Artists’ brushes have immortalised wintry scenes, ice, the snows of Russia, glittering Marriage Ceremonies, powerful Russian Emperors resplendent in uniform and Empresses in great finery with jewels. They painted a mother, surrounded by her children, who knew not of their approaching doom. A new genre was born; war photography, which captured the horrors of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars which brought death and desolation.
Skilled craftsmen have left a legacy of costume, decorative arts, unique diplomatic gifts, jewels that have bloomed into flowers and bejewelled eggs.
Those who made all these paintings and treasures have encapsulated human experience as far apart as the poles of the earth. They have left a bounteous legacy.
The Exhibition, ‘Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs’ displays many of their works and tells of early trade between England and Russia and the military, diplomatic and dynastic links of the two countries and of their royal houses. The Exhibition spans three hundred years starting with the visit of Peter the Great to England in 1698. It includes the watercolours which Queen Victoria commissioned of her son, Alfred’s Russian Wedding, never displayed before.
In 1698 Peter The Great visited England, the first Russian ruler to do so. It was a diplomatic visit, combined with a fact-finding tour and lasted three months. On departure, he gave King William III a striking portrait of himself. It is on view and the artist, Sir Godfrey Kneller has depicted him as a young, dynamic ruler, ‘ looking Westwards’ with thoughts of making ‘a new open Russia’. As reforms swept Europe, Russia had remained isolated.
During the rule of Catherine The Great (1729 – 1762), Russia expanded Westwards and Southwards and became a great European power. Catherine The Great modernised it on Western lines, creating its ‘golden age’ through her patronising of the arts. Her Coronation portrait painted by Vigilius Eriksen, is thought to have been given to George III. It was displayed in the Privy Council at Kensington Palace in 1813. George III was very interested in Russia, had many books about it, but never visited.
Tsar Nicholas I (1796 -1855 ) Had expansionist policies which proved expensive. He came to England in 1844 and showed much interest in our military and naval bases. Our politics did not interest him and he was entertained at the Royal Pavilion. On departure, he presented Queen Victoria with an imposing portrait by Franz Kruger of himself in the uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guards. The frame is monumental with a Russian eagle at each corner.
The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 during the rule of Nicholas I. Later George IV commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence to paint portraits of the central figures for the Waterloo chamber at Windsor Castle. On display in the Exhibition are the portraits of Matvei Ivanovich, Count Platov, Commander of the Cossack Cavalry and of General Fedor Petrovitch, Emperor Alexander I’s Aide de Camp at the Congress of Vienna. These portraits honour them and are in recognition of their important contribution to the defeat of Napoleon.
After the Napoleonic Wars many Russian Emperors, Grand Dukes and Duchesses were entertained in England.
The Coronation of Alexander II was attended by Lord Granville, the Queen’s representative, at the Kremlin in 1856. He was accompanied by an Irish Corporal, ‘Mack’ who took some of the earliest known photographs of Moscow and St Petersburg. They are on view.
A special of series of watercolours was commissioned for Queen Victoria of her son, Alfred’s Russian Wedding. In 1874 he married Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Alexander II. This was a very important dynastic marriage as it linked the royal houses of Russia and England for the first time. There were two services, Orthodox and Anglican. The opulence of every aspect of the Wedding was revealed in Nicholas Chevalier’s sketches. Alfred had commissioned these sketches for his mother, Queen Victoria and they are also on view. She commissioned a painting which was placed in the Grand corridor of Windsor Castle and later moved to Buckingham Palace. It reveals the couple during the candlelight service in St Petersburg Cathedral. Winter light shone upon them as snow built up at the window of the Cathedral. This glorious painting is in the Exhibition.
Queen Victoria also commissioned a portrait of ‘the Wedding of Nicholas II’ by Laritz Regner Tuxen, which is on view. He was the last Emperor of his country and saw its fall into military and economic decline.
When all Russian diplomatic efforts to prevent World War I failed, Nicholas II ordered the mobilisation of the Russian Army which gave Germany formal grounds to declare war. Three million Russians were killed and because England had an ‘entente’ agreement with Russia, we joined them.
The Russian Revolution came; Nicholas II abdicated for himself and his son, but he with his wife and five children were murdered.
Nicholas had commissioned several Faberge eggs for his wife. On view is the ‘mosaic egg’ with its platinum mesh shell, decorated with many different jewels. Within is a medallion portraying his five children; an evocative memento of their tragic fate.
Every exhibit has a story enriching our knowledge of kinship with the Romanovs.
The Queen’s Gallery.
Until 19th April 2019.
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