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Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

02 December 2018, Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace

Unknown Photographer, The Royal Gathering at Osborne, 1909, Halridge Auctioneers

I have alway been fascinated by Russia: the history, the architecture, the influence, the Revolution. The country has been severely repressed for centuries. First by the gigantic gap imposed by the monarchy led by the Romanovs. Then by the tyrannic rule of Communism, which was meant to loosen the grip of rulers to promote equality and freedom. Although the base of communism is to support the working class, it has been transformed by brutal rulers to impose their new set of ideologies that continue to control freedom in the country.

For centuries, England has held powerful alliances with the world's most powerful nations. One such country is Russia, though their relations were not always strong enough to hold against revolution and the power struggles caused by war. Russia and England's first ties go back to 1553, under Mary I and Ivan the Terrible, who established the Muscovy Company which controlled trade between both countries. It was broken off upon the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the end of the monarchy. These were just the first of a series of events that have led to the forging and breaking of these alliances, most notably the murder of the last member of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar Nicholas II, in 1918 by the Bolshevik Party.

The photograph above was taken in 1909 during Tsar Nicholas II's holiday trip to England with his family. He is pictured on the centre left with a white and navy cap. To his left sits King Edward VII of England and his cousin, the future King George V. The patriarchs of the family at the centre, dashing in their dark jackets, stand out against the white dresses of their wives and daughters, standing regal and elegant by their side, like bees among daisies. The children are adoringly dressed in crisp suits and pristine white gowns, quietly composed... looking miserable and bored. Bar the fashion of the sitters, this is a most typical family portrait across all centuries and countries.

This visit was one of many that resulted from years of both political and personal relationships between England and Russia. This history is represented beautifully in Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs, at the Queen's Galleries of Buckingham Palace. There are thousands of pieces of significance in the galleries, varying from luxury vases, collections of medals including the Order of Saint Catherine and the Order of the Garter. However, I have concentrated on the paintings and the importance of the figures in the broader context of their histories.

Main Gallery: "The Emerald Room"

On this occasion, I visited again with my loyal partner in crime, Katie. A massive history geek like me, we were both really intrigued by the content of the exhibition. It was a gorgeous winter day and the ticket hall had a giant Christmas tree decorated with replicas of St. Edward's coronation crown. At the top of the steps, there is a desk where we collected our audio guides, which discuss content not included in the exhibition (drawings, photographs) and specialist curator talks by Stephen Patterson and Caroline de Guitaut. To either side of the stair case, there are large prints of both British and Russian monarchs.

The entrance door to the main gallery space is framed by a sepia photograph of a luxurious, grand hall; a formal welcome into the halls of the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg. Upon entering, you come face first to a bright green wall with an introductory poster. The exhibition illustrates the relations between England and Russia that evolved through politics, marriage and revolution. These relations are represented through art works, treasures, personal items, letters, books and diaries.

Peter I's portrait is looking towards the gallery, a grand space painted in emerald green. The room is even more lavish because of the wood and gold leaf frames of the paintings. At the center, the room is separated by three grand vases made of malachite and gold guilt. Vases made of precious materials became a fashion as well as a symbol of status in Russian households, signs of opulence and grandeur. Previously, England and Russian had exchanged trade; England searched for raw materials, lavish gifts of silver and fur from Russia, while Russia needed financial support and an open route to the West through the Baltic Sea. However, this also became the cause of several armed conflicts that have shaped and strained the relations today.

Each wall of the gallery is dominated by a central, large painting. On the left wall is a 1762 coronation portrait of Catherine II. In this painting, the empress wears an imperial mantel of gold brocade and a dress woven in golden thread. She also hold the scepter and orb of power and wears the Russian Imperial crown, made for her coronation and adorned with 5000 diamonds. She was the first monarch to wear it and it was last used by Tsar Nicholas II. An exact replica can still be seen today at the Kremlin Armoury's State Diamond Fund.

Significant Court Members

What is most remarkable about the portrait is the image of power that she represents. She is standing on a red step, which during the Roman period was a symbol of Power. This is because Catherine was an exceptional ruler, not least because she was a woman ruling on her own who managed to combat opposition. She did such an great job that she was in fact the longest reigning woman on the Russian throne. She was also a reformer bringing artistic and cultural influences from different countries, building some of the most important palaces in the country. Under her reign, doctors, architects and military experts from Britain and other great countries were invited to Russia to share their expertise. One of these experts was Charles Cameron, a Scottish architect who soon became responsible for building many important palaces of the 18th century, including the palaces of Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk, two cities outside of St. Petersburg. Until his arrival, the architecture that flourished was by Italian artists.The exhibition gives a special recognition to another woman of influence at the Russian court; Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only daughter of King George IV of England. She was married to Prince Leopold, the future king of Belgium. He was a distant relative to the English Crown through his family, the Saxe-Coburg, the same family as Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Princess Charlotte died in childbirth in 1870, the same year that this painting was made and she was actually in her early stages of her pregnancy. A significant symbol of her importance at court is that the Princess is also wearing the star of the Order of St. Catherine, given to her by the influential Maria Feodorovna, mother of Alexander I, Russian emperor from 1801 until his death in 1825. The Order of Saint Catherine was instituted by Peter the Great in 1714 when he married Catherine I, and it is awarded only to women even to this day. It was the highest ranking award to be given to women in Imperial Russia.

She might have been a formidable ruler for her strong personality; she absolutely refused to marry her chosen husband, William of Orange, and set her eyes on her Russian spouse, with whom she had a very happy, albeit short, marriage. In the painting, Princess Charlotte is dressed in a Russian style dress of blue silk and gold brocade, which is also featured in the room at the far end—a lovely contrast between the pale blue silk against the bright emerald walls. The simplicity of the gown enhances the detail of the gold lace and red embroidery right down the centre of the dress. It is known as the Russian dress because it is made in the form of Russia sarofan, a dress consisting of a straight skirt and a low cut sleeveless bodice worn over a white blouse, though the gold braid is made in Russia, the dress was actually confectioned in England and the blue silk is mostly French. Had she lived, she would have become Queen Charlotte of England and the course of England would have changed dramatically, for Russia would have dominated England with its own monarch on the throne. Her death marked a huge turning point for the future of England, for her sister in law, Victoria, Dowager Princess, was the mother of Queen Victoria. 

Just next to Princess Charlotte's portrait, in a much grander, dominating scale, is a portrait by Thomas Lawrence of Matvei Ivanovic Platov, Count Platov, from 1814. Commissioned by George IV, father of Princess Charlotte, it belongs to a collection of portraits that now hang at Windsor Castle's Waterloo Chamber. This is the earliest painted work at the time of Platov's visit to emperor Alexander I, celebrating the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, two years after this event. A bit disquieting due to the stormy background, it is an imposing, embodiment of Marshall victory over France, this portrait was made during an important period of Russian alliance with England in opposition against France during the Napoleonic Wars between 1803-1815.

Count Platov was the leader of the Cossacks, a group of people from different parts of Eastern Europe who became members of self-governed communities. They have spread all over the world and are still active today, but the Russian Cossacks played a very important part during the Napoleonic Wars, forming part of Russia's strength of 900,000 men. They were also the most feared by the French troops and were responsible for their largest number casualties.

Middle Hall

Following the "Emerald Room" there is a break in between with a small, rectangular hall that features a collection of letters and personal items. However, the most significant piece is The Roll Call, from 1874. It portrays the remaining men of the Grenadier guards of England after the Battle of Inkerman, during the Crimean War. The soldiers are wearing the winter uniforms, still used by the Grenadier Guards today. You can actually still see them today posted outside the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

The Crimean War represents a period of poor relations between England and Russia. It was a military conflict between 1853 and 1856 in which Russia lost its alliance to Britain as well as the Ottoman Empire, France, and Sardinia. The immediate consequence was the division and tensions between all the religions in each country and its supporters. Russia was devastated by the lack of discipline and man power of its army and tensions with Britain were enormous.

Crimea's geographical location was, and continues to be, an essential entry route to the Orient and vice-versa and countries were consistently at odds with each other for its control. It is a gateway to the mediterranean for Russia and for Europe it is a gateway to the West. Under Catherine II, it was annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. A century later, during the Russian Revolution, it became a fighting ground between the Red and White Armies until it fell completely under control of Soviet Union. In 1954, it was transferred to the Ukraine. Finally, in 2014, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Annexed Crimea from the Ukraine.

The artist, Elizabeth Southerden Thomas, known as Lady Butler, was one of the few women artists of this period and, more importantly, a military artist. She was the wife of Lieutenant General Sir William Butler. She was a huge success, despite being a woman, and painted most of the important events during the 19th century. The Roll Call was produced 20 years after the event it depicts and it marked the beginning of a series of military paintings. After this, she gained special fame through her works depicting World War I.

The composition has an unconventional, horizontal perspective, with a mounted soldier on a horse at the far right of the canvas. It is an extremely unique depiction of war as a painting as oppose to the more conventional forms of representation through prints and photography. Butler submitted it for display in 1874 to the Royal Academy. It was bought by Queen Victoria and used during Alexander II's visit to England in this same year as a statement of the her concern for the challenges that had risen in the past due to alliances between their countries. His daughter, Maria Alexandrovna, and Queen Victoria's son, Alfred, were to be married that same year.

Second Gallery: "The Ruby Room"

The Roll Call provides a transition in the exhibition between the powerful members of the court in the Emerald Room and the more personal events surrounding the connections between England and Russia. There were two marriages in the history of the Russian and British Empires that became defining between both countries. The first was the marriage Maria Alexandrovna and Prince Alfred in 1874. A portrait of Maria Alexandrovna joined a group of paintings of Victoria's daughters in law in the Oak Room of Windsor. It was a gift of Marie's father, Alexander II, and shows the Queen's symbolic welcoming of a new daughter in law in to her growing family.

This marriage is the subject of a spectacular painting of the wedding by Nicholas Chevalier, commissioned by Queen Victoria, who was unable to attend the ceremony in St. Petersburg. A Russian born artist, Chevalier is well known for his work in Australia and New Zealand, where few artists had been able to travel. The preparatory work produced by Chevalier was huge, varying from sketches of the halls to the gowns of some of the most important ladies at court. The sketches illustrate the three parts of a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony:

  • Part 1: A betrothal ceremony takes place where the wedding rings are exchanged.
  • Part 2: The marriage is bound by crowning the newly weds in, as a reference to the martyrdom of being a ruler, submitting to their partner as well as to their country.
  • Part 3: The priest leads the couple with the crowns held over their heads to the table with the book of gospels where they swear their vows of loyalty to the country.

Chevalier produced another group of sketches of the Anglican version of the wedding. Though it is not present in the exhibition, you will see an image of the Anglican version on the Audio Guide. The ceremony was officiated by by Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. Both religions had to be satisfied to respect the customs of both country and so make them binding.

Thirty years later, in 1894, took place the very last wedding between members of the Russian and British Royal families. Tsar Nicholas II married Princess Alix of Hesse, grand daughter of Queen Victoria through her second daughter, Alice. Contrary to other royal marriages, they were actually very much in love and formed a happy family, raising four girls and a boy. However, at this point in history, Russia was plunged into poverty and desperation due to the outbreak of World War I. This led to the uprising we know today as the Russian Revolution, led by the Bolshevik Party, who abolished the monarchy by murdering the Tsar, his family, and the expropriating the whole of the noble class. Princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses became destitute, were forced to live on the streets and were given the status of "former people", becoming little more than social parasites. This event turned Britain entirely against Russia, breaking off ties completely and it was not until 2014 that England visited Russia for the first time.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs is on view at the Queen´s Galleries of Buckingham Palace until April 28 2019. 

Photo credits:

The black and white photographs belong to an article in the Daily Mail, which highlights the relationship between the British and the Russian royal families before the Russian Revolution.

Accessibility:

  • Lift step free entrance all the way to the coat room, where there is a lift.
  • Screen with blind tour information
  • Paid tickets can be converted to a year pass. Just get them stamped at the coat room and come back as many times as you want!
  • Your ticket will include a free audio guide for both exhibitions currently on display; Russia and a display of Roger Fenton's collection of photographs of the Crimean War. I strongly suggest to take advantage of the unlimited ticket and see them separately because they are completely different and require equal attention.
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