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Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs

Gifts and purchases by the British royal family of Russian objets d'art are the basis of this historic exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Almost 300 works are on display - decorative arts and paintings, costumes, books, letters and photographs - all acquired through the personal exchange of gifts between the royal houses

Fabergé ©, Mosaic Egg and Surprise, 1914 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The opening room of this sumptuous show at the Queen's Gallery is grandeur itself. At one end, a tall painting of a tall man in a suit of armour and mantle of a ruler presides over the room: it is Tsar Peter I, Peter the Great, a slim towering figure of a man, 6 foot 8 inches in height and a towering figure in Russian history.

At the other end, beyond a row of gigantic malachite and gilded marble presentation vases lining the middle of the room, another epic portrait, this one three-and-a-half metres tall and set within an ornate frame with a Russian imperial eagle at each corner, shows Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia (1796-1855) wearing the uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard.

Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The portrait of Nicholas I is on the right. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Peter, first Russian ruler to set foot on English soil, had had his portrait painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1698 after his three-month visit to England as part of a diplomatic and fact-finding tour of Western Europe. Kneller depicts the Tsar as a young and vibrant ruler, looking to the West and hoping to establish a new, 'open' Russia. The court painter also includes a vignette of a ship in the background, alluding to Peter’s visits to shipyards and the royal transport presented to him by William III at the end of his visit.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Peter I, Tsar of Russia (1672–1725). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Nicholas I painted alongside his feisty stallion slightly to the background by the German artist Franz Kruger (nicknamed ‘Horsey Kruger’ as he was a skilled equestrian too) was commissioned by Nicholas as a gift for Queen Victoria following his visit to England in 1844. Queen Victoria thought him “very handsome” with a “beautiful Grecian profile”.

Between the two lofty royals book-ending this first gallery, many more familial and diplomatic portraits are on view, among them resplendent in her magnificent wide robe Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great), during whose reign Russia's borders expanded to the south and west and the country was established as one of the great powers in Europe. The coronation portrait was painted by Vigilius Eriksen about 1765–9, and is thought to have been given to George III.

Vigilius Eriksen, Catherine II (1729-1796), c.1765-9 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Through war, alliances and dynastic marriages the historic links between the countries of Britain and Russia and their royal families are explored over a period of 300 years, from Peter the Great's visit to London in 1698 through to the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II who ruled until his forced abdication in March 1917.

Aided by the audio guide, plus at the end of the exhibition in an adjacent room Queen Victoria’s family tree helpfully presented on a wall, I gradually began to piece together the historical and familial links.

The great paintings of Danish artist Laurits Regner Tuxen (1853-1927) help out with this. He was commissioned to record significant family events, including The Marriage of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia in 1894, and The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, a painting that celebrated the Queen's Golden Jubilee that year.

The Family of Queen Victoria, 1887, by Danish artist Laurits Regner Tuxen (1853-1927). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Queen Victoria was called the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, and you can see why in Tuxen’s grand group portrait of 1887 showing the extended family gathered in a drawing room at Windsor Castle around Queen Victoria seated at the centre in widow's dress. Tuxen’s paintings have a picture perfect quality; the portraits are almost photographic. So much so that, again with the help of the guide, you can work out who’s who. As co-curator Caroline de Guitaut says, “What you see in this painting is the Queen’s desire to marry her children and grandchildren into the key royal house of Europe, which naturally included the Russian Imperial family...”

Unsurprisingly, however, for many visitors the Carl Fabergé masterpieces steal the show. The three Imperial Fabergé Easter Eggs are magnificent in their intricacy, their sheer opulence, the Mosaic Egg and Surprise most of all. Originally commissioned by Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, for his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, the eggs were purchased by King George V and Queen Mary in the 1930s.

Corporal James Mack, St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow,1856. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

But I think equally unmissable are the row of photographs taken by an Irish corporal, James Mack when he accompanied Lord Granville, Victoria’s representative, to the coronation of Alexander II at the Kremlin in 1856. His are the earliest known photographs of Moscow and St Petersburg. St Isaac’s cathedral in St Petersburg was still only a building site when he took the photograph.

There’s also a wonderful photo of haymaking peasants having a welcome pause to have their picture taken when the diplomatic mission visited Peterhof Park, a couple of members of the party mixing with the serfs (mujiks); and, my personal favourite, a superbly composed photo of three figures, one in highland dress, balancing on logs in the water with the Church of St Nicholas seen across the wide River Moskva.


Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London

Until 28 April 2019

For more information CLICK HERE


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