The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs opens in Queen’s Gallery. RA+C met with the exhibition curator Caroline de Guitaut to talk about the Russian treasures in the Royal Collection.
Do you want to have the first-hand experience of the exhibition? Join our private talk and view with the Gallery curators on Tuesday, 11 December.
First of all, could you tell a bit about the Royal Collection? When was it formed? How were its holdings acquired? Where are works from the collection displayed?
Caroline de Guitaut: The Royal Collection is one of the great European dynastic art collections, one of the most important art collections in the world and it’s largely been assembled through the collecting habits of successive monarchs over more than 500 years. It can be seen at 15 different royal palaces and residences, some of them are occupied by Her Majesty The Queen such as Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh which is her official residence in Scotland. But it also is held in the Tower of London, at Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Frogmore House and so on. It is a very diverse collection, its strengths lie in the Great Old Master paintings, amazing works on paper, particularly large collections of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, the great Renaissance masters, and an incredibly varied and rich collection of Decorative Arts spanning everything from the finest of porcelain, the greatest French and English furniture, two amazing Russian collections as well.
It is seen by many thousands of visitors each year who visit these different residences most of which are open to the public all year round. Buckingham Palace is only open in the summer when The Queen is on holiday so the Collection is out on display as seen, enjoyed and used. For example, The Queen hosts State Banquets and guests will sit at the dining table which is part of the Collection, they will sit on the chairs that may be a part of the Collection, they will use silver gilt which was made for George IV and all wonderful porcelain that has been acquired by successive monarchs. It is quite different to a museum although of course we curate exhibitions, do research, publish catalogues, write books, have lots of learning events.
Tell us about the origins of the Russia-related items in the collection and where they came from: are they gifts from the Russian Imperial Court or acquisitions of Royal Collectors?
CG: The Russian collection really mirrors the way the rest of the Collection has been formed. Some pieces were purchased by different members of the royal family, some pieces were sent as official and diplomatic gifts from members of the imperial family in Russia, other pieces came into the Collection or were commissioned specifically to mark particular occasions.
The Russian collections are extremely diverse. We have paintings, sculpture, wonderful hard stone vases, ceramics, metalwork, insignia, works on paper and jewellery. The earliest pieces relate to the 16th century. We don’t have very much in the period of the first contact between our two nations, but we have quite interesting early books which show that the British royal family were trying to find out more about Russia. They were acquiring books and learning about the country, its people, culture and social demographics of what was happening in Russia at that time. Some of these books were published in Russia, some published here.
The first major point of connection and interaction between the Russian imperial family and British royal family that has created this collection was, of course, the visit of Peter the Great. He was extremely open to the Western world, he wanted to find out more and . he wanted to make Russia even greater and to establish relationships but also to explore how other countries did things. He came to England and met King William III, they dined at Kensington Palace, where the king showed him paintings and they appear to have had a good relationship.
Did he stay in Greenwich?
CG: Yes. And the result of that visit amongst other things is the wonderful portrait which he then commissioned from the great portraitist of the time Sir Godfrey Kneller who was a court artist in the British court as well. Kneller produced this stunning portrait of Peter the Great looking splendid in his armour with his mantle and gesturing to his left to a seascape in the background. The painting probably references a ship called ‘The Royal Transport’ which William III gave to Peter. They appear to have a very good relationship and this wonderful portrait was then sent to William and it was placed on display in Kensington Palace and it’s been part of the Royal Collection ever since. That is when the relationship between Russia and Britain begins to develop.
The exhibition covers a very large time span reflecting the links between Britain and Russia. Could you tell us a bit about how you made the selection of works? Will your exhibition reflect how the relations between the two countries changed and developed during this period of time?
CG: The exhibition considers three aspects of the relationship between Britain and Russia: diplomacy, war and peace and finally family and dynastic connections. And of course throughout history that relationship ebbed and flowed. We were allies, enemies, allies, we have dynastic marriage, and then of course we enter a whole other phase in the 20th and 21st centuries as well as works of art, letters and diaries will be displayed from the Royal Archives including a letter from Peter the Great.
We look at the role of diplomacy through things like the gift giving – such as Kneller’s portrait of Peter. When it comes to family the relationship becomes much closer in the nineteenth century, Alexandra and Dagmar were two Danish princesses, daughters of King Christian IX and Queen Louise. Alexandra married Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Dagmar married Tsesarevich Alexander (later Tsar Alexander III). Danish court artist Laurits Tuxen who was the great master of group portraits and who later painted the wonderful marriage portrait of Nicolas II and Alexandra in 1894, painted the family of Christian IX and Queen Louise at Fredensborg Castle. Queen Victoria saw that painting and decided she would like Tuxen to paint a similar family group for her Golden Jubilee in 1887. This painting is great because it sums up everything about that period with Queen Victoria’s wish to arrange dynastic marriages. Queen Victoria had already married her second son Alfred to Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, daughter of Alexander II so that’s the first and only time when the two dynasties were linked directly by marriage. Clearly that’s a very important moment in the story of this exhibition.
Obviously, the British royal family was sending gifts to Russia and we have wonderful examples of the Russian rulers sending gifts here. Vigilius Ericksen’s portrait of Catherine the Great appears to have been an official gift and it is first recorded at Kensington Palace. There are still some interesting quirks about its provenance that we’ve discovered in the course of research for this exhibition because the image bears on the back a wax seal which has the arms of the Golitsyn family, so we imagine that at one point it was in their ownership. We don’t really know and it’s an ongoing research so hopefully we’ll have more detail during the course of the exhibition.
In terms of diplomatic connections, we have correspondence from Catherine the Great in the Royal Archives, and a letter from the time of the Jacobite revolution will be on display. Diplomacy is a theme that will be explored in the first gallery that you enter which is going to be very much about these grand state portraits exploring those key moments when either the Russian royal family came here for official visit or we went there or there were some moments of deep interactions.
Moving further forward to the period of the Napoleonic wars, we were great allies and as a result George IV created the Waterloo Chamber to celebrate the great success of the defeat of Napoleon. We have portraits of the Russian Generals by Thomas Lawrence, such as Platov, these are wonderful records by British artists but of Russian figures who were key to this particular moment in our shared history. There are other portraits which show shared patronage. A little bit like the Fabergé coming here, we were sending artists to Russia. The portraitist George Dawe painted many members of the imperial family, Alexander II for example, and there are versions of those portraits in the Royal Collection.
When we think about the gifts of the Russian Imperial Court we cannot avoid mentioning the famous house of Faberge. Could you tell us a bit about the Faberge items in the collection and which of them will be on the display?
CG: Her Majesty the Queen has a very substantial collection of Fabergé as part of the Royal Collection which is relatively well-known. I have curated several exhibitions throughout the last two decades and there had been important exhibitions prior to that. Certain key pieces illustrate one of the themes of the exhibition, shared patronage, and the family relationships which became so key in mid-late 19th century where all the dynastic marriages between the two families happened. I have selected pieces which really illustrate that story about the idea of the two families not only coming together and being so closely related and spending quite considerable amounts of time together but also showing the same ideas about the objects that they wanted to have around them and the interiors in which they lived, which is very interesting and it is not restricted to Fabergé. The thought of cultural exchange is a thread running through the exhibition.
Are you collaborating with Russian cultural institutions?
CG: My fellow curator and I have been working in Russia with various archives and collection including the Kremlin and Hermitage museums and their support in our research has been fantastic. We’ve had tremendous support from Professor Piotrovsky and all the Hermitage team so whatever we wanted to see was absolutely available. And the same with Madam Gagarina at the Kremlin who has welcomed us very warmly and put all her teams at our disposal.
We are not borrowing any items from them for the show, we draw our exhibitions exclusively from the Royal Collection because our role as a charitable trust is to make our collection accessible. It is so rich and diverse, we’re so blessed to have this remarkable collection to work with and to draw our new stories and bring new pieces to light with this exhibition. There’s never been an exhibition exploring this particular part of the collection before.
Does your Russian collection expand into the 20th century?
CG: Yes, and a number of pieces will be in the exhibition, including decorative arts and works on paper by Savely Sorine. There were other pieces that were acquired by the family after the revolution. We wanted very much to go beyond the revolution because although that meant essentially the end of the Russian royal family, This exhibition is not about the revolution but it is about the relationship and about these threads running through the cultural exchange of diplomacy and, the family connections over a three hundred year period. So yes, there are 20th century works, there are also pieces connected to Soviet times. We have some pieces that were associated with the visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin in 1956 including a pair of vases which are very interesting.
In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition we very much bring the story well into the 20th century with Her Majesty The Queen’s historic visit to Russia in 1994. In spite of all of this history and all of this these connections she is the only reigning British monarch to have set foot on Russian soil. There were visits of other members of family, for example Edward VII visited several times but only when he was Prince of Wales, not as a king apart from when he met Nicolas II at Reval (today Tallinn) in 1908 but they were on their yachts and did not step on land. ,
The other fantastic thing about this exhibition is that a very large percentage of what will be on display has not been seen in public before. Hopefully it will be of great interest to visitors to come and see and learn a little bit more about that relationship.
Which other highlights of the upcoming exhibition can you mention? I know it is almost an impossible question, but which work or works are the most interesting and important to you?
CG: I am a curator of decorative arts and I would say that I am very excited about being able to bring together some really important pieces of hardstone carving because it is quintessentially Russian. No other country can produce these pieces on that scale because of the richness of the stones in the east of your amazing country and the way the tradition of this craftsmanship is so-well established. It is quite hard I think for people to understand just what goes into making these pieces.
We have two malachite vases. One from the Peterhof lapidary factory and the other one is a Demidov piece which has not been exhibited before. It was acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert because it was exhibited in Great Exhibition in 1851. I am very excited about bringing those objects together and to exhibit these works of art which speak to the tradition of craftsmanship in Russia in this very English surrounding.