In common parlance, Fabergé eggs are used as something of a metonym for all that is the acme of opulence, excess and glamour. They are, however, also objects worthy of consideration, given their unrivalled craftsmanship and notable history.
Open until 8 May 2022, Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution is the first
major exhibition devoted to the international prominence of the legendary Russian goldsmith, Carl Fabergé, and the importance of his little-known London branch. With a focus on Fabergé’s Edwardian high society clientele, the exhibition shines a light on his triumphs in Britain as well as a global fascination with the joyful opulence of his creations. The largest collection of the legendary Imperial Easter Eggs in a generation are on display together as part of the exhibition’s dramatic finale, several of which are being shown in the UK for the first time.
Showcasing over 200 objects across three main sections, the exhibition tells the story of Carl Fabergé, the man, and his internationally recognised firm that symbolised Russian craftsmanship and elegance – an association further strengthened by its connection to the romance, glamour and tragedy of the Russian Imperial family.
Unknown to many, the exhibition explores the Anglo-Russian nature of his enterprise with his only branch outside of Russia opening in London in 1903. Royalty, aristocrats, American heiresses, exiled Russian Grand Dukes, Maharajas, financiers with newly-made fortunes, and socialites flocked there to buy gifts of unparalleled luxury for each other. Fabergé works were as popular in Britain as they were in Russia.
The first section of the exhibition highlights the important patronage of the Romanov family. A miniature of the Imperial Regalia, lent by the Hermitage Museum, made for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, will capture Carl Fabergé’s role as official goldsmith to the Imperial Russian family. Its members often gave each other intimate Fabergé gifts, and this will be explored through bespoke, ornate objects including flowers made from rock crystal, gold and rose-cut diamonds and exquisite family portrait miniatures.
This section also touches upon Carl Fabergé’s youth, his travels throughout Europe, and entry into the family firm. Commissioned by Emperor Nicholas II, a figurine portrait taken from life of the private bodyguard of the Dowager Empress is on display – a sculpture on a level of rarity with the Imperial Easter eggs. A prayer book gifted by Emperor Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna on his coronation day also sits alongside early photography of the Imperial family with their prized possessions.
Next, this section explores the mastery of techniques and intricate detailing that became synonymous with Fabergé and his firm. Creating a culture of creativity throughout his workshops, Carl Fabergé’s imagination inspired daring material choices and designs, while the integration of designers, craftsmen, and retailers under one roof also galvanised creative collaboration.
The dazzling beauty of that work is shown by a sparkling aquamarine and diamond tiara – a token of love from Frederick Francis IV, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg Schwerin to his bride Princess Alexandra of Hanover and Cumberland on their wedding day.
The only known example of solid gold tea service crafted by Fabergé is also on display, one of the most magnificent items to emerge from the firm’s Moscow branch. The nurturing spirit of Fabergé is shown in the work of one of his best-known female designers, Alma Pihl. Some of her most innovative and enduring works are on show including a scintillating ‘ice crystal’ pendant made from rock crystal, diamonds and platinum.
Another level of luxury
The second section of the exhibition tells the story of Fabergé’s time in London, including how the firm flourished under royal patronage, and how its creations became a social currency for gift giving and ostentatious displays of wealth, amongst the cosmopolitan elite who gathered in the city. Huge success at the 1900 Paris Exposition made it clear that Fabergé would have a keen customer base outside Russia, should he expand. His choice of London for his new
premises was partly because it was the financial capital of the world, and therefore, a luxury retail destination able to draw a wealthy and international clientele.
It was also the home of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra who were already avid Fabergé collectors, making royal patronage in London highly likely. A transitional section in the exhibition transports visitors from Russia to a bustling London – highlight the strong links between the British and Russian Royal Families. Royal photography in Fabergé frames, and gifts presented by Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to their British relatives are shown, including a notebook given by the Tsar and Tsarina to Queen Victoria for Christmas in 1896.
Fabergé carefully tailored his works to his British clientele. He created hardstone portraits of the farm animals King Edward and Queen Alexandra bred at Sandringham, their favourite country estate. Highlights include a commission from the king of his faithful wire-haired fox terrier, Caesar; a silver model portrait of Persimmon, his most loved and successful racehorse; and one of the firm’s rarest creations – a figurine of a veteran English soldier.
Fabergé became the most exclusive and fashionable place to buy gifts. The king’s mistress, Mrs George Keppel, gifted him an elegant art-nouveau cigarette case with a snake laid in diamonds biting its tail – a symbol of unbroken and everlasting love. Snuffboxes decorated with topographical views, buildings and monuments were also popular. A nephrite cigar box, set with a sepia enamelled view of the Houses of Parliament, was bought by Grand Duke Michael of Russia on 5 November, Guy Fawkes Day, in 1908, then given to King Edward VII.
Other highlights include a sumptuous rock crystal vase that was presented to King George V and Queen Mary on the day of their coronation.
The end of the exhibition’s second part moves towards the fateful impact of the Great War and Russian Revolution on Fabergé. With Russia’s entry into the war in 1914, Fabergé’s production suddenly shifted. The workshops focused their output on the war effort and went from creating exquisite objects to producing munitions. Their meticulous craftsmanship switched from jewels and precious metals to copper, brass and steel. In 1917, as the revolution hit Fabergé’s workshops in Russia, its outpost in London ceased to operate.
The final section of the exhibition celebrates the legacy of Fabergé through the iconic Imperial Easter Eggs with a kaleidoscopic display of 15 of these famous treasures. This is the largest collection on public display for over 25 years and includes several that have never before been shown in the UK including the largest Imperial Egg – the Moscow Kremlin Egg – inspired by the architecture of the Dormition Cathedral, on loan from the Moscow Kremlin Museums.
The Alexander Palace Egg, featuring watercolour portraits of the children of Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra – and containing a surprise model of the palace inside – also takes centre stage alongside the Tercentenary Egg, created to celebrate 300 years of the Romanov dynasty, only a few years before the dynasty crumbled.
Other eggs that feature include the recently rediscovered Third Imperial Egg of 1887, found by a scrap dealer in 2011. The Peacock Egg of 1907-8, shown on public display for the first time in over a decade, containing a surprise of an enamelled gold peacock automaton and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s Basket of Flowers Egg, lent by Elizabeth II.
While the Russian Revolution and the war irrevocably changed the social order in Russia and Europe, the taste for Fabergé survived, especially in London, where the firm’s works continued to be prized. From the 1920s, dealers and auction houses in London acquired confiscated Fabergé objects sold by Soviet Russia. In the 1930s, the art dealers Wartski purchased several Imperial Eggs, which it sold to Fabergé’s London clients and to new generations of collectors in Europe and the United States. Lately, motivated in part by patriotic repatriation, Russians have become significant collectors of Fabergé’s work. Although Carl Fabergé’s firm ceased to exist, the myth crystallised around the Imperial Easter Eggs and the demand for Fabergé pieces has endured with his designs continuing to inspire, captivate and delight.
Kieran McCarthy and Hanne Faurby, Curators of Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution, said:
“The story of Carl Fabergé, the legendary Russian Imperial goldsmith, is one of supreme luxury and unsurpassed craftsmanship. Celebrating Fabergé’s extraordinary achievements, this exhibition focuses on the over-looked importance of his London branch, the only one outside of Russia. It attracted a global clientele of Royalty, aristocrats, business titans and socialites. Through Fabergé’s creations the exhibition explores timeless stories of love, friendship and unashamed social climbing. It takes the visitor on a journey of sublime artistry and patronage towards the revolution that tragically closed Fabergé – but sends visitors away on a high, by honouring Fabergé’s greatest legacy, with a dazzling final display of his iconic Easter Eggs.”Kieran McCarthy and Hanne Faurby, Curators of Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution
Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution runs from 20 November 2021 – 8 May
2022. Tickets are available at vam.ac.uk.