Against a backdrop of war and revolution, the mesmerising work of an imperial goldsmith sparked an Anglo-Russian phenomenon. Mary Miers considers the international success of Fabergé, now being celebrated in an exhibition at the V&A Museum.
More than a century after war and revolution destroyed its business, the name of Fabergé lives on as a byword for opulent craftsmanship.
The work commands huge sums today and, most thrillingly, Fabergé pieces that were thought to be lost are still being discovered, suggesting there are other forgotten treasures lying unrecognised in attics and flea markets.
In the decades leading up to the First World War, the firm’s exquisite bibelots were the social currency of the Euro-pean elite; yet the story of Fabergé is a symbolic and ultimately poignant one, for it mirrors the romance and glamour of imperial Russia and the final tragedy of the Romanovs.
The man behind the firm’s success was Peter Carl Fabergé, a descendant of Huguenots whose jeweller father opened a shop in St Petersburg in 1842. Born in 1846, Carl studied the techniques and masterpieces of goldsmithing during travels on the Continent, before joining the family business in 1864 (his four sons would also all be involved). He took over and reorganised the firm, became supplier to the imperial court and attracted wider recognition through exhibitions and awards.
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In 1900, after enthralling visitors to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Carl received the Légion d’Honneur. That year, he reconstructed larger premises on Bolshaya Morskaya, bringing its core functions under one roof in an enlightened system of management that fostered a rich cross-fertilisation of skills and ideas among the independent, but affiliated workshops. Soon, there were 500 employees and branches in Moscow, Odessa and Kiev.
Fabergé’s progressive, specialised artisans excelled in the mastery of traditional methods and materials. Enamelling, for instance, was taken to new levels of subtlety and invention using techniques such as cloisonné and guilloché. Carl’s own interest in experimenting with colour in gold alloys and enamels shines through Fabergé’s work, where the emphasis was on craftsmanship, rather than the value of the materials. Stylistically, inspiration came from many historical sources, from Italian Renaissance and French 17th- and 18th-century decorative arts to Japanese and Art Nouveau design. Yet the identity of a piece by Fabergé — delicate, highly technical, imaginative, often whimsical — is always recognisable.
For the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Fabergé was ‘the true incomparable genius of our time’ and the Romanovs’ patronage resulted in dazzling jewellery and other artefacts made to commemorate family and state celebrations. Legendary among these were the imperial Easter eggs, which would assume an almost mythical status, both as symbols of state power and private tokens of love.
The first, commissioned by Alexander III as a present for the Tsarina for Easter 1885, resembled an ordinary hen’s egg — until it was opened to reveal a golden yolk containing a chicken, within which a ruby egg hung from a tiny imperial crown. The pleasure it gave prompted the Tsar to commission an annual Easter egg for his wife, with no ruling as to subject or price, only that it must contain a surprise. Nicholas II continued the tradition, commissioning two eggs each year, one for his wife and one for his mother.
The imperial Easter eggs represent unprecedented skills of enamelling, lapidary and goldsmithing, orchestrated by Fabergé’s chief workmasters. Many focused on the Romanov family and its interests, with miniature portraits, birds and flowers among the surprises contained within. The Peacock Egg, of rock crystal finely engraved with rocaille, opens to reveal a tree with an enamelled gold peacock that can be wound up to strut about and fan its tail. Other examples celebrated national events and state occasions, with the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg of 1900 and the Coronation Egg of 1897 containing, respectively, a tiny articulated replica of the train and coach.
As war loomed and Fabergé’s workshops switched to making munitions and other objects in copper, brass and steel, the eggs became more austere. Two Red Cross Eggs in 1915 were followed by the Steel Military Egg, which took the form of a shell with bullets containing a miniature of the Tsar and Tsarevich talking to generals at the Front. Made in 1916, it was the last to be delivered.
By 1918, Fabergé’s disintegrating business had collapsed and its precious stock was ‘confiscated’. Carl managed to escape to Riga and thence to Germany, before joining his wife and son Eugène at Lausanne in Switzerland, where, exhausted and broken, he died in September 1920.
The allure of Fabergé, however, extended far beyond Russia and the fairy tale lived on. Nowhere were its products more coveted than among Britain’s increasingly international elite, whose extravagance and etiquette of luxurious gift-giving had reached new heights during the Edwardian years. In 1903, Fabergé had opened its only foreign branch in London, moving to swishly decorated premises at 173, New Bond Street in 1911. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had just premiered at Covent Garden and Russian art and design was all the rage.
The London branch was managed by Charles Henry Bainbridge, a shrewd observer of Edwardian high society who operated as Fabergé’s ambassador to the world. Bainbridge worked tirelessly to nurture its patronage, securing the best wares from Russia, proposing designs for clients to give as presents and recording all activities in his daybooks, sales ledgers and diary. He found himself in ‘a whirl of Kings and Queens, Millionaires and Maharajahs. Fabergé objects were then passing through my fingers as fast as shoals of glistening herrings pass through the sea, and all I had to do was look immaculate and say nothing’.
Key to the success of this exclusive gift shop was Queen Alexandra, who had been introduced to Fabergé in Russia by her sister, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, and whose patronage of the firm — together with that of Russian diplomats and exiles in Britain — represented a political and cultural strength- ening of ties between the two recently estranged nations. The Queen was the London branch’s greatest giver and receiver of Fabergé gifts, favouring animal and flower studies and the more restrained hardstone pieces over bejewelled items.
Edward VII was also a patron, popularising the trend among his cosmopolitan circle for giving objects ranging from cigarette cases and bell pushes to paper knives and clocks. Ingenuity and fun, rather than cost, was the focus of these practical gifts; anything with an amusing touch, such as a cigar cutter in the form of a carp, particularly appealed.
In 1907, Bainbridge secured a commission from the King for a series of miniature models of his animals at Sandringham. They were sculpted in wax by Boris Frödman-Cluzel and then carved in Russia from chalcedony, obsidian, quartz and jade by the lapidarist Karl Woerffel. Finally, this quaint menagerie of tubby, lifelike animals and birds was sent to the St Petersburg workshop to be fitted with gold feet, platinum whiskers and gemstone eyes. The commission included models in silver of the King’s prized racehorse Persim-mon and the couple’s Borzoi hound, Vassilka.
Quick to spy an opportunity for tailoring Fabergé to its British clientele, Bainbridge came up with the idea of enamelling objects with the silks of leading racehorse owners and procured a number of commissions for candlesticks, cigar cases, boxes and frames boldly striped in the Rothschild, Rosebery, Royal and other colours.
He also proposed hardstone portraits of British types and characters similar to those that had become popular in Russia and supplied the workshops with views of castles, country houses, cathedrals and classic English scenes — these were then painted in sepia tones and fired onto 18th-century-style bonbonnieres or mounted as panels onto larger boxes. Thus Britain was both immortalised by Fabergé and an influence on its work.
This shared Anglo-Russian heritage is the heart of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum, which highlights Britain’s influence on the continuing taste for Fabergé after the First World War. The London branch closed in 1917, but the British-based dealer Wartski imported crateloads of Fabergé pieces from the 1920s, when the Soviets were selling off Russia’s imperial treasures. Queen Mary led the fashion, adding significantly to the holding of work in the Royal Collection, including three imperial Easter eggs. More recently, the glitter has returned to Russia in an explosion of repatriation. In 2004, the billionaire Russian Viktor Vekselberg paid more than $100 million (£73 million) for Fabergé treasures, including nine Easter eggs, from the collection of Malcolm Forbes; these are now a highlight of the Shuvalov Palace in St Petersburg.
More than 200 objects, including an imperial Easter egg bought by a scrap dealer in 2011 and others never seen in the UK before, are on show in ‘Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution’ at the V&A, London SW7, until May 8, 2022 — www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/faberge
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