Towards the end of my visit to Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution, a flunkey with a walkie-talkie and “Security” emblazoned in capital letters on his back quietly appeared over my shoulder and, not very discreetly, shot a glance at my notebook. I hope he thought I was casing the joint, but he seemed disappointed by the sea of spidery scrawls and wandered off again. When it comes to the safety of items on loan to exhibitions, one can hardly blame the V&A for being just a little bit cagey about this one.
This is not a show about ordinary people; it is a tale of kings and princes
All that glisters is not gold; the rest is either silver, platinum, or a dazzling array of precious stones. This is not a show about how ordinary people used to live; it is a tale of kings and princes, like history used to be. There are dishes and matchboxes, small figures, huge tiaras, little clocks, delicate enamel flowers, a tiny sedan chair with rock-crystal windows, and a whole room of miniature animals of varying shade and hue. None of these exhibits ever needed to exist; they represent opulence on a grand scale. All of them came into being because of the skill of their creator, and the irresistible magic of his spell.
Carl Fabergé’s brilliance captured the imagination of the Russian court in the 1880s. His reputation was sealed when Alexander III began commissioning the famous Imperial Easter Eggs for his empress, a tradition continued by Nicholas II. Other royal houses followed; moments of relative diversity include a card tray for the Maharajah of Bikaner, and a decorative medallion for the Queen of Siam. When the Princess of Wales was in St Petersburg for her birthday in 1894, the future George V noted that his mother had taken delivery of “half of Fabergé’s shop”.
As Queen Alexandra, she only needed to go as far as Dover Street: in 1903 Fabergé opened his only branch outside Russia not in Paris, as might have been expected, but in London. It was a canny move in an age when proximity to the court presented ample opportunity for preferment, and particularly in the context of the closeness of the Houses of Romanov and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. While he relied on the debonair Henry Bainbridge to tailor items to English tastes, some of his clientele were genuine Russophiles, like the glamorous and enterprising Marchioness of Ripon, patroness of the Ballet Russe.
The eggs were exceptions to the rule, rather than Fabergé’s stock-in-trade
Fabergé was a businessman, however, and his work was available to anyone with deep enough pockets. Quis paget entrat: elaborate commissions for the Rothschilds featured prominently, while other customers acquired off-the-shelf items for mantelpieces and drawing-room tables that were tasteful, unobtrusive, and reassuringly expensive. The famous eggs were exceptions to the rule, rather than his stock-in-trade, but the quality of their workmanship was not. Fabergé was Fabergé, and everybody needed to be seen to be keeping up.
Everybody who could afford it, that is — inevitably Fabergé’s work also presents an opportunity for reflection of the European demographic landscape of his lifetime. His connections with the Russian imperial family are inescapable. Entering the first room is like stepping into a musical box, with a tiny replica of the Russian crown jewels at its centre and a wall dominated by photographs of the Romanovs on parade and at their leisure. I half-expected the tinkly background music to wind down before grinding to a halt, for we all know how the story ends.
Looming conflict is introduced by the Chartwell Bowls, from Churchill’s own collection. After he had declared, as First Lord of the Admiralty, that Britain would build two warships for each German one, Fabergé dutifully produced a range of silverware charting the history and growth of the Royal Navy. In the midst of the First World War, a number of “austerity pieces” of copper and brass appeared; the firm also produced parts for hand grenades. Six and a half million grenade parts were made in 1916 alone; one of the ugly replicas wobbles disconcertingly on its stand as the thump of guns hammers the message home.
The legendary goose died in exile a few years later, and laid no more golden eggs
The most poignant inclusion in the whole exhibition comes early on: an enamel pansy given by Nicholas II to his consort — Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, the former Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine — for their wedding anniversary in 1904. At the press of a button the petals open to reveal portraits of their five young children, but the petals also close again, obscuring them from sight. By the end of the war the world had changed forever: the Tsar and his family were dead, and the House of Fabergé had been seized by the Bolsheviks. Its legendary goose died in exile a few years later, and laid no more golden eggs.
And yet — and yet. The darkness of the war years — the death and destruction, the fall of the thrones of Europe, the passing of the old order, and the rise of Communism with all the horrors that came in its wake — gives way to a final chamber with a mirrored ceiling and a softly-coloured carpet. Shimmering strings and soaring vocals lend a disconcerting and transcendent quality; it is rather like the end of a film where the tortured and bloodied hero finally finds the redemption for which he has longed.
The fields of battle lead on to those of Elysium; here are the Imperial Easter Eggs, reflecting and refracting the moving darts of light that burst now and then from above. These enduring symbols of death and resurrection are too beautiful for words; they bring a strange, numinous, and transfigurative quality to the memory of a cellar in Ekaterinburg, the choking smell of cordite, and the cries of a terrified child.
Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution is at the V&A until 8 May 2022.
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