RA+C rating: ★★★★★
The Royal Collection must be a curator’s paradise. Think of almost any historical theme, and the likelihood is that there are enough beautiful and unique objects in the royal vaults to create a first-class exhibition. Russia, Royalty & The Romanovs is no exception, deftly conjuring the extravagance for which Russia’s imperial dynasty has become a byword. Not long ago, London’s major museums marked the centenary of the October Revolution which ushered in Russia’s 72 years of Communist rule. The exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery is an abrupt about-face, taking us from the dawn of a ‘brave new world’ to the dazzling, and discomfiting, opulence of the ancient regime.
The exhibition is comprised of three principle rooms and two smaller alcoves that progress in chronological order, from the early seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The result is a richly intense visual experience. Once can barely discern a patch of bare wall between the monumental canvases and gilded frames. In the first room, for example, one is confronted with full-length portraits of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and Nicholas I. In the midst of their imperious gazes stand two enormous malachite vases, one a gift to George IV from Nicholas I’s wife, and the other purchased by Queen Victoria from the Great Exhibition (1851). The effect of this is both overwhelming and appetite-whetting – One leaves fatigued, but also wishing there had been more.
No exhibition on the Romanovs would be complete without a flash of Faberge, and the selection of eggs, frames, and boxes displayed in the final room does not disappoint. The pièce de résistance is undoubtably the exquisite ‘Basket of Flowers’ Egg, commissioned in 1901 by Tsar Nicholas II as an Easter present for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. Another of the exhibition’s highlights is, by contrast, not amongst the grandest pieces. In the first room is a famous portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales (c. 1817-25) and, beside it, the perfectly preserved dress featured in the painting. Since the image is so well-known, it is easy to miss the fact that the dress worn by George IV’s ill-fated daughter is, in fact, a version of a sarafan – a staple of Russian traditional costume, and that her brooch is the Russian Order of St. Catherine, given to her by the wife of Tsar Paul I in 1817.
The final room features some touching ‘family’ pieces. The photographs of Tsar Nicholas II and the future George V are somewhat predictable given the renown of their physical similarity, but the original letters exchanged between the British and Russian royals – particularly one in which Nicholas II refers to Edward VII as ‘Dearest Uncle Bertie’ – are both refreshing and touching.
The principle flaw of this otherwise stellar exhibition is that one is left with the distinct feeling that each genre of object – Faberge, icons, photographs, portraiture – could have been exhibited alone. Its strength – the historical treasure trove of The Royal Collection – is also its weakness. The result is a frenzy of opulence, making it hard to give each piece the attention and admiration it deserves. One painting that is unduly overshadowed is ‘Calling the roll, after an Engagement’ by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler (1874). Depicting the harrowing human suffering of soldiers in the Crimean War, it was so popular when it was first exhibited that it required an armed guard to hold back the grounds. This work, by one of the only women to gain fame as a history painter, finds itself hung on an easily missed wall in the smallest of the three main rooms.
Similarly, the ticket price includes a second smaller-scale exhibition of Roger Fenton’s pioneering photographs of the Crimean War, taken in 1855. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Fenton’s sensitive and subtle monochrome scenes are outshone by the main exhibition’s glittering extravagance. While it makes sense to present the two together under the ‘historical Anglo-Russian relations’ theme, this layout does a disservice to Fenton’s work.
As modern political tensions mount, The Queen’s Gallery offers a timely reminder that such rocky waters are far from new in Anglo-Russian relations. Between 1853 and 1856, British and Russian troops slaughtered each other in the Caucasus. Less than 20 years later, Queen Victoria blessed the marriage of her son, Prince Alfred, to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II. War followed by alliance; blood by betrothal. It is for each visitor to decide what lesson, if any, this history offers to Britain and Russia today.
‘Russia, Royalty & The Romanovs’ runs at The Queen’s Gallery until the 28thof April. More information available here.
On 10 January RA+C organises a special gilded visit to the gallery. To buy the tickets please follow the link.