The frame was by Fabergé. Inside it, the photograph of Nicholas II shows him in the uniform of a British field marshal. I was told that the Tsar sent it as a present to his cousin, George V, in 1917, hinting that an invitation to Britain would be very acceptable. But the object, which will form part of a sale at Sotheby’s in March, was never delivered: by the time it arrived in London, the opportunity to save the Russian royal family had passed. There are some stories that are too good to check.
This one comes from the end of the association between the tsars and Britain, which started with the young Peter the Great. In 1698, he stayed at Deptford, to learn about shipbuilding and seamanship. He also discovered wheelbarrows. He and roistering friends would wheel each other through the newly planted hedges of John Evelyn’s precious Sayes Court. The house was trashed, leaving 20 ‘fine pictures very much tore and the Frames all broke’.
Among later Russian visitors was Prince Felix Yusupov. Researching a talk that I gave to some Russian bankers over the weekend about gentlemen’s clubs, I found that he had joined Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club. Did it teach him about what the French call le fair-play? Rasputin, whom he helped murder, might have thought not.