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The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has flung open its doors following the cultural doldrums that marked the past year with a lavish exhibition that is striking for both its narrative and content. Visitors who have followed every Fabergé display and publication since the landmark 1977 blockbuster at the V&A marking the queen’s silver jubilee, and even those most familiar with the latest scholarship, are challenged from the threshold of the gallery’s enfilade.
Surprisingly, there is not an imperial egg in sight when we first enter. Instead, we are greeted by miniature models of the Russian imperial regalia, the diamond-set crowns, orb, and scepter that astonished visitors to the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. The exhibition title is set proud from the wall behind this installation and strikingly lit to create a repetition of fading swags in its shadow.
By opening the curatorial narrative with echoes of the past in this manner, we are transported to a critical turning point in the firm’s history. In 1900 the regalia accompanied a series of Easter eggs and other objects, on loan by the imperial family, to France, adding to the celebrations of Franco-Russian rapprochement. Fabergé members, descendants of exiled French Huguenots, returned to their ancestral homeland in triumph. The firm’s flagship operation in St. Petersburg had been complemented by a branch in Moscow, and the House of Fabergé was now poised for expansion abroad.
At the dawn of the new century, Carl Fabergé was fifty-four and had for fifteen years been supplying their majesties with objects for personal delight or to present at state occasions. Objects of virtue that were exquisitely crafted for use were expressed in jeweled and gold-mounted enamel or polished hard stone. They ranged from snuff boxes to letter openers and photograph frames that sometimes referenced another age. As official purveyors to the Russian court, the workshops were inspired by historical designs and techniques, many of which Carl had studied as a young man during his European travels. Objects by Fabergé certainly borrowed from bygone eras on the Continent, but passed through a Russian prism, incorporating red golds and cabochon stones that made them seem both novel and familiar.
Following this short introduction situating the visitor, we are invited into a space that expands on the materials and techniques that underpin the firm’s success. These are the facts that are less subjective than the aesthetics of over two hundred objects on view from fifty-one lenders, including a sizeable portion from the British royal collection. Whether the results are pleasing or otherwise, this project was an astonishing logistical challenge undertaken almost entirely during lockdown.
We find an architectural plan of Fabergé’s workshops and personal apartments illustrating the leadership and innovation of gathering talented craftsmen in renovated premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya in St. Petersburg. This prestigious address was kept supplied with stones mined across the empire and mapped out for us in the exhibition with specimen examples and their sources. There are design books, tools, and a film clip demonstrating engine turning to explain Fabergé from concept to creation.
The case of Alma Pihl, a rare female in the firm’s enterprise, is highlighted. She may have initially benefited from a touch of nepotism, as a handful of relations were already attached to the enterprise. This facilitated her entry, but it was Pihl’s innate talent that converted her gaze through an icy window into the legendary cracked-ice designs. Dr Emanuel Nobel, a prominent patron, sparked the demand for a series of small jewels that became the genesis for one of the firm’s lasting achievements, conceived by a woman in her early twenties. These distillations of winter survive as snowflake jewelry created for Nobel and scaled up to a remarkable imperial egg gifted to the dowager empress in 1913.
Patronage was pivotal to the focus of this exhibition: the firm’s expansion to London in 1903. At its heart was the relationship between two Danish princesses who became consorts of Russia and Britain. The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna spread the taste for Fabergé to her sister Queen Alexandra and across a network of royal cousins that extended throughout Europe. This rippled further into high society and to those who sought to emulate what they had seen at court.
Edwardian England was a center of empire and banking, steeped in a culture of consumerism and a fashionable destination for industrialists, financiers, and wealthy widows. The king’s friendship with Leopold de Rothschild, the prominent banker, was marked by their shared interest in horse racing and Fabergé. Edward VII bred livestock at Sandringham House, his country retreat in Norfolk, and agreed to have his menagerie immortalized by Fabergé in a range of hard stone carvings. Rothschild followed suit, and the craze for these Russian models inspired by netsuke spread unabated.
London attracted American heiresses who acquired Fabergé as they browsed gatherings for titled husbands. Fortunately, the ledgers of the London branch survive to document the maharajas, grand dukes, and marchionesses who shopped there. Audiences interested in the intriguing who’s who of those decadent years will be richly rewarded. Knowing when they bought and what they spent compared to an object’s wholesale price offers a rewarding source for study.
Without Edward VII’s hedonistic entourage overturning mores that had been stiffly upheld during Queen Victoria’s reign, there would have been far fewer opportunities to mark social occasions by gifting Fabergé trinkets. Wealthy diplomats seconded from St. Petersburg sourced hostess gifts, encouraging Anglo-Russian rapprochement through purchases from the London affiliate. The firm kept the branch supplied with toys fit for the highest echelons, such as a wooden bell push to be wound up while outdoors to summon servants to the picnic table.
It was the firm’s lapidary output that seems to have gravitated most successfully to England. Product lines that had proved themselves in Russia were adapted for export. Whether in the form of sculptures such as the Chelsea Pensioner, or a view of Chatsworth affixed to a nephrite box, stone appears in abundance. It is likely that it withstood the journey from Russia to England undamaged and was inexpensive to source, so there were practical considerations at play.
With war and civil unrest in Russia in 1904 and 1905, the London outpost provided a critical outlet as the flagship operations were faced with strikes, conscription, and broken supply chains. By the time a shopfront was opened in 1911 at 173 New Bond Street, only a few steps from Cartier, George V was on the throne and London was gripped by the Ballet Russes. The branch was not only a shopping destination for the beau monde in search of amusing trinkets, jeweled objects, and cigarette cases that could be engraved with tender messages, but also functioned as a staging post. When the London season was quiet, sales trips to the continent and to Siam and India kept sales flowing.
Inevitably, as the House of Fabergé’s fortunes were tied to those of the Russian imperial family, the twilight of the Romanovs saw the branch’s operations unravel. The workshops released modest “austerity bowls” in various metals and supplied the war effort with munitions, but the firm was finally defeated by 1917.
Fabergé’s meteoric success was short lived but its lasting legacy is captured in a magnificent display of fifteen Easter eggs delivering the show’s grand finale. The earliest is the disarmingly simple Hen Egg of 1885, designed as a white enameled shell that opens to a gold yolk housing a miniature model of a hen. Other eggs are more ornate, such as the astonishing Mosaic Egg designed by Pihl in 1914. The Easter commissions lasted for almost thirty years and seem to have delighted both Nicholas II’s mother and wife, an astonishing achievement given their differing outlooks. As time capsules evoking the previous year for each recipient, each egg opened to reveal a surprise. The 1908 egg, a jeweled and nephrite shell enriched with portraits of the imperial children, recalls the Alexander Palace. The site of Alexandra Feodorovna’s cozy family life, away from the capital’s intrigue, could not be more different from the dowager empress’ Easter gift. That same year, Maria Feodorovna received a rock crystal egg containing a mechanical peacock that could be released from its golden perch and wound up to strut and preen its feathers. The reference to the Peacock Clock—a large automaton manufactured by James Cox in the late eighteenth century on display in the Hermitage Museum—would have been entirely familiar to the dowager.
Both the exhibition and its accompanying publication broaden our understanding of the House of Fabergé. The firm’s lasting reputation is demystified as the London years highlight the business model, design influences, and patronage that ensured its reputation. While the illustrated publication does not mirror the show and has been criticized by enthusiasts for failing to provide a lasting record of the objects on view, it does highlight advances in scholarship and makes a useful addition to a Fabergé library (Kieran McCarthy and Hanne Faurby, eds., Fabergé: Romance to Revolution, V&A, 2022).
Cynthia Coleman Sparke