After reviewing her debut novel Olga’s Egg, RA+C journalist Emily Couch had the opportunity to talk to the author Sophie Law about her work, Russian history, and what the legacy of the Romanovs means today.
EC: As you know, 2018 is the centenary of the assassination of the Romanovs. What does it mean for you publishing Olga’s Eggnow, and were you inspired by this historical milestone while writing the book? And why do you think that we, like Assia, are still so fascinated by Tsar Nicholas II and his family?
SL: While 2017 was very much the year of the Russian Revolution, 2018 undoubtedly belongs to the Romanovs. This year, the anniversary of their murder – 17thJuly – saw hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians and monarchists gather in Ekaterinburg for the ‘Tsar’s Days’, a three-day period of commemoration, veneration, prayer and religious procession in and around the city. A number of significant exhibitions devoted to the Romanovs have also opened or are scheduled this year, notably at the Russian History Foundation in Jordanville, New York, the Science Museum, and the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London. I was very aware of this milestone when writing, and to publish Olga’s Eggin a year of commemoration of the Romanovs, their lives and their last days, means a great deal to me because the novel highlights the plight of the family as they were exiled from St. Petersburg to Siberia and it celebrates the works of art which were precious to them, the treasures of Fabergé.
Our enduring fascination with the last Romanovs has much to do with the dangerous glamour of a beautiful family felled by the tragedy of history. Their deaths heralded the end of an age of Imperial opulence and autocratic power and it is this other-worldliness which makes them so irresistibly alluring. The wild flowering of conspiracy theories surrounding their fate – to this day compounded in part by the Russian Orthodox Church’s ‘benign non-recognition’ of the remains of the family – has also allowed the cast of their tragic story to be populated by bogus Anastasias and Alexeis. Throw in a smattering of vastly inaccurate stories about the Empress and Rasputin, and you have all the components of a Hollywood epic.
EC: Anastasia, the Grand Duchess who – in legend – ‘survived’ the massacre at Ipatiev House is the most famous of Nicholas II’s daughters, yet you chose Olga as the central figure of the novel. What inspired you to make this choice, and what about the oldest Grand Duchess drew you to her?
SL: Growing up, I was both enthralled and horrified by Anna Anderson and the ‘false Anastasia’ story. Knowing, as we do now, that all of the Romanovs were killed on that fateful night in 1918, this overarching interest in an invented Anastasia fell away and I became fascinated by the real lives and characters of the Grand Duchesses, Olga in particular. Reading Olga’s diaries and letters and impressions of her in imprisonment in Helen Azar’s, The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, I developed a deep interest in this spirited young woman who fell in love impulsively, adored reading and was prone to introspection. Olga was the daughter closest to adulthood and to a future of marriage and children and in 1914, she resisted attempts to arrange a match with Prince Carol of Romania, declaring that she refused to leave Russia. I found this wilfulness and devotion to her country endearing and ultimately heart-breaking in light of her fate. For Olga to have been the recipient of a Fabergé egg which celebrated her coming-of-age and her youthful hopes and dreams was – to my mind – very fitting.
EC: As the front cover of the novel tells us, Fabergé eggs are seen as ‘the greatest treasures of them all’. Why do you think these objects – which, as Assia’s mother says, were intended to be so personal – remain so iconic all around the world, and act as such a potent national symbol of Russia?
SL: Eggs have primordial appeal – the smoothness of the shell, the pleasing shape and the mystery of what lies within. Fabergé harnessed this in his series of Imperial Easter eggs – employing incredible ingenuity in interpreting the shape, size and surprise of each egg. Over a period of thirty years, this adherence to form and display of wondrous variety produced an array of treasures, the like of which the world had never seen. Who can forget the miniature working train of gold, diamonds and rubies which is the surprise for the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg of 1900, or the songbird which emerges from the top of the 1911 Bay Tree Egg to sing and delight the beholder? The eggs celebrated every aspect of pre-Revolutionary Russian history and Imperial life, from the Catherine the Great Egg to the Alexander Palace Egg, but they also memorialised the love and passions of the last Romanovs.
New scholarship in the field of Fabergé eggs ensures that their appeal remains very much alive. Only a few years ago, Caroline de Guitaut, Curator of the Royal Collection, discovered in the Queen’s Collection the missing miniature elephant automaton surprise for the 1892 Diamond Trellis Egg belonging to the McFerrin Collection. This snow-balling of international scholarship had also resulted in the momentous discovery of the 1887 Third Imperial Egg by a scrap metal merchant in America. There are still seven missing Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs and so the hunt is on for all of us.
EC: Very aptly, Olga’s Egg was published in collaboration with Fabergé. Can you tell us more about this partnership?
SL: Fabergé believes in the marriage of heritage and originality – this is wonderfully apparent in its creations which are inspired by its illustrious history. I was also inspired by the magnificent artistic legacy of the firm and drew upon it to create Olga’s Egg. Working with Fabergé has been so exciting because the brand embraces the arts wholeheartedly and this is superbly reflected in the cover design for the book which was inspired by the Fabergé Palais Tsarskoye Selo Locket Pendant Egg. Olga’s Egg will be launched during Russian Art Week this November when pieces from Fabergé’s current collections will be shown alongside spectacular items of historical Fabergé. In short, Olga’s Egg is a beautiful story for a beautiful brand.
EC: The fictional history behind Olga’s Eggis so detailed, it feels almost like it could be true. Was the plot of the novel inspired by any real evidence hinting at a lost Fabergé egg
SL: Researching the seven missing eggs, I came across the work of the brilliant Fabergé specialists-cum-detectives Anna and Vincent Palmade. The Palmades had examined an enlarged photograph of a vitrine with Fabergé objects belonging to Maria Feodorovna from the 1902 St Petersburg von Dervis Exhibition and identified features of one of the missing eggs, hidden behind the Caucasus egg. They also detected reflections of this egg in the glass of the vitrine and matched what they saw to the description of the long-missing ‘Cherub with Chariot egg’ in the account books of the Imperial Cabinet. Their drawing of what this egg looks like represents one of the leaps of scholarship which bring us closer to finding the missing eggs. Making drawings, finding photographs and old catalogue entries from auctions is all part of the breadcrumb trail which inspired the plot of Olga’s Eggand which will – we hope – bring about the discovery of the other long-lost eggs.
EC: From your work at Bonham’s, you are clearly familiar with the world which Assia inhabits and the work she does. To what extent is she a fictional version of yourself?
SL: As so many writers will attest, their characters are very often extensions of themselves but they also take on a life of their own. Assia’s acquaintance with the art world is informed by my own, but her hunt for Olga’s Eggis a very personal one, because of her family link with it. I wanted Assia’s feelings about the death of her mother to be as authentic as possible and so I researched the stories of people who had caused the death of someone else inadvertently. What became apparent was these people felt that they had to live a better life to make up for the one they had taken, and it is this impulse that I hope I convey in Assia’s motivation and in her desire to honour her mother’s memory and carry on her work.
EC: The novel contains some very thinly-veiled allusions to modern Russian politics.Based on your own professional experience, is the entanglement of art and politics portrayed in Olga’s Egg true to life?
Yes, it is – in so many intricate ways. Very recently, I went to the Science Museum to see The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution. It is a brilliantly realised exhibition which displays items belonging to the last Romanovs presented against a backdrop of the increasingly unstable political situation as Russia entered the First World. The last two Fabergé eggs given to Alexandra by Nicholas are on show and it is arresting to see how the conception and creation of these two eggs has been tailored to the politics of the day. The design of the Fabergé Steel Military Easter egg of 1916 and the Red Cross egg of 1915 emphasises the inextricable link between art and politics. These unusual eggs were created to solemnize events which had been forged by the politics of the day – the Steel Military egg to memorialise the war efforts of the Tsar and the Tsarevich at the Front, and the Red Cross egg to pay tribute to the services rendered by the elder Grand Duchesses in their invaluable nursing work. To match the grave mood of the nation in a time of war, Fabergé had altered the tone of these Easter gifts.
The dissolution of the Russian Empire and the establishment of Soviet Russia turned the Fabergé eggs into bargaining chips as the Soviets offloaded a number of them through its Antikvariat in exchange for hard currency, while American and European collectors of the day acquired them because they were beautiful status symbols. By the 1980s, media magnate Malcolm Forbes had re-cast his collecting of Fabergé eggs into a political statement: it became the Space Race of the art world as he sought to gather more Imperial Fabergé eggs than the Kremlin. Forbes v. the Kremlin was a version of the Cold War fought in galleries and auction rooms.
While the eggs were channelled out of Russia by Stalin in the 20thcentury, their repatriation is now welcomed by the Kremlin. Victor Vekselberg famously bought the Forbes collection of Fabergé eggs to house in his museum in St Peterbsurg, and in 2015, Putin gifted the Rothschild Fabergé egg to the Hermitage.
Like trees, the Fabergé eggs gather concentric rings of provenance which tell a story of history and politics far beyond what their creator could have imagined.
EC: A discovery such as Olga’s Egg is something which everyone working inyour industry must dream of. Have you ever been able to track down a particularly exciting piece of art during your career?
SL: I think one of the highlights has to be the discovery a few years ago of an Imperial Russian gilt-bronze lapidary table from the Winter Palace which I wrote about for Country Life. When examining the table as part of a large valuation, I noticed some stamps and labels on the underside, which research revealed to be the inventory markings of the Winter Palace where the table – made in 1842 – had been located in the Golden Drawing Room of Alexander II’s wife, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna. There is nothing more satisfying than when pieces of the research jigsaw fit into place, and it was thrilling to discover the table depicted in a watercolour interior of the Golden Drawing Room in the 1860s by Alexander Kolb. A further serendipity occurred because at the time that we were researching the table, a similar one made in Russia for Queen Victoria just two years later was on view at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace at the exhibition ‘Victoria & Albert: Art and Love’. I recall a colleague and I going to the exhibition and getting on our hands and knees in the Gallery to inspect the stamp on the bronze mounts of the table, and the excitement we felt on seeing that the mounts were by the same bronze workmaster who made the mounts for our table. The table went on to sell at Bonhams for just under a million pounds and this price confirmed it as a monumental discovery – a real career highlight.
EC: We’ll end with a more general question: Olga’s Egg is your debut novel so publishing must have been an exciting but nerve-wracking experience. When did the idea for the novel first come to you, and what advice would you offer to other aspiring writers thinking about taking the leap and sending their work to a publisher?
SL: The idea for the novel was sown by my research into the missing Fabergé eggs but it flowered when I first saw the newly-discovered 1887 Third Imperial Easter egg on display on Grafton Street in 2014. I simply couldn’t get my head around the fact that this egg had been hidden in plain sight for so long. For years, the egg had lost its identity as an exquisite creation by Fabergé – and survived. It could have been melted down for scrap or had its parts plundered, but thankfully, it had remained intact, apart from some scratches where the composition of its gold had been tested. I was so inspired by this occurrence that I felt as though I couldn’t rest until I had committed my story to paper.
My mother, Julia Hamilton, is a successful novelist who has published six books and so I was very familiar with the anguish, stress and heady joy of the experience, but I was less familiar with pain-staking process of editing and re-editing a book and getting it fit for a reader. My advice to other aspiring writers who have a book sitting in a drawer is to edit it and then leave it for a few months and come back to it. Writers are so involved with their books that very often, they fail to gain perspective on their manuscripts. Coming to your book again after time away from it is an invaluable process and well worth doing before sending it off to interested parties.