Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution At The V&A-
Pt.1: The Exhibition
During the Edwardian period, a double headed Romanov eagle sat (spread its wings) above 173 New Bond Street in the fashionable heart of West London. A place where Royalty and only the most well heeled members of society could afford to visit. Passers by, if they were lucky, might glimpse an eminent person or Lady ‘So and so’ step from their carriage and briskly enter the premises.
It was here in sumptuous surroundings- the decor tempting exclusivity and with obliging assistance- that the great and the good could purchase anything from a bespoke picture frame or cigarette holder; all the way up to an entire dinner service- depending on how much they were willing or able to spend. Items that were for the most part hand crafted and unique, in the contemporary Russian style.
The name of this establishment’s founder was also Russian: Фаберже́. Written in English above the entrance (but under the eagle) as ‘Fabergé’.
Peter Carl Fabergé is synonymous with the last years of Imperial Russia. However, the current exhibition, running at the Victoria and Albert Museum until the 8th May 2022, tells a parallel story. ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ focuses on the work his company produced for clients in this country and the business he established here to cater for them at the turn of the twentieth century. This is told together with the more familiar account of Fabergé’s activities; inside the Russian Empire and beyond. The exhibits on display are mostly from Britain, combined with many pieces brought in from Russia and other locations. All were created over a period of roughly 30 years.
‘Romance To Revolution’ also documents the strong ties between the British Royal Family of more than a hundred years ago and the then ruling Russian House of Romanov; a reflection of the greater political understanding reached between their respective countries after at least a century of confrontation. Indeed, a major reason for Fabergé’s setting up shop in London in the first place were the spending habits of our own Royals. King Edward the Seventh and his Queen-Consort Alexandra in particular. They had been introduced to Fabergé’s work by the Queen’s sister Marie, Dowager Empress of Russia.
Alexandra had been especially impressed and encouraged His Majesty to place an order with Fabergé’s company. In fact she liked the designers’ work so much that it was mostly due to her influence the London branch was set up. Ensuring by Royal patronage, word of mouth and the newspaper gossip columns; a reputation that made this shop, briefly at least, the talk of the town.
173 New Bond Street was under the management of a certain Henry. C. Bainbridge, who was designated by Fabergé to run the business as his sole agent in this country. Because the branch also served as an international outlet- Fabergé’s window on the world- orders came and visitors packed in from far and wide. As a result, many exclusive pieces were sold. Bainbridge described trade as being so vigorous that Fabergé’s objects were “passing through my fingers as fast as shoals of glistening herrings passing through the sea”.
Now it may come as a surprise to some people when they find out that- as far as we know- Fabergé didn’t personally craft any of the objects offered by his company. However, with a head full of ideas, he did originate many important designs ¹. But not all. In fact, most of the iconic pieces we tend to associate with the Fabergé name were conceived, designed and developed by his talented Workmasters; albeit under the meticulous supervision of the man himself.
Fabergé would delegate commissions to Workmasters and select from their best (and most suitable) offerings. Each design would then be painstakingly developed and exquisitely fashioned by experienced members of a Workmasters’ team; with specific individual skills sought out to ensure that the highest levels of quality were maintained throughout the process. All of this activity being a genuinely collaborative effort that required a large investment of time and talent.
As work by Fabergé became ever more desirable, the thoughtful and determined designer was on course in establishing his name as one of the leading global jewellery brands. However, this was to be Fabergé’s one and only branch to operate outside the Russian Empire; lasting from 1903 until the First World War.² Yet it was thanks to this shop (and an innovative mail ordering service ³) that the Fabergé company were able to shape the tastes of those in this country and abroad, who were fortunate enough to be able to acquire their products.
These extraordinary examples of Fabergé’s work offer the viewer glimpses of an arguably lost art; created for a vanished world of Royal privilege and luxury. They reflect an age of aristocratic power, influence and the pastimes and indulgences of Kings and Queens. As well as revealing the scale of the Russian Empire and its vast wealth. The exhibition also provides a physical link to the last of the all powerful and opulent Romanov Tsars, who ruled Russia with an iron hand for over three centuries. Seen from a less familiar British perspective.
History or provenance aside, whether you consider the pieces on display to be works of art, eclectic examples of decorative design, skillfully crafted objects or even just so much kitch; there is no doubting their continual fascination to so many people. I personally hold to the first three viewpoints and throughout the following essay, proceed to elaborate on many of the above themes and subjects; using ‘Romance To Revolution’ as the reference point.
1. For example, with the 1894 ‘Renaissance’ Imperial egg, made by Michael Perkhin; which was based on a design Fabergé had seen in Dresden during his youth.
2. Perhaps I should say the only branch to operate outside Russia within Fabergé’s lifetime and the period in question. Currently, the Fabergé brand has many outlets all over the world.
3. In addition to reaching a wider range of customers, the Postal service also facilitated the transport of items from Saint Petersburg. Objects were sent to London as registered post; generally without incident. Although laws in this country regarding the standards of precious metals subsequently caused some difficulties; when a parcel from Russia was intercepted and held by British Customs in 1908.
In order to present a clearer picture of Peter Carl Fabergé and his times; I have included biographical, historical and descriptive information in two accompanying articles. These examine the lives of the Royal families, as well as the Imperial eggs in greater detail. I hope the reader might find each of some use- especially if they are unfamiliar with the relatively short period in which the designer operated and the works were produced. Also, please note these essays focus on the House of Fabergé under Peter Carl; making only slight reference to the periods before or after his tenure. You can read both via my website.
Reluctantly, I have not included any pictures due to potential copyright issues; something for which I apologise in advance. However, most are easy enough to find online. As always, please feel free to skip if necessary.
‘The Rebirth of Russian Jewellery’
During the late 19th Century, Fabergé was an up and coming name in Russia- a designer big on ambition with a head for business. He had received great acclaim from the press and public during the 1882 Moscow Pan Russian Exhibition, for designs and repilcas; based upon recently excavated Scythian gold artifacts from southern Russia ¹. Objects that Fabergé earlier created or copied from whilst working at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Although these artifacts were popular and intriguing to many, they must have appeared in stark contrast to the overtly fussy and decorative confections then to be seen elsewhere in Europe. Unlike contemporary examples of jewellery and decorative art, the beauty and value of these solid gold pieces was to be found more in their clarity of design; rather than in mere materials. Artistic perfection being a more important concern than overt show and a lesson the designer would learn well. One newspaper even went as far as saying that Fabergé was responsible for the ‘Rebirth Of Russian Jewellery’. All of which brought his skill to the attention of the Emperor and Empress; Tsar Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna, who purchased a pair of cufflinks with Cicada designs for her husband.
As a consequence, Alexander commissioned Fabergé to design and produce an Easter gift for his wife. This was such a success that a tradition was established which lasted until the end of the dynasty. Fabergé’s ‘Imperial’ eggs eventually became world famous of course- showpieces for his company- and he became a Court Jeweller to the Tsar.² Such an endorsement helping to establish Fabergé’s company as a luxury brand; to be forever associated with the last years of the Romanovs. Even though the work made for them directly constituted only a small part of its total output.
This was a period of resurgent interest in Russia’s historical past- the visual elements of which began to be seen as fashionable. A tendency especially popular in aristocratic circles, reflecting the tastes of both the last Tsars (and their wives) and one that Fabergé was quick to pick up on. Consequently, the company began to create designs that reflected those lost times from before (Tsar) Peter The Great ³. When Russia saw herself as an Oriental country, rather than looking to Europe. The inheritors of an imagined Byzantine tradition, that was considered lost after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. We see a few examples of this tendency in ‘Romance To Revolution’. These include a traditional Russian Kovsh and a somewhat larger Icon in silver.
Fabergé’s designs also celebrate the Royal family itself. Something that becomes particularly apparent during the rule of Alexander III’s son Nicholas II. Whose idealised and benevolent looking image adorns everything from bejewelled eggs to ornate colourful boxes. Several such items are to be seen on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’. One piece that caught my eye was the 1904 Orlov-Davydov Imperial Presentation snuff box by workmaster Henrik Wigström, with a miniature of Nicholas by Vasyli Zuiev. Throughout the exhibition, we see many more Royal portrait miniatures, incorporated into all kinds of designs.
Imperial Russia was an Autocracy, directly ruled from the top by the Tsar. Therefore Royal patronage meant that pieces produced by the Fabergé workshops gradually became seen as marks of status (in addition to being examples of fashionable taste). So the company Fabergé had acquired from his father Gustav began to grow. Orders and commissions came flooding in from nobles and the rich.
1. The 4th Century BC artifacts discovered in Kerch on the Black Sea were influential on Fabergé’s early designs. In particular a gold bracelet that he copied and was seen by the Emperor.
2. There were of course other talented designers who sought out Royal favour. So at first, this position was in all but name.
Fabergé initially received a Royal Warranty as ‘Official Supplier To The Imperial Court’ (of the Tsar) in 1885 and attained similar regal accreditations from several other countries. Eventually however, he was appointed ‘Goldsmith By Special Appointment To The Imperial Crown’.
3. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square being an example of something that is definitively ‘Pre Peter’.
In 1900, Fabergé showed works at the Exposition Internationale Universelle in Paris; which demonstrated that by this time, he had his eyes on establishing an international reputation. Gay Paree was then a city not just at the centre of the cultural world, but also at the height of La Belle Époque; where Art Nouveau had emerged as the style of the moment. An almost palpable spirit of progress was in the air; something manifest across the arts and sciences. A sense of optimism about all that the new century might yet herald and change for the better. A spirit captured in the paintings of Henri Rousseau and Robert Delaunay.
The exhibition itself was a great success and marked a turning point in the fortunes of the company. Paris went Fabergé crazy as an estimated 50 million people visited the Russian Pavilion where the works were shown. Exhibits included a number of Imperial Eggs lent by Nicholas II himself.
Yet which way was Fabergé looking- backwards or forwards? What place would such things as the Royal Orbs and Crowns on display have in the modern world? Objects that certainly captivated their audiences thanks to their skilled workmanship and Royal provenance. But they were ultimately to become relics, rather than having any significant design legacy. The eggs however, as will be seen, had a different impact.
This success of the exhibition was significant in ways other than just style. Russia and France were growing increasingly close as a reaction against German military expansion. So in Paris around the turn of the 20th century- especially since the visit of the Tsar in 1896- anything Russian was seen as de rigueur with objects by Fabergé being particularly popular.¹ He even received the Legion D’Honneur.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Fabergé’s company was already operating from the fashionable Bolshaya Morskaya in Saint Petersburg (just opposite the Winter Palace). But thanks in no small part to triumph in Paris, by 1900 his business was successful enough to move into a luxurious, purpose built premises on the same street. Karl Schmidt was the architect.
Given Fabergé’s success in the city, the question might well be asked as to why he chose London instead of Paris for the location of his one and only non-Russian outlet. After all, in the latter he was well known and celebrated. Broadly speaking too, the friendly relationship between France and Russia went back a lot further than the recent Franco–Russian Alliance might suggest- at least to Napoleonic times- and was older (and probably more sincere) than the emerging Anglo-Russian one ². However, considering the extent to which the King and Queen were arbiters of taste in London High Society, perhaps therefore Fabergé felt more sales opportunities would arise in London, thanks to such Royal associations. Even though as we shall see, France had its own Fabergé admirers. London also meant access to the rest of the English speaking world, thanks to Britain’s extensive travel and trading links with the United States, not to mention it’s numerous Imperial possessions.
1. In an absence, fondness grows. Or at least a sense of nostalgia. Because despite their pitiless revolution of a century earlier (and notwithstanding the various Imperial ventures and attempts at restoration made since that time); it appears many citoyennes of France still seemed to relish the presence of Royalty. Prevailing attitudes had shifted for people during the intervening years- towards the demise of the country’s own Monarchy and its subsequent elevation to romantic tragedy. The realities of life under the brutally unjust Ancien Régime (which previously ruled France) to an extent had become by 1900 a slightly foggy history.
2. Given the respective histories of both countries, the 1894 Franco–Russian Alliance perhaps looked a strange pairing. But seen from both sides, it was mutually beneficial. I think it was Robert K. Massie, who pointed out the irony of Europe’s revolutionary republic being allied to its most repressive Autocracy.
French of course had also been the language spoken at the Russian Court.
Russian influence in Paris can be seen in many ways. For example, after the retreat and subsequent defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Russian Cossacks famously ‘watered their horses in the Seine’. The soldiers, who were banqueting in the aftermath of their victory, wanted their food quickly- the supposed origins of the famous French ‘Bistro’ (from the Russian ‘bwystra’ meaning ‘fast’).
Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution
In addition to being a spectacular event, this was one of the best designed and arranged exhibitions I’ve yet seen
Entering the exhibition (as if entering Fabergé’s shop), you are greeted by miniature replicas of the Russian Crown Jewels. These were made by Workmasters August Holmstrom and Julius Rappoport. Pieces that when shown in Paris during 1900 brought Fabergé’s work to the attention of the wider world.
These objects help to set the scene and tone for the rest of the show by clearly establishing the designers’ Royal credentials. Focusing our attention on this central theme, which runs throughout what turns out to be a multi faceted exhibition. Something the sumptuous surroundings, decor and soft carpet also emphasise; adding a certain aura of exclusivity to this first room. Enhanced by thoughtfully arranged and sympathetic intimate lighting. All of which provides a luxurious and fitting welcome to visitors.
‘Romance To Revolution’ provides enough supporting material to tell the background story of the Fabergé company; sources of information and interest that explain how the business was established and organised. From the design and conceptual stage to sourcing raw materials; through the complicated production process to the finished article. Details helpful for those who are unfamiliar with Fabergé and his times. Although from overhearing conversations, most of the crowds seemed quite knowledgeable about the subject.
All this is entwined with the final years of the Romanovs and their rarefied world. Because they were enthusiastic picture takers, we see a few enlarged examples selected from their many snapshots; intimate photographs of the Tsar and his family in better days. Where for a short time, they could be themselves and he could try to relax and cast off the Crown, if not totally the Royal authority. ¹ Vignettes of a passing era that provide the viewer with clues to the Imperial Family in their leisurely lives and shed a little light about who they were as people.
The uncluttered design of this exhibition really helps with the large numbers of people working their way through. Despite the popularity of the subject, I was able to take my time and not feel in any way intimidated to ‘move on’. All a credit to the exhibitions’ curator Kieran McCarthy.
1. Perhaps not with much success. To alleviate his constant worry, Nicholas was a chain smoker and during his lifetime, had trouble with this teeth and extensive dental work done. Probably grinding them and likely missing several. After the rediscovery of Nicholas’s remains in the 1990s, the remaining teeth in his skull were found to be in very poor shape.
‘Tailored to Britishness’
Many of the pieces on display which were made for the British market come from the Royal Collection (belonging to The Queen) or private owners. Not only do they reflect the differing tastes of Fabergé’s clientele in this country; but each example also tells us something about the pastimes and preoccupations of the British upper classes around the turn of the last century.
Themes for designs were generally directed by the requirements of (our) Royalty and aristocracy- those with tastes that by and large could be described as ‘conservative with a small ‘c’. The resulting pieces might have looked different from their Russian equivalents; but were produced with the same consistently high levels of quality, invention and refinement. Something echoed by Royal Collection curator Caroline De Guitaut: ‘You never see a dud piece of Fabergé’.
This degree of refinement is apparent if we consider his workshops’ representations of British historic landscapes and architecture. In ‘Romance To Revolution’, such scenes are depicted as delicate and subtle vignettes on a series of boxes that are sober and understated in style; each one contrasting from the ornate Russian variety we usually see. Subjects include Durham Cathedral and Chatswoth, in addition to Sandringham and other Royal Palaces. I felt in terms of style, these came the closest to being quintessentially English.
Art And Design
Fabergé had early on developed a nose for working out how to please and delight a wide range of exclusive clients. So that by the time his company was fully operational, he could offer them a dazzling selection of the finest quality pieces, specifically tailored to their requirements.
Although perhaps not an original designer in the conventional sense, Fabergé had travelled extensively in search of good (design) ideas.¹ He was careful and thorough in his research; so that his work might attempt to outshine and surpass the standards of competitors. Often claiming that in contrast to contemporaries like Cartier and Tiffany- whom he considered to be ‘people of commerce’- what Fabergé offered instead was ‘art’. Looking at photographs of the man, one certainly gets the impression of someone with an artistic eye. A gentleman Bohemian with a wise face, jaunty hat and sense of fun.
If we consider Fabergé’s output purely on an artistic basis; then in my opinion, the eggs are surely the most complex and enigmatic of all his creations. As you examine the Imperial eggs for example, the more apparent are their conceptual complexities. In each, layers are onion like; not just physically, but in the way all visual, historical, biographical, geographical and even religious elements are integrated. Wrapped up together in combinations that obviously vary (depending on the theme of each specific egg) and can be analysed; appreciated like a painting or sculpture. Something able in itself (in theory at least), to express deeper and more sophisticated levels of meaning than most jewellery or decorative objects. Consider also how each egg was brought together from the widest possible range of influences. Honed down to a design that could speak directly to one person. In effect, immortalising an experience or detail of their life. Or an event. A condensed message, folded up inside an egg and held in time.
Generally speaking, under the supervision of the man himself, Fabergé’s designers simultaneously drew from the past and looked to the future. As well as absorbing stylistic influences from far beyond Russia’s borders (evidence for such eclecticism is to be seen throughout ‘Romance To Revolution’). This was of course nothing new- think of Fabergé’s earlier activities at the Hermitage and the pervasive influence of his time in Dresden. Time and again one sees elements derived or even copied from much older periods. Objects exhibit decorative traits from the French Neo-Classical, Rococo and English traditions. Also motifs, techniques and materials from as far afield as Arabia, China, Japan and India. I’m obviously no expert, but I’m pretty sure a few items even had traces of Iranian influence. However we also see ‘then-contemporary’ design details; suggestive of Art Nouveau ² or looking ahead to Art Deco. Perhaps even to the decorative possibilities of abstract art.
Or, even more, the unexpected juxtapositions of Surrealism and its fetishization of objects; if for example, one thinks about the complicated ‘Jack in the Box’ layering of ‘surprises’ to be found within many of the eggs. Variations of the 1885 ‘Hen’ or 1895 ‘Rosebud’ spring to mind- but this same logic could potentially be applied to any of them. Also, in terms of their scale- entire worlds reduced down to the size of an egg- taking the form of a ‘ship in a bottle’. Something literally the case (or close at least) to the 1891 ‘Memory Of Azov’ egg.
It is obviously far fetched to suggest anything further in connection with the principles of Surrealism, other than the way designs play on the viewer’s expectations. Yet could an egg provoke a response through some kind of irresistible ‘convulsive’ beauty in the strict Surrealist sense? ³ Caused perhaps by associations evoked through the mixing together of styles and subjects in an eclectic fusion of past and present? That I don’t know. But to see the eggs displayed in ‘Romance To Revolution’, their effect on many people was certainly palpable.
1. He also had studied in Germany, France and England; becoming a Master Goldsmith in 1882: the year of his success in Moscow. A point that appears to contradict the view that he never made anything himself.
2. Good examples being the 1898 ‘Lilies-Of-The-Valley’ and the 1902 ‘Clover Leaf’ eggs; both by Michael Perkhin. Talking of Art Nouveau, with regard to the rich and complicated surface decorations found on certain examples by Fabergé; could there be any similarities to the ever shifting magic evident in works produced by Émile Gallé? The latter may offer a more fluid and lyrical approach in his exquisite poetries in glass; but just as it is possible to lose yourself in their intricacies, is this not also the case for an Imperial egg like the ‘Winter’? Even perhaps for the ‘less lyrical and spontaneous, more engineered’ ‘Rose Trellis’?
3. To paraphrase an observation by Andre Breton- who, supposedly when walking on a beach, would speak about the discovery- not of the random or interesting stone; but rather the ‘stone you have been longing (needing) to find’. Echoing the thought in his 1928 novel ‘Nadja’ about the idea of true beauty as being ‘convulsive or not at all’. Breton also spoke about Surrealist principles being universal- that they ‘existed before Surrealism and would continue to exist long after’.
On the subject of unexpected juxtapositions, or ‘more or less distant realities’. The latter term is from a 1918 essay by Pierre Reverdy. It suggests that the more a poetic ‘distance’ is developed in a single work- between juxtaposed, yet distinct ‘realities’- the greater will be the ensuing tension, dislocation, drama and surprise of their relationship within any eventual outcome. Potentially emotional, unsettling or disquieting associations being realised through the clashing of these fragments. The wider this ‘distance’, the greater will be the contrast and ultimately more powerful any final ‘image’ (in whichever artistic medium the thought is eventually expressed). Especially if the ‘realities’ themselves possess a clarity, are solid and convincing. To borrow a slightly out of context, yet famous example from the Comte de Lautréamont: about the potent beauty of the ‘chance meeting’ on a dissecting table between an umbrella and a sewing machine.
Peter Carl Fabergé was the ultimate designer-manager; able to find, nurture and utilise the skills of a variety of talented makers and other useful people. Mostly these were based at his Saint Petersburg workshops and among the best in the world at what they did. On occasion however Fabergé would also outsource certain tasks and sometimes even send skilled artists abroad on special duties. ¹
He certainly placed great faith and trust in his Workmasters- each one being responsible for the development and production of a certain kind of item. Outstanding designer-makers in their own right like Henrik Wigström, August Holmstrom, Michael Perkhin, Alma Pihl, August Frederik Hollming and Julius Rappoport consequently became a large reservoir of talent for the business. As were artists like Johannes Zehngraf and Vassily Zuiev. People who’s work often gets submerged under the name of ‘Fabergé’. ²
Yet credit must also be given to the rest of Fabergé’s 500 or so staff, who worked in unison to produce every piece to the highest possible standard. All those months of careful innovation and intensive labour are exemplified in the best of these unique objet d’art. Each of which are polished to an almost unbelievable finish, attaining levels of quality that- in the opinion of Fabergé expert Dr. Geźa Von Habsburg- nobody else has been able to achieve.
Also worth mentioning is that in Fabergé’s workshops, the system of production was disciplined; but loose enough to allow for good ideas and better ways of doing things to emerge. Each jeweller, craftsperson or specialist worked to their strengths; practicing and refining their own particular skill. Sometimes a good design from one of the staff would be picked up by the master himself and allowed to be taken to fruition. Such as the Imperial ‘Winter’ egg of 1913, based on an idea by Workmaster Alma Pihl.
As far as Fabergé himself was concerned, the true value of a work was not to be found in the materials from which it was made; but rather in the quality of its design and production. We see this in his most successful pieces. The ways in which the many visual elements, techniques and materials are combined together as subordinate to the overall intention of the design- thereby creating a unified whole (an approach similar to that of René Lalique in France).
Looking at this idea another way, part of Fabergé’s formula for success was how he and his Workmasters were able to substitute good design and fine craftsmanship for expensive materials; thereby increasing profits. One way to do this was through mastering and refining elaborate, time consuming techniques like French guilloché enamelling.³ This enabled his teams to achieve a richness of finish equally as captivating as that on any other decorative jewellery- and for a fraction of the cost.
Obviously this isn’t to say Fabergé didn’t incorporate gemstones, precious metals or other rare materials into designs. You see diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, plus many other rare jewels. As well as golds of various colours, silver, platinum, nephrite, jadeite, aquamarine, chalcedony, bloodstone, plus many more: some that I have to confess I’d not even heard of. The point is that all were used sparingly. As integral parts of a design. Perhaps suggestive of a certain minimalist tendency of the kind beginning to emerge in Vienna or Glasgow.⁴ Certainly, something being seen in Europe that had originally come from Japan. A country whose influence on Fabergé’s designs can be seen again and again.
To create a guilloche pattern, each surface had to be intricately incised on a tiny scale to add visual texture- something laboriously achieved using a Rose engine and magnifier. The result would then be carefully enamelled by layering on a paste, which needed to be spread incredibly evenly and consistent of mixture; so as to acquire the desired colour and an overall smooth outcome (each colour of course requiring a specific recipe). After firing, more enamelled layers were applied; gradually building up into a translucent and lustrous surface, which was then finally polished to an appropriate level of finish. A process with little room for error that needed great skill and patience on the part of the person doing the work.
Colours alone were difficult enough to achieve. Most of his contemporaries could produce a only a handful of enamel colours. However Fabergé’s workshops managed an incredible 145- something nobody else could equal.⁵ Aside from being able to produce more colours for sale, this was business savvy for another reason: the world of fashion. You could request an item to be made in near-enough the colour of your choice or combination. So as to match or compliment the new dress or suit you were having made.
The company also made it a point of principle and pride to source as many different materials from within the borders of the Russian Empire as possible. This wasn’t purely about patriotism either- although that was certainly an important factor. Materials sourced from within the country would be cheaper to acquire and simultaneously by using them; promote a sense of Russia’s wealth and self sufficiency to the wider world. On display in ‘Romance To Revolution’, we see a map with the locations for sourcing materials; as well as certain examples of the hardstones used by Fabergé’s artisans.
Objects were able to astound, even when made from relatively speaking, quite humble substances. Such as with Marie Feodorovna’s ‘Karelian Birch’ egg from 1917, or the common steel of arguably the most extraordinary Imperial Egg of all: the 1916 ‘Steel Military’, given to Empress Alexandra.⁶ Perhaps these examples were a case of ‘necessity being the mother of invention’. When during the war, rare and precious materials became scarce. But I think they also illustrate the essence of Fabergé’s overall design philosophy. That in the case of later Imperial eggs especially; their significance could go far beyond being decorative for the sake of it. As previously touched upon, something deeper could be communicated. The beauty of nature and simplicity in the former example. A sense of patriotism and contained or suspended energy in the latter.
If you could afford it, this period was a wonderful time for elegance and refinement. All the same, I cannot help wondering whether those fortunate enough to own and use these beautiful objects had much idea about the levels of workmanship involved in their creation.
1. Artist Frödman-Cluzel was sent to model the animals on the Sandringham farm for King Edward’s ‘Sandringham Commission’ around 1908.
2. Fabergé was canny enough to allow his brightest talents a certain degree of freedom to come up with new ideas. After all, it takes a special kind of person to make such beautiful objects- one with a level of patience and talent very few ordinary people possess. Years of training and days spent on the factory floor and the requirement that you give every minute of your time and energy to Fabergé.
3. Something the Fabergé workshops could be said to have perfected. For a modern craftsperson at work guilloche enamelling, check out the following link: https://youtu.be/9nomZpeeEuU
4. The Vienna Secession and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Both broadly manifestations of Art Nouveau.
5. ‘Romance To Revolution’ has a small panel showing some of the colours a customer could choose from.
6. Both eggs were intended to be presented by Nicholas; although the ‘Karelian Birch’ was never actually received by Marie. Presumably on account of the revolution.
Questions of Taste and Opportunity
Fabergé with his team designed and meticulously fashioned items for every conceivable application. From lavish and expensive decorative objects fit for Emperors and Kings, all the way down to a bell push to summon the maid or a humble cigarette holder. As a shrewd businessman, Fabergé was always on the lookout for new opportunities and niches. This included producing quality work for as wider range of customers as possible- luxury goods for an emerging middle class. Indeed, Fabergé’s granddaughter Tatiana- a custodian of the family archives- observed that if alive today, he would be making things like covers and accessories for smartphones and tablets. Even so, the vast majority of Fabergé’s functional objects were most likely never used for their intended purpose and remain as they always have; in glass cases as decorative examples of a bygone age. A nod to seemingly unattainable perfection and a testament to that Wildian aphorism from ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’: “All art is quite useless”.
Talking of presentation and marketing, great care and attention was paid to the packaging of each peice. The fitted wooden boxes used to present and contain Fabergé’s designs came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, that were hand crafted by ‘In-house’ carpenters and made from Russian holly wood. Each was given an exterior finish in fine fabric, then lined with satin and stamped with the Imperial Russian Warrent. On display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ we see a few quite simple examples, but others for larger items could be quite complicated.
Another aspect of Fabergé’s modern business practice was his implementation of a mail ordering service, as he sought to expand his customer range into Asia and then (presumably) the rest of the world. This was something that certainly increased sales, yet revealed a dichotomy at the root of the company. On the one hand, the name Fabergé was associated with everything that was seen as exclusive. Whilst on the other- like any business in the quest for profit- he wanted more people to be able to purchase a piece.
Given the prolific output of Fabergé’s workshops over several decades, maintaining such a level of design excellence (when turning out large quantities of bespoke items) was always going to be a challenge. But the company seems to have managed to deliver the goods and not faltered on quality. Taste perhaps is a more problematic question.
One point of view (and perhaps strange to say in relation to a decorative object) is that Fabergé’s finest examples, however complicated and meticulously made they may be, are not over decorated for decorations sake. There is precision and restraint in their eclectic design. To the extent that it has been argued by some that no jeweller before or since has managed to attain such a synthesis of design and materials.
However in a few examples- perhaps due to the over exacting requirements of certain clients- one can detect elements that could be described as kitsch. Having said that, as tastes change, so too do definitions of ‘good’ taste. What might have been seen as the epitome of style 100 years ago, could well be regarded as kitsch today. By tomorrow this could shift again and be redefined as ‘Bling’ (or some future equivalent).
The above sheds light on a dilemma for Fabergé and his team- because this kind of interference from patrons could have meant a corruption of original design ideas (or at least their detrimental watering down): the results becoming less than satisfactory. It is therefore a testament to their skills that they were able to make concessions; for the most part without losing the essence of a good design.
Add to that the length of time to finish a piece- certain complex procedures and techniques require especially long periods to dry, retouch, polish etc. Before you know it, impatient customers are venting their frustrations at your door.
Consequently Fabergé came to regard working for the court especially as an onerous duty; preferring instead to concentrate on commissions for customers who were less likely to keep changing their minds or inclined to tell him or his workmasters how to do their jobs. Even though it was that very same Royal and noble patronage which gave his name added status, provenance and lustre. ¹
1. The nobility were by all accounts the worst during the production of an object and could, with an unexpected demand to change something, undo months of difficult and expensive work.
‘I Belong To The King’
In 1907, King Edward VII commissioned Fabergé to produce a series of animal portrait miniatures in hardstones. From a designers’ point of view, this was a great subject- bound to appeal to English tastes and expectations (with their eccentric love of animals). However it was important to the King that each was unique, as he stated ‘We do not want any duplicates’.
The so called Sandringham Commission was the largest order ever placed with the London branch of Fabergé and it proved to be a great success. Wax models of favorite pets and horses kept at the Royal residence of Sandringham were made by two specially appointed sculptors called Boris Frödman-Cluzel and Frank Lutiger. The King then selected specific examples to be painstakingly carved by the Saint Petersburg workshops (probably by Kremlev and Derbyshev). An even broader range of animals were eventually produced and over 300 made their way into the Royal Collection.
Queen Alexandra was especially fond of these animals and accumulated a large collection ¹. Particularly charming is her little Dormouse, purchased in 1912 and carved in blue-grey and brown chalcedony, with cabochon sapphire eyes. The Dormouse grasps its long whiskers in an especially endearing and whimsical way; almost reminiscent of a creation by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. Although the Dormouse is not present in ‘Romance To Revolution, it is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance. Must have been a joy to it’s owner.
Of course the resulting menagerie of little creatures have been appreciated and enjoyed by others aside from Royalty. Certainly, the selection on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ proved popular and many people seemed to be genuinely charmed. I found the animals to be rather sweet, with a focus on quirks of character and detail. The makers having imbued their creations with a sense of humour and fun.
“Will you please tell Mr. Fabergé how pleased I am with all he has done for me… I think the work splendid”
Edward VII to Henry Bainbridge
Other animals of various shapes and sizes were also produced and over 300 made their way into the Royal Collection. Of course the resulting menagerie of little creatures have been appreciated and enjoyed not just by Royalty. Certainly, the selection on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ proved very popular and many people seemed to be genuinely charmed. I found the animals to be rather sweet and full of character. Whimsical, with a sense of humour and fun.
However, these animal figures have not been without their critics and divide opinion regarding questions of taste. To some they are examples of overt sentimentality or commercial opportunism; an observation I suspect made by those who haven’t actually seen the animals up close. Because ‘face to face’ as it were, their fine artistry is obvious (try carving hardstone on that scale in detail and you’ll know what I mean). What is especially clear is just how inventive their makers could be in their ability to capture the different characteristics and surface appearances of such a variety of animals (in sympathetic hardstones). Resourceful in finding the appropriate materials to match and mimic everything from the plumage of a Norfolk Black Turkey in obsidian, to the bodies of livestock or horses. Some were categorised as ‘Mosaics’; that is composite designs made of a mixture of appropriate stones held together with fish glue. Allowing for an even greater degree of verisimilitude. Delightful watercolours of possible designs by Henrik Wigström also exist, illustrating just how much potential this series could offer; both in creative and commercial terms.
Ceaser was King Edward’s favourite dog. A lively Fox Terrier who accompanied the King everywhere. Between 1907 and 1908, Fabergé’s workshops created a small finely carved portrait model of him in chalcedony, gold and brown enamel; with cabochon ruby eyes. On his collar are the words ‘I Belong To The King’. Ceaser has a display case all to himself. Well, almost. He’s presented together with a picture of the real subject (and the King).
Other animal examples on display include ‘Sandringham Lucy’. A rather forlorn looking, yet detailed portrait of King George the Fifth’s Clumber Spaniel, rendered in pale grey chalcedony, also with cabochon ruby eyes, from 1908-9.
Also standing out were the tiny ‘Snail’ from 1909, the owls with ruby eyes (by Workmaster Henrik Wigström and acquired by Queen Alexandra in 1908) and the ‘French Bulldog’ from c 1910.
The ‘Recumbent Sow’ was purchased by Princess Victoria in 1912 from Fabergé’s London branch (for the difficult to imagine sum of £14 and 10s!) Observed from life, it is an especially fleshy study that stands out from the other animals as being less sentimental. A humorous creation nonetheless in aventurine-quartz, with rose diamond eyes.
Alexandra was especially fond of these animals and accumulated a large collection ¹. Particularly charming is her little Dormouse, purchased in 1912 and carved in blue-grey and brown chalcedony, with cabochon sapphire eyes. The Dormouse grasps its long whiskers in an especially endearing and whimsical way; almost reminiscent of a creation by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. Although the Dormouse is not present in ‘Romance To Revolution, it is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance. Must have been a joy to it’s owner.
The animals bring to mind certain examples of Japanese Netsuke and are indicative of the extent to which Fabergé’s designs were informed by that country’s aesthetics.² Even though, they were carved in hardstone rather than ivory. The delightful and small rounded Elephant on display (from c.1910) shares many characteristics with Netsuke forms. Finely carved in Purpurine and embued with character and humour. As if made to be held in the palm of one’s hand.
We also see carved human figurines on display, rendered in exceptionally hard materials that again must have been very difficult to work. These are pretty rare subjects and the Chelsea Pensioner on display was actually King Edward’s last purchase from the London branch in 1909. This is now also part of the Royal Collection.
1. She kept her collection at Sandringham and there they remain in the Royal Collection.
2. Fabergé himself was an avid collector of Netsuke. Out of interest, you can see original examples of Netsuke and Inró elsewhere in the V&A; as well as at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum.
The Flower Studies
Another extraordinary series of ornamental sculptures- perfected by the Fabergé workshops- has to be their variations on the theme of a ‘vase of flowers’. These are (mostly) tiny studies of impeccably arranged blooms; delicately fashioned from precious metals, diamonds, hardstones and enamel, which are then set within a rock crystal ‘base’. Presenting the illusion of water in a glass vessel, the crystal used is so clear, so flawless that in certain examples, it really looks like less than water.
Also, the ‘submerged’ stems of certain flowers appear fashioned to look as if they are actually absorbing the crystal clear ‘liquid’- in one example I saw, even down to the tiny bubbles on the end of its ‘stem’.¹ ‘Romance To Revolution’ has a number of these distinctive pieces on display; mostly created by the ever talented Henrik Wigström.
To convincingly capture the ephemeral and fragile nature of flowers must have been a great technical challenge to Fabergé’s team. I mean, how do you successfully render living, fleeting beauty in a varied range of solid and difficult to work materials? Not only that, but also manage to combine each of these very different substances, so as to look almost exactly like real flowers. The results speak for themselves. Still as fresh looking and beguiling as they were when first made. Their levels of extraordinary detail and verisimilitude probably unequalled.
Also, although they are mostly static, the majority of Fabergé’s flower pieces possess a ‘one step from life’ kind of presence. Each may be small or often tiny, yet as Geźa Von Habsburg has observed: their quality of detail does not diminish upon closer inspection- even if you zoom in with a camera and enlarge. In fact, magnification is a good way to gauge the levels of refinement makers were able to achieve and can be applied to pretty much any work by Fabergé.
Floriography (or the language of flora) has a long history. Ever since the beginning of our human story, people have found significance in and given meanings to flowers and plants; even though a great deal of this isn’t the common knowledge it once was. However up until the rapid urbanisation of the late 19th and 20th centuries, there were rich and varied shared meanings; based upon the plants and flowers encountered by people in everyday life. This was especially the case in countries like Russia, where the vast majority still lived and worked in the countryside. Each flower represented something. Certain species had specific religious or seasonal associations; often related to a particular place and so could vary wherever you went. Others were traditionally used in the preparation of medicines, folk remedies and to ward off evil; so would at one time have been fairly well known. Some of course, had universal associations and could become the basis for a shared language of signs like Heraldry.
Of course, plants and flowers are used symbolically in art, literature and song to evoke many aspects of the human condition- something too long to elaborate upon here. But suffice to say, most people living at the time Fabergé was working, would have been reasonably familiar with any messages behind the flowers to be found in his designs. Specific flowers could even be combined into one arrangement, thus expressing multiple and more complicated meanings.
Pansies- for a start- would have been associated with remembrance or thoughtfulness. The subject of both an Imperial Egg from 1899, as well as several of the flower pieces. The Pansy is also a traditional symbol of love and given to a loved one. As was the case with the 1904 ‘Pansy’ flower study; designed by Henrik Wigström and presented as a 10th wedding anniversary gift by Nicholas to Alexandra.
This consists of a single flower on a long stem, which emerges from its base made of clear rock crystal and is engraved with ‘X’ to mark the occasion. In addition to crystal, the flower is fashioned from coloured gold, ivory and turquoise. Joined to the top of the ‘stem’ is a central ‘pistil’; attached to which are five ‘petals’. These are hinged so that when opened, they reveal tiny individual portraits of the Tsar and Tsaritsa’s five children, each one surrounded by a frame of rose cut diamonds.
Pansies are a sign of spring too. A sign of rebirth and renewal- the severity of winter being overcome, heralded by their arrival. The transitory and fleeting nature of flowers like these, appreciated and all the more precious in a country with such seasonal variation as Russia.
Other examples on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ include a ‘Sprig of Barberry’ from 1903-7; an evergreen species associated with magic and ‘Branch of Roses’ from 1903-8. Roses of course- aside from again being associated with spring in Russia, are a sign of mourning.
This series, like the animal figures, were part of a long tradition of Lapidary (hardstone) carving in Russia.² Another influence may well have been the Oriental carvings of flowers in hardstones; objects that as Russia advanced through Central Asia towards China during the late 19th Century; made their way into Fabergé’s hands when an example of a Chrysanthemum came to him for repair.
We see ‘Chrysanthemum’ from 1903-8. Interestingly- and without attempting to place too much emphasis on this point- there is one species of this beautiful flower called Anastasia, or ‘resurrection’. From the Greek ‘anástasis’. These flowers long being associated with death.
My personal favourite flower study by Fabergé’s workshops is not actually on show in ‘Romance To Revolution’. This is the beautiful ‘Study Of A Dandelion’ and was made around 1900. Its likeness to the real thing is a technical triumph as well as an incredible artistic achievement.
However rarefied they might appear, these meticulous studies demonstrate an acute sensitivity to and awareness of the meanings we give to nature. They became highly regarded by those fortunate enough to possess them. Queen Alexandra added a large number to her Sandringham collection and several of those in ‘Romance To Revolution’ are from there. A similar flower study by Fabergé actually turned up on the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ a few years ago and became it’s most expensive item ever; valued at £1 Million.
In their quest for artistic perfection, Fabergé’s workshops could take spun gold or solid nephrite and mimic the forms of nature down to an incredible level of lifelike detail. Capturing the essence of a subject and at the same time, animating otherwise inert materials so as to fool and enchant the eye.
These are qualities very apparent in The Imperial ‘Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket’ from 1896. A object considered by some to be a pinnacle of the Fabergé workshops’ entire output. A creation of August Wilhelm Holmström, it is not on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’. This breathtaking object is however to be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
1. Today it is possible to use liquid resin to create the illusion of water effects. But it is worth remembering that nothing aside from liquid (molten) glass was available to Fabergé’s artisans. These flowers were set in rock crystal- a hard and notoriously brittle solid.
2. As with enamelling, Fabergé’s workshops became known for their high levels of skill and attainment in this area.
A Day At The Races
As already touched upon, if you could afford it, the Edwardian period was a wonderful time for elegance. Fabergé was quick to realise that within the exclusive world in which his most affluent clients moved, word of mouth spread his reputation. Through appearing to offer seemingly endless choice without compromising quality, Fabergé could tailor his work to an individuals’ personal requirements. In other words, as also previously mentioned, it was possible to request an item to be made in near-enough the exact colour of your choice or combination. So as to match the new dress or suit you were having made.
Perhaps you might even wear your new outfit to Ascot or Epsom for the Races. If so, you would be following in the footsteps of King Edward VII himself. Because in addition to his other passions, he was a keen racing enthusiast and gambler. Within Edwardian society, the race track was- combined with the shooting party- an established way of gaining access to the rich and powerful. Where the King went, others did their utmost to follow.
One of the sections in ‘Romance To Revolution’ captures this period in paintings and Equestrian portrait sculptures. The latter created by the Fabergé workshops in fine silver. But my favourite peice of all in this section has to be the incredibly dapper striped cigarette case that had once belonged to the King.
‘The Lure Of London’ (And Beyond)
Progressing through the exhibition, there are so many things to see. Each sheds light on a lost world of privilege and comes with it’s own story. The end point of a journey that began over a hundred years ago.
Exhibits hitherto unmentioned include beautiful diamond tiaras that once adorned the heads of Queens and Empresses. Characteristically of unparalleled quality with a delicacy and refinement. Particularly beautiful objects included a number of clocks. My personal favourites being the small watch size versions, mounted in fine guilloche frames of different and surprising shapes.
We also see the field of focus widen to include Asia. King Rama VI Of Siam commissioned Fabergé to produce a large nephrite Buddha. On display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ are two smaller versions by Henry Wigström from 1908, together with one of my favourite pieces: a medal commemorating the ‘Year of the Pig’ from 1913.
The Fabergé Automata
As Geźa Von Habsburg noted, works by Fabergé ‘just jump out at you’ because of their novelty. Regarding the automata that grace ‘Romance To Revolution’, I literally would have liked to see this happen! Having said that, although they are stationary, these wonderful examples of Fabergé’s clockwork creations still fill the imagination. No doubt in some cases too fragile or even broken to be activated.
The ‘Indian Elephant’ automaton comes complete with its holly wood box and key. This was given to King George V from his family in 1929, but was obviously made earlier in Fabergé’s workshops. I could only marvel at the engineering inside, given its small size. However, you can get an idea of what this is like by considering the endearing little ‘Elephant and Castle’ surprise ¹ to be found inside the 1892 ‘Diamond Trellis’ Imperial egg, seen later on in the exhibition. This was recently restored by Robert Ball, a jeweller at the Royal Collection and can be seen dismantled in photographs online. You can see it in motion too, together with the story of its rediscovery at https://youtu.be/xT_1htB5dpY
Footage of the ‘Swan’ and the strutting Peacock, which are the surprises to be found inside the Imperial ‘Swan’ and ‘Peacock’ eggs; ² can be found online at https://youtu.be/dQrzBFuK45Y .
But to see them actually move in real life- wouldn’t that be something! The same thing is true for workmaster Michael Perkhin’s ‘Rothschild Clock’ egg. To see and hear that little cockerel do it’s song and dance on the hour.
It is easy to forget just how much of a technical achievement these little pieces actually are. To put things into perspective, the technologies we associate with precision engineering on a miniature scale today are very different from those of 130 years ago. For a start, although Fabergé’s team of makers would have had certain machines for producing their designs, the vast majority of work required would have had to be done by hand and eye. Not only that, the tools used would have been pretty basic compared to those used in the production of contemporary small and complicated items. The really intricate miniature mechanisms that were used in items like the automata, would have been made using watchmaking technologies that had slowly and incrementally evolved over centuries. Command of which required the patience and skills of a Master Jeweller or Watchmaker.³ Electrical apparatus was also in its infancy, so that both lighting and rotary motors would have been at the cutting edge of technology.
1. Made by Michael Perkhin and in the Royal Collection, The ‘Elephant and Castle’ automaton is not only the earliest known of its kind, but was also the ‘thought lost’ surprise that belongs to the 1892 ‘Diamond Trellis’ Imperial egg. It is based upon the ‘Order of the Elephant’, Denmark’s highest award (in recognition of its recipient- Marie Feodorovna- and a gift from her husband Alexander III). In ‘Romance To Revolution’, The ‘Diamond Trellis’ egg, its surprise and key are all presented together. The egg itself being made by workmaster August Holmström.
2. The Imperial ‘Peacock’ egg was made by workmaster Dorofeiev. It apparently took him 3 years to perfect the Peacock automaton. Both objects are on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
3. Due to their complexity, many of Fabergé’s designs that incorporated delicate clockwork movements were outsourced to certain Swiss watchmakers like Moser.
Although specialist tasks such as those described above were, in today’s parlance ‘outsourced’; many of Fabergé’s employees would go through years of ‘on the job’ training in order to acquire the necessary levels of skill and proficiency to do their work. If they stood any chance at all in being involved with a significant project; each would have to prove themselves in order to move up to the next level of accomplishment.
The Fabergé enterprise was divided into workshops that each specialised in producing a particular kind of item. These were each led by an experienced workmaster, who answered to Fabergé himself. Those who were in the workmasters’ teams were responsible for the meticulous production of objects. Whilst those who were apprenticed took care of all the basic tasks that needed to be done.
An interesting aside is that many of the artist-makers working at Fabergé were related to each other. Alma Phil for example, was the granddaughter of August Wilhelm Holmström and the niece of Hilma Alina Holmström, who also worked for Fabergé.
Food For Thought
Certain exhibits in ‘Romance To Revolution’ come as a bit of a surprise. For example, I never knew that during the First World War, in addition to it’s fine jewellery; the Fabergé workshops manufactured hand granades for the front line. Although I have to say they didn’t look as if they’d be too effective against the Germans, Austrians or Turks. Looking at the examples on display, although I didn’t catch all the accompanying information; I’m assuming these blackened and broken objects were excavated long after the conflict from the battlefield.
This penultimate space takes the viewer out of the rarefied world of Tsars, Kings and Grand Dukes and into the horrible cauldron that was the Eastern Front during World War One. A nightmarish world summed up by the German Field Marschall Paul Von Hindenburg, when he later described the conflict. How waves of barely or completely unarmed soldiers kept coming at the German guns. That as they were mowed down, the machine gun crews had to clear the piles of bodies out of the way in order to shoot the fresh waves of soldiers coming in behind them.
Almost 80 years later, an old soldier from the Imperial Russian Army recalled that during this period, signs used to be erected on canteens and other facilities which read:
‘No Soldiers, No Dogs’
The Cigarette Cases
Another aspect of Fabergé’s design strategy was that he could combine artistic and decorative expression with functionality; something we see time and again in so many peices. One obvious example being the cigarette cases.
The Fabergé workshops produced some of the most exquisite and original decorative cigarette cases. These are for me among the most captivating of all his designs and a highlight of the exhibition. Earlier in ‘Romance To Revolution’ we see two particularly outstanding examples from the royal collections….
In 1903, Marie Feodorovna presented King Edward with a beautiful three-colour gold cigarette case, embellished with a sunburst design that converges on a cypher, combining the initials of the King and his Queen-Consort: ‘EA’ in tiny diamonds. Surrounding the cypher is an embossed foliate wreath tied with a ribbon.
This case was presented to mark the occasion of the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary. Although we can’t see it on display (because the case is positioned front facing), these dates are clearly marked out on the reverse side: ’10 March 1903 XL 1863–1903′. The three colours of gold used are red, yellow and white and the level of workmanship incredible. To set off the design, Fabergé incorporated a single cabochon ruby as an opening push. If one were to dream about the perfect cigarette case (even in this age of non smoking), they would be hard pressed to match this spectacular example.
Another of my favourite objects on show was the Art Nouveau cigarette case from 1908. This design, decoratively restrained but exquisite, was a gift from King Edward to his mistress Alice Keppel.
The case is rendered in deep dark blue enamel, with a moiré guilloche pattern that has a sinuous serpent motif in diamonds embedded into its surface: a take on the ‘Ouroboros’ theme. These tiny jewels are set within a gold border that mark the outline of the snake, helping to define its shape. The diamonds also being slightly raised, give the motif substance when handling the case.
In terms of its composition, the serpent design has an asymmetrical quality- a typical feature of ‘whiplash’ Art Nouveau styling. It also suggests a certain Japanese influence, in which the motif itself is not centralised. The snake instead has its body pushed out to the edges and sides of the case. As it winds its way around, our focus is drawn to the serpent’s head holding it’s tail. A symbol of eternity to mark the King’s affection.
The case has been made so that the whole item sits smoothly in the hand and pocket. It’s edges are bordered in gold, as is the slightly raised diamond button; which not only opens the case, but also serves as an integral part of the design. Despite it’s apparent smoothness, the case is a tactile object that calls out to be held. Explored and appreciated through touch. An ergonomic quality that might well be derived from Japanese Inró. In Japan, these small containers were used as accessories to embellish Kimonos and in the same way as certain objects created by Fabergé; orignially started as something functional. Gradually becoming ever more decorative and intricate.
Aside from its obvious beauty, the case is part of the Royal Collection and has an interesting provenance. After the King’s death in 1910, Queen Alexandra very graciously returned it to Mrs. Keppel. In turn, she gave it to Queen Mary in 1936 (presumably after the death of King George V), so that it could be kept in Royal ownership.
The above story related to this lovely object was something of a Royal scandal in its day and is here presented in quite a subtle way. Two rather grand oil paintings of the King and Queen Consort are shown, whilst underneath these is a small sketch of Mrs. Alice Keppel.
Later in the exhibition, we see a collection of exquisite cigarette cases that appear to have a Middle Eastern flavour, yet are also adorned with a number of esoteric and possibly private symbols. These were acquired from Fabergé by Princess Cécile-Murat over a period of about 14 years (Cecile being his most important customer in France). The decorative motifs on each case are arranged in a lyrical way, suggestive of Arabic calligraphy. Indeed, on certain examples, fragments of Arabic inscriptions are actually blended into the overall design. A particularly intriguing case even has a hidden compartment, holding a woman’s portrait. These all offer clues about the identity of the cases’ intended recipient. As do the lists of French military campaigns on the exterior of one example. But the many other symbols have proved harder to interpret.
Although just a selection are currently on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’, each of the original 18 cases were custom made as momentos of Cécile-Murat’s love affair with a French secret service officer called Charles Antoine Roger Luzarche d’Azay; who in 1902 had ‘explored’ the upper reaches of the Nile ¹.
These cases are all intricately made of precious materials and characteristically for Fabergé, never over decorated. One example describes the Crescent moon in diamonds- a reflection or reference perhaps to Islam? Ouroboros is (again) the theme of another. Several have beautiful tassels in sumptuous threads attached. Which give them- in addition to their Arab or Turkish qualities- yet again an almost Japanese appearance. Even more like certain Inró, they are decorative in a way that means form does not inhibit any ergonomic function. When holding them in your hand, each case would feel as reassuring and satisfying as a rounded stone, washed at sea for a very long time.
On the exterior of yet another- a 1903 example by Henrik Wigström- we see a map outlining the Nile Valley in three colour golds, as well as a mysterious configuration of 8 individual jewels. According to Geźa Von Habsburg, these may well point out the locations of various assignations during the 1902 journey, made between the Princess and her lover. A ruby marks Port Said, a sapphire for Suez and a diamond for Cairo.
The more pedantic observer might well ask: do all these cigarette cases fulfil their role as carriers of cigarettes or are they purely decorative? Would or could you use them for their intended function? If you were a King, the answer is most probably yes. They certainly work to contain cigarettes. But in the general everyday, these cases would easily tarnish and damage; admittedly a situation most of us will never experience. Ultimately of course, these beautiful pieces weren’t created for the ordinary world anyway; but rather to intrigue and be admired. Objects of dreams and desire, mystique and aspiration.
1. Luzarche d’Azay later published ‘Voyage on the Upper Nile: from Cairo to the Belgian Congo’ in 1904.
Princess Cécile Murat had been a great granddaughter of Napoleonic French Marshal Michel Ney.
After Cécile’s death in 1960, these cases were presented to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris by Luzarche d’Azay, who was by then an old man.
As soon as you enter the final gallery, the atmosphere changes and a distinctive hush comes over those around you...
The Imperial Eggs
However you might anticipate encountering an Imperial egg, this pales when you come face to face with one. But to see 15 together is something quite special. Although strangely, my first impression was that most of them looked smaller than I had expected. However this only added to their mystique. All that history and exquisite craftsmanship is focused into an object that for the most part, you could hold in the palm of your hand or put into your pocket.
I also couldn’t help noticing how well displayed they all were. The individual eggs are arranged chronologically into small groups and shown- where possible- with their original surprises and inner components. Each group is then presented in it’s own well lit (and well positioned) glass case; which are all evenly spread out over the fairly large space of the gallery, like little clusters. This allowed for easy access and a relative freedom of movement. Consequently I found no difficulty viewing each exhibit in detail- despite the presence of a large number of other people.
The atmospheric setting was enhanced by some totally fitting and beautiful music; augmenting the sense of wonder clearly visible on all our faces. As we moved from cabinet to cabinet and back again, a hushed sense of expectation and excitement filled the gallery; together for the most part with an intense level of concentration.
I suspect that most of us realised we were unlikely to see so many of these eggs together again, unless fortunate enough to be able to visit Russia. Even then, it wouldn’t necessarily be this selection. As with so many examples of Fabergé, one tends to remember the time and place where you first encountered them. The experience stays with you.
An egg is an investment in the future by it’s creator. In these terms Fabergé and his team succeeded in producing objects that will be passed down and admired for centuries ahead. Something that will elicit joy and wonder in future generations, no matter what their status in life. To paraphrase the journalist Stephen Smith, ‘Fabergé belongs to all of us now’.
(For a more detailed examination of Fabergé’s Imperial Eggs, please continue by reading my article on the subject at gideonhall.co.uk)
In the Wake of Revolution
The success of Fabergé’s company ran parallel with the last years of the Romanov dynasty, up until the First World War. Sadly, he closed the London branch in 1915. His dreams of future expansion no doubt put into jeopardy as the international situation got far more precarious.
Russia by early 1917 was on the verge of social and economic collapse. It had gone from a somewhat unstable pre war prosperity, to a state of abject chaos and uncertainty. To those in the country with more pressing issues to contend with, jewellery produced by the Fabergé workshops was generally viewed as decadent; trinkets for the rich and toys for the idle.
So despite its work for the war effort, the opinion of many was that Fabergé’s company had been guilty of producing luxury items for a rarefied and indulgent world; insulated from the everyday realities of poverty and injustice experienced by the majoriry of Russia’s population. Although the same could be said about other businesses catering to the Court; where Fabergé was concerned, there was a conspicuous grain of truth to this point. After all, nobody could deny that his work was available only to those with very full wallets. Yet it is worth remembering the many Fabergé workers; who together with millions of others, served their country during the conflict. Also, how along with almost everyone else, his dedicated staff were forced to endure the general suffering, privations and other shortages that came with the collapse of the Tsarist régime. Their livelihoods in question, Fabergé proved to be a generous and benevolent employer; helping many of those he found in need.
In the wake of the violent revolutionary period and civil war that followed, the Russian Empire was literally torn apart. Many people fled the country, including Fabergé himself. Only to die a few years later in Switzerland. Of a ‘broken heart’ so it was said.
”The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will”
What happened next was that the majority of Fabergé’s work became lost, dispersed or broken up. The Bolshevik government who inherited Russia saw property belonging to nobles and Royalty as reparations. Payback for years of suffering by the Proletariat (not to mention a means to acquire armaments and fund global revolution elsewhere). From then on, the cultural or historical significance of any Fabergé pieces was secondary to its material value.
Therefore, Lenin’s government- who needed funds quickly- proceeded to nationalise the Fabergé company and sell off most of the pieces it acquired. Although keeping certain examples aside- probably for speculative purposes- many went abroad in exchange for scarce foreign currency.
Fabergé’s son Agathon had remained in Russia (and was initially jailed by the new regime). He was an accomplished mineralogist who had previously worked hard for the Tsar to re-catalogue the Russian Crown Jewels. The Bolsheviks now gave him the job of cataloguing and valuing the works of his father’s company; something which surely must have been a galling task. Assessments that proved to be meaningless anyway, because inflation and the course of events had destroyed the value of the Rouble. A consequence being that gold and other precious materials became even more valuable as scrap.
It is a strange thought that in the end, the material composition of a great many objects likely influenced whether or not they survived the revolution. Because those deemed to be of little or no material value mostly escaped being broken up or melted down by the cash strapped Bolsheviks. A fate that befell a great many lost works.
Conclusion – Epilogue
‘Romance To Revolution’ offers the visitor a level of craftsmanship many people consider lost or unattainable today- at least in terms of jewellery. Showcasing in context objects by Fabergé that still remain a benchmark for contemporary craftspeople and makers.
At the time of writing, we see a resurgence of hierarchical capitalist societies- not just inside Russia, but throughout the world. A consequence being that in order to satisfy an incredible demand, new Fabergé eggs and jewellery are currently being produced. Looking at footage of their dedicated makers, especially in Russia, is quite heartening to see. Yet can these objects in any way relate to Fabergé and his times or even be made ‘in his spirit’? What are these new designs based upon and why are they being produced? The rather problematic question may also be asked as to their artistic, as opposed to their monetary or material value. On a related matter, as Geźa Von Habsburg has discussed, there are quite a few examples of ‘Fauxbergé’ or fakes out there.
Ultimately, Fabergé or not, the idea of an Easter egg with a hidden surprise inside is a pervasive one and has permeated our global society in some surprising ways. After all, is not a Kinder Egg Surprise a basic variant on the concept? Who would have imagined that when Alexander III commissioned the first egg, just how popular the idea was to become; not just in the rarefied world of Royalty, but generally speaking throughout the world?
Today if you search online for ‘Fabergé’, the first things you are likely to see are adverts trying to sell you their own version of a Fabergé egg for a few hundred pounds or less. Also, the Fabergé identity- or at least a proxy version of it- helps to shift products on shopping channels (although I personally haven’t seen the brand name itself being used for this). Are people purchasing such things for their quality or associations? Presumably the latter. If so, what kind of imagined and distorted perception of Fabergé and his work are they referring to? Are their judgments simply based on sentimentality and avarice? Or is something else at play? Finally, what does all this say about the public perception in general of the Fabergé name today?
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was just how popular Fabergé’s objects are on social media and for the numbers of people who seem to think they possess a genuine example (or at least something of comparable value). Posting pictures of the most peculiar interpretations of eggs (it’s always the eggs) ‘does-not-a-Fabergé-make’. What if anything has this to do with the values the man strove to achieve as a designer and the perfection his workshops sought to attain? All ultimately fascinating questions!
Of course, ‘Romance To Revolution’ was always going to be a cultural highlight. You can pretty much guarantee that anything Fabergé related garners interest across the worlds of fashion, history and art. Not to mention its associations with Royalty (I dare say the private view must have been quite a ‘who’s who’).
It is worth remembering that the exhibits themselves are small and fragile. As I already noted, for eyes accustomed to seeing close up photographs of Fabergé pieces with white backgrounds, they appeared smaller than I had initially anticipated. Not that this was in any way disappointing; quite the opposite in fact. Further emphasising the levels of extraordinary craftsmanship achieved by the likes of Henrik Wigström, Michael Perkhin, Anna Pihl, August Holmström and many others besides.
Given the value of Fabergé objects (and necessary requirements for security), ‘Romance To Revolution’ is one of the best presented exhibitions I’ve yet seen. Other than allowing you to actually hold the objects in your hands, the V&A couldn’t have done much better in presenting them for easy viewing. Even down to the sympathetic lighting and choice of glass behind which each one sits (very little glare obscuring your view). As well as the proximity of pieces to the spectator. The result is that you can examine the works at close quarters, in the three sections.
I’d plan from the beginning to take your time and not rush through the over 200 exhibits on display. Thankfully, ‘Romance To Revolution’ facilitates this approach. Also remember that this is one chance to view work that is rarely seen in this country; brought together with other examples that usually require access to The Royal Collection, The Kremlin or The Fabergé Museum. So catch it while you can.
You leave ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ absorbed in wonder. After all the talk, the efforts and the journey; it is an exhibition that will definitely stay with this reviewer long after exiting the gallery. Seeing the Imperial eggs in the final room, I found myself wanting to linger, so as not to miss anything. To go back through once more.
Lastly, if you are looking for something spectacular- works that made history and seem too perfect to be made by human hands. Objects of desire from a different time and age- then this is definitely an exhibition for you.
(C) Gideon Hall 2022