Victoria & Albert Museum: Russian Traditions

Posted in Exhibitions

We are going to tell you about the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of the world’s best museums of art and design, located in Cromwell Road in London. Admission to the museum is free, however some thematic exhibitions and events may carry a separate charge. Broadly, this museum is an ideal place for those wanting to see works of art of Russian origin or precious things belonging to the Russian tsars without having to leave London.

The galleries of the museum show some fine Russian pieces, for instance metalwork, some outstanding examples of jewellery and theatre-related objects. One of the V&A’s Russian highlights is the silver-gilt gates from Kiev displayed in the Gilbert galleries. Visitors can also see a 17th-century silver and parcel gilt Mother and Child triptych and an enamelled brass triptych of the Virgin and Child made in Russia in 1800-1813 by an unknown artist. Visitors of the museum can also feast their eyes on a late 18th-century cut-steel fireplace made in Tula, good examples of mosaics, secular and religious silver, gold boxes, and jewellery from the Russian royal collections. The gleaming blue and gold plates of the “Kremlin Service” and silver cups and heraldic snuff boxes are also here for visitors to enjoy.

The jewellery collection is worth a special mention as it shows about thirty pieces from the House of Fabergé, including the imperial presentation box, the snuffbox with a diamond monogram of Nikolai II; a box made of varicoloured gold with enamels and brilliant-cut diamonds; a gold and silver buckle, with engine-turned decoration beneath yellow enamel and with pearls framing the central opening; a brooch made of gold, diamonds and cabochon sapphires by August Hollming; a collection of cigarette cases and carved animals including the ones owned by Queen Alexandra. Visitors can also admire a ruby-studded bouquet from the Russian imperial collection as well as Catherine the Great’s dress ornaments with numerous silver leaves covered with brilliant-cut diamonds. All these masterpieces were sold off after 1917 by the Bolsheviks.

The V&A collection also includes Russian toys, Revolutionary ceramics and traditional 19th century jewellery; Russian furniture, textiles, glass, sculpture and paintings; nearly two hundred 20th century posters and a collection of 19th-century photographs of people associated with the theatre in St Petersburg.

It would not be easy for the V&A to constantly supplement its collection of Russian works of art without the program of amicable exhibition exchanges and co-curated projects, put into practice by the V&A and the Moscow Kremlin Museums. ‘The Golden Age of the English Court, from Henry VIII to Charles I’ will be on display at the Moscow Kremlin Museums from October 2012 to January 2013, followed by ‘Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars 1509-1685’ at the V&A from March to July 2013. The London show will include a substantial loan of late Tudor, early Stuart and French 17th-century silver from the Moscow Kremlin Museums and portraits of the Tsars and a Russian Ambassador to England from the Moscow Kremlin Museums and the State Historic Museum.

In autumn 2010 the V&A held an exhibition of ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929’, which explored the world of the influential artistic director Serge Diaghilev and the most exciting dance company of the 20th century. Through this exhibition the V&A developed a good relationship with the Ekaterina Foundation in Moscow, which funded the first private art gallery in Moscow and owns one of the most important private collections of modern art.

From September to November 2008 ‘Two Centuries of British Fashion’, an exhibition from the V&A, was shown at the Moscow Kremlin Museums, and preceded the exhibition ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’, shown at the V&A from December 2008 to March 2009. The latter illustrated Russia’s relationship with her past and with Europe through two centuries of men’s court dress. This exhibition focused particularly the coronation dress of the emperor and other participants in coronation ceremonies from the 1720s to 1917. Until the reign of Peter the Great (Peter I, who ruled 1682–1725) Russia was isolated from Europe. Peter then introduced many western institutions in all areas of life. His dress reforms replaced traditional Russian clothing with European fashions, or Saxon and French fashion as it was called in Russia.

There were five chivalric orders in 18th century Russia and membership of them was by noble birth, or as a reward for service. In this connection, the exhibition showed some articles of clothing, namely tabards, tunics, and hats of the late 18th century, of four of such orders: the Order of St Anna, the Order of St Andrew, the Order of St Catherine and the Order of St George. Each order celebrated the feast day of the saint to whom it was dedicated. This brought together all the members of the order who honoured their fellowship with church ceremonies, a formal dinner and a ball.

The main attraction of the exhibition ‘Magnificence of the Tsars’ was clearly the imperial coronation costumes. Every visitor could admire the following: the coronation uniform of Paul I (1796), the hat from the coronation uniform of Alexander I (1801), the coronation uniform with the helmet and boots of Alexander II (1855), the coronation sash of Nicholas I (1826), the coronation coat of Alexander III (1883) and the coronation uniform of the last Russian tsar Nicholas II (1896). The wardrobe of Peter II (1727-30) stood out from the other items. Although Peter II only ruled for less than three years, he left a huge collection of western-style suits and underwear.

The magnificent masquerade costume of Nicholas II also stood apart from the other exhibits. He wore this costume at a special dress ball organised by him and Empress Alexandra in 1903. Those invited to the ball were required to attend in Russian dress of the 17th century, which prompted interest in Russian history and traditional Russian garments. The ball was so exciting and impressive an event that many remembered it as the last ball in Russia’s history. One person described it as a fairytale, with a “profusion of traditional national costumes, richly decorated with rare furs, magnificent diamonds, pearls and semi-precious stones in their original settings.”

The exhibition also showed a large display of everyday and ceremonial clothing of the imperial servants including heralds, postilions, and coachmen.

If you would like to get to know the above splendour better, do not hesitate to visit the V&A museum. We draw your attention to the fact that there will be a tour around the museum organised under the aegis of the project “The Romanovs in Great Britain” and a lecture on the Russian works of art present in the museum will be delivered in early 2013 in Pushkin House. Don’t miss out!