The exhibition Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs1 tells the story of the familial, political, diplomatic and artistic associations between Britain and Russia and their royal families from the late 17th century through to Russia’s last emperor Nicholas II and beyond.
First shown in London, the exhibition has now moved to Scotland, to the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. This is a groundbreaking exposition, featuring rare archival materials and unique objects, some of them on public display for the first time. The relationship between the two countries is explored through portraits, sculpture, photographs and important documents. Many of the works of art were commissioned as diplomatic gifts, others as intimate personal mementos, including miniature masterpieces by Fabergé. You will have the chance to see Queen Victoria's sapphire brooch, presented for her diamond jubilee (60 year) by Nicholas II and his spouse Alexandra Fedorovna, facsimile of the last letter of Nicholas II to cousin George V. And of course, the Vladimir tiara, previously owned by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, and now the favourite piece of the Queen Elisabeth II. Luckily, I had a chance to meet with the curators of the exhibition Caroline de Guitaut and Stephen Patterson.
What has inspired you to create this exhibition?
Caroline de Guitaut: I suppose, it is the richness of the Royal Collection itself and the history of diplomatic relationship between Great Britain and Russia which is illustrated with works testifying to deep alliances between the two countries, especially in the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars when both countries fought side-by-side, in the 19th century, and later, at the time of First and Second World War.
Stephen Patterson: Indeed, as we explored the Royal Collection, we kept on discovering the richness of its Russian material. The exhibition starts with diplomatic gifts of the late 17th century, with Peter's arrival to the Great Britain, and then continues through the 19th century with visits by various Russian members of the Imperial family well into the early 20th century. Then, after the World War II, the tradition of major diplomatic gifts resumes with visits of Khrushchev and Bulganin.
So, what was the most intense period in the history of British and Russian relationships?
Caroline: I suppose the 19th century is the most prolific period if we mean the intensity of interaction. In the first place, the relationship was spurred on by the Alliance during the Napoleonic wars which is well-documented in this exhibition. At that time King George IV commissioned painter Thomas Lawrence to create expressive portraits of Russian generals and commanders Platov, Chernichov, Uvarov, Nesselrode -- all to be included in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle to celebrate this victory. George Dawe’s portrait of Tsar Alexander I, was presented by the Russian Emperor himself during his much anticipated visit to London in 1814. This magnificent gilt wood frame painting surmounted by imperial Eagles was received with great delight by George IV. The visit of the Russian Tsar inspired mini fashion trends in the UK. George IV only daughter princess Charlotte is featured wearing Russian sarafan style dress in her portrait by George Dawe. Surprisingly, the original sarafan has survived and is displayed alongside the portrait. Dawe’s career is a brilliant example of interaction between artistic communities in both countries: having worked as painter at the court of Alexander I, he created portraits for the famous war gallery in Winter Palace for which the Waterloo chamber is the counterpart at Windsor.
Later, Emperor Nicholas I and Queen Victoria had a very strong bond and admired each other in many ways. In her journals Queen Victoria mentioned the relaxed atmosphere during the visits of the Russian Emperor and described how they sat together in the private dining rooms with children running around at the Emperor's feet. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Crimean War put a halt to this.
Stephen: Interestingly, Nicholas I wanted Queen Victoria to visit Russia, and she had numerous conversations with the British ambassador and his wife in St Petersburg regarding this. The Russian Emperor Nicholas I even had a special medal cast to mark the Queen’s visit but the circumstances prevented that.
So, it was Her Majesty the Queen who became the first British Monarch to officially visit Russia?
Caroline: Yes, the history started with Peter the Great visiting William III in 1698 and culminated in Her Majesty the Queen visiting Russia in 1994. Queen Elisabeth II was the first reigning British monarch to set her foot on Russian soil. There had been many informal visits by members of the British Royal family to Russia before, however she was the first sovereign of the United Kingdom who visited Russia on an official state visit.
Stephen: In the speech delivered by the Queen in the Kremlin she shared that neither she, nor the Russian president had thought that that day would happen. So, that visit was an event of great significance.
Yes, indeed. The Royal family refused to visit Russia after the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, so the visit of the Queen was of paramount importance. How did the relationship between the Romanovs and the British Monarchs develop after the Revolution?
Caroline: By 1870s the two royal families have directly married. Prince Alfred’s marriage to the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Alexander II, paved the way to the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Alexandra of Denmark, whose sister was the consort of Alexander III. This led to further marriages through Queen Victoria's grandchildren, two Hesse princesses. So, the relationships were extremely close and the Romanov blood descends into the British Royal family through both Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. There were also members of the Romanov family who managed to survive and escape from the Russian Revolution.
Stephen: King George V encouraged the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (spouse of Alexander III) to leave Russia after the Revolution broke out and supported her throughout that process. Her daughter Duchess Xenia was given homes in Hampton Court and Windsor. And the residence in Windsor was extended to create more space. When the dowager Empress died in Denmark, the Grand Duchesses were not in the financial position to continue the pensions of their staff who had left Russia destitute and needed support in Denmark. Kings George V, Edward VIII and then George VI and the Privy Purse continued to pay off those pensions until late 1940s. Thus, there were some material and practical arrangements in which members of the Romanov family were supported long-term well into the middle of the 20th century.
Did you carry out your research in the Royal Collection only?
Caroline: We mainly used the Royal archives at Windsor Castle, but also spent time researching in Russian archives. We had the chance to consult our colleagues in the museums in Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which allowed us to make many new attributions.
So, what are the highlights of the exhibition, then? And tell us about the discoveries, please.
Caroline: In terms of new discoveries, I had the first opportunity to display the Fabergé Elephant automaton, the Easter egg surprise from 1892, which I had discovered in Her Majesty's collection a few years ago. Fabergé was very keen on automata, and this piece is indicative of his training in Dresden, as he grew familiar with many similar pieces there. The automaton very much resembles the badge of the Order of the Elephant – the highest decoration in Denmark. It was kept as surprise in the Easter egg which Alexander III gave to his consort Maria Fyodorovna, who was a Danish princess by birth.
Also, Russian Imperial family influenced the British Royal family’s taste in Fabergé's works. For instance, we display for the first time a nephrite bowl -- a presentation gift offered by Nicholas II to his uncle King Edward VII in 1908 at Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) during his state visit, when two families famously stayed on their respective yachts: the Russian Imperial family – on the Polar Star and Shtandart, and the British Royal family – on Victoria and Albert. Nicholas II, continued to exchange Fabergé gifts with the British Royal family, and was described with great affection. King George V remarked in his diary, “I was devoted to Nicky, who was the kindest of men”.
Another key object on display, documenting the family relationships, are the paintings by the Danish artist Laurits Regner Tuxen. Initially, he recorded the 65th birthday of the Queen Louisa of Denmark, whose daughters Alexandra and Dagmar were married into British and Russian Royal families respectively. Then Queen Victoria decided that she wished Tuxen to capture her family, including the children and grandchildren in a similar way at the Queen's Castle to celebrate her golden Jubilee in 1887. This occasion was celebrated in The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887. She also commissioned Tuxen to record the marriage of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna in 1894 -- the painting that we have chosen as the leading image for the exhibition, as it seems to represent a number of themes covered in this exhibition. Among other highlights are two malachite vases made at the Demidoff factory, one given by Alexandra Feodorovna, consort of Nicholas I to George IV for his new decorative schemes at Windsor Castle, and the other as I have recently discovered, was acquired by prince Albert and Queen Victoria after the Great Exhibition in 1851. Many of these objects have never been previously exhibited or publicly displayed, so for us this was the opportunity to bring together the pieces that have been rarely seen or catalogued before.
Stephen: In terms of archival documents, we managed to discover lots of background information, and particularly the opportunity to look at correspondence between George V and his cousins, from 1883 to the beginning of the 20th century. And namely, to study his exchange with Grand Duchesses Xenia, Olga and other members of the Russian Imperial family starting from their early age.
Displayed is also the facsimile of the last letter written by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II to his cousin, George V and dated 17th February. This letter details out the Emperor’s determination to press on with the war alongside Russia’s allies. While it mentions some logistical difficulties in Russia, it gives no indication of the situation which would lead to revolution and the Emperor’s abdication some four weeks later. This is a unique document that has never been exhibited before.
1 The exhibition Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs at The Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh (until 3 November 2019).