue silk pinafore has a drawstring under the bust which allows it to be loosened as her pregnancy took its course. The gold lace braid incorporating crimson silk was made in London.

Tragically, Princess Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817. Two years later, Princess Alexandrina Victoria (incidentally, Princess Charlotte's first cousin, and later to be Queen Victoria) was born, Tsar Alexander became little Drina's godfather. The friendship between the Russian and British royal families was firmly established, and, until the Russian Revolution put a stop to it, gifts were constantly exchanged and a number of Anglo-Russian royal marriages took place. 



Portrait miniature of Maria Feodorovna, née Princess Dagmar of Denmark, in a Fabergé frame, about 1895 

In 1862, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, married the Danish Princess, Alexandra. Four years later, in 1866, Alexandra’s sister, Dagmar, made a spectacular marriage to Tsar Alexander III, changing her name to Maria Feodorovna. The two countries’ ties became even closer.    



Casket of nephrite jade, with gold, silver, rubies, emerald and pearl decoration by Pavel Ovchinnikiv (1830-88), 7 x 17 x 10 cms. 


In 1874, Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and the couple were given the above casket. 



Jewel flowers: l to r  Fabergé philadelphus: rock crystal, gold, nephrite, quartzite and olivines, 1900;  H.I. Wigstrom chrysanthemum: rock crystal, gold, nephrite, enamel, 1908; Fabergé pansy rock crystal, gold, enamel, nephrite and brilliant diamond, 1900

Two of Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters also married into the Romanov family; the Princesses Elisabeth and Alix of Hesse, daughters of the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice. Princess Elisabeth married the Grand Duke Sergei in 1884 and, most spectacular of all, Princess Alix, renamed Alexandra Feodorovna, married Tsar Nicholas II in 1894.




 Fabergé Mosaic egg and surprise, 1914

This egg is a technical masterpiece. It was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II but never collected and it was subsequently confiscated by the Bolsheviks. Its construction is ingenious, it has an egg-shaped yellow gold and platinum lattice frame into which tiny brilliant diamonds, rose cut diamonds, emeralds, topazes, sapphires, garnets, half pearls, and moonstones have been inserted creating a petit point tapestry effect.

The 'surprise' inside is a jewelled and enamelled miniature of the silhouettes of the Tsar and Tsarina's five children, l - r in order of birth: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei. The designer was the Finnish Alma Theresia Pihi, who worked for Fabergé. 



 Fabergé silver, amethyst and diamond brooch, c.1909


This brooch was given to Princess Mary, later Queen Mary, in 1909 by the Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina Alexandra during their visit to Cowes to enjoy the regatta. Their whole family was there; it was to be the last time that the two Royal families met before the First World War broke out. They dined on each others' yachts.  

Siberian amethysts are famed for their intense purple hue as you can see from the example above. It is a hexagon with a diamond framed border and a diamond bow at the top. It can be worn as a brooch or as a pendant. 


Fabergé cigarette case, 1908


     This vivid Art Nouveau royal blue moiré guilloché enamel Fabergé cigarette case with a sinuous two colour gold snake decorated with brilliant and rosé cut diamonds grasping its tail in its mouth was given to King Edward VII by his mistress, Mrs Keppel in 1908. The snake holding it's own tail is a symbol of  everlasting love. It is noticeably plainer than most Fabergé  objects we see associated with royalty - but it is supremely elegant. - as, indeed was Mrs Keppel.

Contrary to what one might expect, Queen Alexandra approved of Mrs Keppel who was kind, generous and tactful, and could always cheer up the King when he was moody. Alexandra even allowed Mrs Keppel to visit him to say good-bye when he was dying.

After his death, Queen Alexandra returned the cigarette case to Mrs Keppel, who remained on the Dowager Queen's guest list. That changed when Queen Alexandra died in 1925. Court life under Queen Mary and King George was much stricter (and possibly duller) and Mrs Keppel was firmly dropped. Then, in 1936, Mrs Keppel returned the cigarette case to Queen Mary so that it could always stay in the Royal Collection.

An interesting move and I can't help wondering why she did it. I don't altogether buy the 'official' reason.  


Vladimir tiara made by court jeweller Bolin for the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife of  Grand Duke Vladimir, 3rd son of Tsar Alexander II, 1874


This beautiful tiara is made of interlocking diamond circles set in gold and silver with pear-shaped pearl drops. It also has an extraordinary story. The Grand Duchess Maria, the first owner of the tiara, was living in the sumptuous Vladimir Palace in St Petersburg when the Russian Revolution broke out. 

In 1917, things got too hot and she fled, leaving her jewels hidden in her bedroom. But exile was expensive and she soon needed money. At the point, the story began to remind me of the Edwardian anti-hero, Raffles, creation of the novelist E. W. Hornung. Raffles, an ex-public school and gentleman burglar with bags of charm, is invited to various country houses, accompanied by his ex-fag, Bunny as his valet, where he steals the other guests'jewels.. Naturally he gets away with it.   


The Grand Duchess's son, Boris, accompanied by a British friend, Bertie Stopford, an art dealer with diplomatic ties (or, in some versions, a spy) came up with a highly dangerous plan. Disguised as workmen, they managed to gain access to the Vladimir Palace, get into the Grand Duchess's bedroom, retrieve the jewels and smuggle them out in the diplomatic bag. The jewels were taken to London but, en route, some of them were damaged. 


In 1920, Maria was the last Grand Duchess to escape from Russia; her journey, via Italy and France, was traumatic and she died a few years' later, leaving her jewellery to her daughter, Elena, Queen of Greece and Denmark - and, incidentally, Prince Philip's aunt.


Queen Mary, who loved collecting objects once owned by her murdered Russian relations, bought a number of jewels from Elena, including the Vladimir tiara. It was in a bad state and needed restoring. Queen Mary wanted to make it more adaptable and it now has emerald drops as well as the original pear-shaped pearls.   


So, dear reader, if you want an idea for a novel, you could do a lot worse than go for the story of the Vladimir tiara.

The exhibition, Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs, is on at the Queen's Gallery until 28th April, 2019. It is well worth seeing and it certainly has the 'Wow!' factor.

I did a companion blog on the exhibition itself on 18th November, 2018 on my http://elizabethhawksley.com website. I have listed it under 'Exhibitions', 'Royal Connections', 'Celebrating the Arts' and 'Victorian Age' categories. 

Photographs: courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2018 

Elizabeth Hawksley   



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