Russia : Royalty & the Romanovs

From the announcement in the Winter Newsletter:

We will explore the relationships between Britain and Russia and their royal families over 250 years, from Peter the Great’s visit to London in 1698 through to Nicholas II. We will see portraits, sculpture, photographs, archival documents and miniature masterpieces by Fabergé. The talk will illustrate historic events and family meetings between the rulers of the two nations. The visit will bring to life the shared patronage of artists and craftsmen from both countries.

“In 1698 Tsar Peter I, known as Peter the Great, arrived in London. The first Russian ruler to set foot on English soil, he stayed for three months as part of a ‘Grand Embassy’, a diplomatic and fact-finding tour of Western Europe that included meetings with the British King, William III of Orange. On his departure, Peter presented the King with his portrait, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Kneller depicts the Tsar as a young and vibrant ruler, looking to the West and hoping to establish a new, ‘open’ Russia,” the Royal Collection Trust says.

During the rule of Empress Catherine II Russia expanded to the south and west, establishing herself as one of the great powers of Europe. The coronation portrait of Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) by Vigilius Eriksen, done 1765–9, is said to have been given to George III and was hung in the Privy Chamber at Kensington Palace in 1813. Even though George III never visited Russia, his interest in the country was evident as observed from the books in his library.

George IV commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence, English portrait painter and the fourth president of the Royal Academy, to paint portraits for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, of central figures that played a role in Napoleon’s defeat. A painting of Matvei Ivanovitch, Count Platov, commander of the Cossack cavalry, and of General Fedor Petrovitch Uvarov, Emperor Alexander I’s Aide-de-Camp at the Congress of Vienna pay tribute to Russia’s efforts.

The Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother) commissioned in 1923 a portrait of herself from the Russian artist Savely Sorine. 25 years later she commissioned Sorine again to paint her daughter Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, the future Queen Elizabeth II. “During an official visit in 1956, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin presented Her Majesty The Queen with a number of gifts, including the oil painting ‘A Winter’s Day’ by the prominent painter, publisher, and art historian Igor Grabar,” the Royal Collection Trust continues.

The exhibition runs from November 9, 2018, through April 28, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Westminster, London SW1A 1AA, UK.
For details:


From the report in the Spring newsletter:

I’m very much a “Country Mouse” these days and rarely venture up to London, but who could resist the chance of seeing the Romanov exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, with an introductory talk to set the exhibits in their context? Indeed 48 Members rose to the bait.

Fortified by a kopje koffie on arrival, we settled down to hear a fascinating introduction from Anne Haworth of the Gallery staff, showing the growing threefold links between England and Russia since 1698, forged through diplomacy and trading contacts, alliances and dynastic ties. All the objects shown were from the Royal Collection; some were purchased, but most were official gifts from visiting diplomats or royalty, or personal mementoes from family members. Eighty percent had never been on public view before, having been retrieved from storage.

Early contacts between the two countries began with the founding of the Muscovy Company in the mid-sixteenth century to exploit trading links. As diplomatic ties increased, it was even briefly proposed that Elizabeth, later our formidable Virgin Queen, might be a possible bride for Ivan the Terrible! The first Russian ruler to set foot on English soil was Peter the Great in 1698. Aware his country lacked a credible navy to challenge Ottoman domination of the Black Sea and Swedish control of the Baltic, Peter left his country on an “incognito” trip to the West (no mean task, as he stood 6’8”/203 cm, in his stockings!) to get some hands-on experience of shipbuilding. He spent four months in Holland working at the Zaandam shipyards of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, then came to England, where he stayed for a further three months, not at the court, but in John Evelyn’s house to study the nearby Deptford shipyards. When the Tsar and his retinue left, the diarist found he had harboured “tenants from hell”, leaving his house trashed, windows smashed, furniture sawn up for firewood, and sheets shredded.

Contacts became closer in the early nineteenth-century Napoleonic wars, when major European powers combined to bring about the downfall of Napoleon. The Congress of Vienna, starting in November 1814 following Bonaparte’s exile to Elba, brought together monarchs, diplomats and generals to draw up a long-term peace plan for Europe. Tsar Alexander I was one of the Allied Sovereigns who visited London in June 1814. Thirty years later Tsar Nicholas I came on a state visit bearing gifts that were on display in the Gallery. Although relations between Britain and Russia cooled during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, various dynastic marriages, from the mid-1860s onwards, created such a complex web of familial inter-relationships between the Danish, British and Russian families that Queen Victoria was dubbed the Grandmother, and King Christian IX of Denmark the Father-in-Law, of Europe! These connections culminated in the marriage in 1894 of Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse, one of Victoria’s favourite granddaughters, henceforth known as Alexandra Feodorovna.

Then we tackled the exhibition. We saw an astonishing variety of portraits, sculpture, archive material and early photographs, icons, jewellery and furniture, ranging in size from monumental paintings and huge vases to intimate miniatures, painted on copper, given as personal presents before the age of photography, and exquisite ornaments from the Fabergé workshops, including one of their famous Easter eggs.

Some of the numerous highlights included the first room with its large paintings of leading Russian figures, beginning with a monumental portrait of Peter the Great painted in 1698 by Godfrey Kneller (German-born, but Dutch-trained!) and presented to the King, William III (Dutch William), to commemorate their meeting. Nearby hung two contrasting paintings of Catherine the Great: a formal portrait by Virgilius Erikson in coronation robes wearing the Imperial Crown of Russia (reminiscent of a Dutch-style tea cosy), and then one by Mikhail Shibanov, showing her as a mature experienced ruler. But it was the alliance between Russia and Great Britain against Napoleon that dominated the opposite wall. The Prince Regent, later George IV, commissioned Thomas Lawrence to paint the portraits of monarchs, statesmen and generals who were instrumental in securing the Frenchman’s downfall. And there was a portrait of Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent’s sole heir, who died tragically giving birth to a stillborn son (thus sparking a succession crisis which led to the accession of Queen Victoria), painted at the time of Tsar Alexander’s 1814 London visit. Nearby in a case was the self-same blue dress she was wearing in the portrait!

Subsequent rooms were devoted to more intimate links between the Russian and British royal families as dynastic marriages brought closer ties between them. Amongst these were two outstanding canvasses by the Danish artist, Laurits Tuxen, commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate family milestones. The first showed a great gathering of the royal clan at Windsor for her Golden Jubilee in 1887 with the Grandmama of Europe surrounded by some 54 of her numerous family, a veritable “Who’s Who” of European royalty, where the little toddler in the front row turned out to be Princess Alice of Battenberg, the mother of the present Duke of Edinburgh! The second painting, very different in tone, shows the wedding of Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse (the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna) in 1894 in St Petersburg. A detail of the bridal couple lit by gentle candlelight was used for the poster advertising the exhibition. This marriage, solemnised in the shadow of the funeral of Tsar Alexander III, was seen by many as ill-omened: “a bride following a coffin”; it was brutally ended by the Bolsheviks in 1917 in that blood-stained cellar at Ekaterinburg.

Of the royal family’s personal belongings the most poignant was the miniature colonel’s uniform of a Cossack regiment belonging to the twelve-year-old Tsarevich, Alexei, that longed-for son and heir, whose haemophilia caused such grief to his adoring parents. Whereas the most magnificent was the Vladimir tiara, consisting of fifteen interlacing diamond circles each hung with an enormous drop pearl. The tiara had belonged to an aunt of Nicholas II, a great society hostess in St Petersburg. Grand Duchess Vladimir fled the city in 1917, leaving behind the family jewels concealed in a vault of the Vladimir Palace. That summer her son, with Bertie Stopford, a British secret agent, returned to the Vladimir Palace disguised as workmen, retrieved the family jewels, and brought them back to England in two battered Gladstone bags. Elizabeth II inherited this tiara, acquired by her redoubtable grandmother in 1921 for £28,000. The Queen still wears it on many grand occasions.

The exhibition ended with three canvasses by modern Russian artists. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when Duchess of York in 1923, commissioned a portrait of herself from Savine Sorine, and later one of her daughter, then Princess Elizabeth, in 1948. The last exhibit, an oil painting by Igor Grabar of A Winter’s Day, was a delightful gift by Krushchev and Bulganin on their 1956 official visit.

Apart from those intriguing “what if?” questions, supposing that Elizabeth I had married Ivan the Terrible, or that Princess Charlotte had survived childbirth, so no Queen Victoria, what were the most lasting impressions of this exhibition? Portraits and photographs of family visits between British and Russian cousins showed the astonishing resemblance between George V and Nicholas II – outwardly alike as two peas in a pod, yet inwardly so different in character: The Tsar inflexible and resistant to any change, his British cousin pragmatic and sufficiently flexible to retain his throne in an age of great social upheaval.
One came away with a welter of emotions: wonder at the astonishing variety of treasures, from the ornate vases and paintings to the intricate craftsmanship of the Fabergé workshops; dismay at the gulf between the insouciant extravagance of the privileged few and the poverty of the rest of the population; indignation at the refusal of the élite to relax any of their power, and sadness at the grief and the glory of the Romanovs ….. if only, if only it could have turned out otherwise.

Twenty of us then repaired to the nearby Phoenix restaurant for lunch and convivial conversation, to digest what we had seen. Many thanks to Connie Sangster and Carine Williams for organising such a thought-provoking visit.

The visit took place on Thursday 31 January from 11am.