◇ Words: Helena Cox ◇
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The Royal Collection’s latest exhibition ‘Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs’, at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, explores the artistic cultural exchanges, and dynastic connections between the Romanov dynasty and the British royal family. Arguably what are most compelling, are the decorative arts on display by the esteemed Russian jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé, providing a scintillating artistic tale rich in imperial history before the revolution.
Fabergé became the mastermind and originator of the objet de fantaisie, beautifully designed whimsical objects that united the traditional objet d’art, and modern functionality, with the Fabergé style, which delighted the royal families in Europe. During the 1880s the Fabergé name soon became synonymous with Russia, and diplomats and members of royal delegations who travelled to Russia would bring back Fabergé objets de vertu as Russian souvenirs.
Taking over from his father’s jewellery firm in 1882, Carl Fabergé first impressed Tsar Alexander III with his creation of a replica forth century BC gold bangle from the Scythian Treasure in the Hermitage Museum; the Tsar was spellbound by Fabergé’s craftsmanship and ability to replicate to perfection, and in 1885, Fabergé was appointed court jeweller. The first Easter egg was commissioned by the Tsar in 1885 as a present for his wife Empress Maria Feodorovna. The tradition of an Easter egg opening to reveal a surprise continued, and Fabergé was given complete artistic freedom in his designs. Deemed by Kenneth Snowman as a ‘cultural sponge’ Fabergé’s designs were eclectic and diverse, from Neoclassical to Baroque opulence, he covered it all. At least ten eggs were made during the reign of Alexander III, and his son Nicholas II continued the tradition, with 46 eggs commissioned.
The tradition and symbolism of eggs in Western Europe has origins in French, Danish and Austrian decorative art from the 18th century. The exchanging of eggs was also popular in Russia in celebration of Easter, traditionally considered as the most important feast day in the Orthodox Church. Eggs of a variety of materials from porcelain to papier mâché would be exchanged as gifts.
Fabergé transformed the Easter egg into a visionary, theatrical, dialectical tour de force. There is something almost magical about these spellbinding creations that appear alchemical to the eye.
The mosaic Egg brings to the fore Fabergé’s inventive genius. Created with a platinum exterior exhibiting a dazzling tessellation of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, topazes, garnets and quartzes, the mosaic egg delights in overt materiality. The oval panels imitate the embroidery technique of petit point, framed with white enamel and pearl encrusted borders. The Egg opens to reveal the surprise- an ivory oval medallion painted with the profile portraits of the five children of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra in camaïeu brun, surmounted by the Imperial crown; the other side depicts a basket of flowers and their names. The Tsarina’s monogram ‘AF’ and 1914 are beneath the moonstone at the egg’s aperture. Commissioned by Nicholas II, the Tsar presented the egg to his wife in 1914 for Easter. The Mosaic Egg is a charming tribute to their five children and was created by Albert Holmström (1876-1925), and designed by his niece Alma Theresia Pihl (1888-1976) who was also the daughter of Fabergé workmaster Oscar Pihl. Pihl became one of the most famous female workmasters employed by Fabergé, and she was also responsible for the 1913 Imperial Winter Egg. She came to the attention of her male colleagues, and her family members with her elegant sketches, which she made for the firm’s archives between 1909-1910. In 1911 she was allowed to submit her own designs. With her visionary and practical approach, Pihl would also calculate the logistics of production from budgets, to what precious stones and gems would be utilised. Pihl’s brooch design of a needlepoint rose, drawn in 1913, became the source for her Mosaic Egg design, which was also inspired from watching her mother-in-law embroidering by the fire.
After the revolution and subsequent execution of the Romanov family by the Bolshevik’s in 1918; fifteen years later the Mosaic Egg ended up in the British royal collection when King George V and Queen Mary acquired it for £250 in London.
The Mosaic Egg remains a symbol of artistic beauty, an artistic vestige from an Imperial Russia about to disappear forever.