Fabergé exhibition in Norfolk

The glittering and tumultuous world of Fabergé takes centre stage at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art in Norwich next month, as part of its Russian Revolution exhibitions, marking the centenary of the historic event.

The exhibition, Royal Fabergé, will explore the glittering saga of the world’s greatest artist-jewellers during the decades preceding the First World War. The second exhibition, Radical Russia, will show how avant-garde artists – who had scandalised conservative society with outrageous and subversive painting, poetry and theatre – came with revolution to briefly become the State’s officially approved culture. Ultimately both high points of human artistry were to be laid low by horror and terror.

Fabergé, The Basket of Flowers Egg, 1901, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Fabergé, The Basket of Flowers Egg, 1901, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Means of Production

It has been estimated that between 1884 and 1917, Peter Carl Fabergé directed the production of 200,000 fabulous pieces of jewellery, silverware and miniature objets d’art including his celebrated eggs. After the Bolshevik Revolution most of the jewellery and silver was melted down and the component gems and metals sold abroad for hard currency. Many smaller objects survived because the artistry in them was more valuable than the amounts of precious materials they contained.

Fabergé and Norfolk

There’s a special connection between Fabergé and Norfolk. In 1907 Edward VII, on a suggestion from Alice Keppel (the Duchess of Cornwall’s great-grandmother), commissioned Fabergé to produce portrait sculptures of dogs and horses at Sandringham to please Queen Alexandra. Later the project was extended to other animals on the Royal estate. The best sculptors went to Norfolk to make wax models which were then taken to Russia to be rendered in hardstones, gemstones, gold, silver and platinum.

‘Royal Fabergé’ will reveal how the exquisite creativity of the Fabergé workshops ranged from St Petersburg and the Romanov court to a dairy on Norfolk’s Sandringham Estate, through the patronage of two sisters – Danish princesses who, as Alexandra and Maria Feodorovna, became queen consorts in Britain and Russia, and who strove to bring their adopted countries together. Fabergé’s London store was the only one outside the Russian Empire.

Royal collection

More than 60 Sandringham-linked loans from the Royal Collection – in addition to the magnificent Basket of Flowers Imperial Easter Egg from 1901 – will provide the centrepiece of the exhibition. Featured creatures will include the champion racehorse Persimmon, whose winnings helped fund the Norfolk estate, and Caesar, Edward’s favourite Norfolk terrier. The wider naturalistic genius of Fabergé will be shown with major loans from private and public collections in Britain and America. Over 200 works including vintage films and photographs will illuminate the extraordinary talents of the Fabergé makers – skills used to create glorious enamelled and bejewelled plants set in rock crystal vases as well as the famous Fabergé eggs and other royal gifts. The mastery of making was so complete that some of the techniques cannot be matched today.

Sandringham Saga

‘Royal Fabergé’ will also tell the saga of Sandringham – the newly bought royal retreat where Alexandra went after her honeymoon in 1863, and where she died in 1925. Latterly she withdrew here to the company of her beloved pets, while many of the Norfolk men who had helped to set up the Fabergé commission formed the Sandringham Company. Land agent Frank Beck vanished with 16 estate staff one afternoon, in August 1915, at Gallipoli. His gold watch, a gift from Alexandra, was retrieved after the war and returned to Sandringham for Frank’s daughter on her wedding day. The watch will now be exhibited for the first time. This is a story about the huge significance of small things.

Great escapes

A spectacular and sinister crow was added to the Royal Collection in late November 1914, when the First World War was already in a bloody stalemate and these birds were scavenging the battlefields. By then the Fabergé workshops were producing millions of bullets and hand grenades. Dowager Queen Alexandra never saw many of her Russian relatives again – nephew Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in Ekaterinburg where Fabergé’s hardstones had been mined. But the British Navy rescued her sister, Maria Feodorovna, the dowager empress, from Crimea and brought her back to Sandringham where she had spent happy visits in another world. Fabergé himself also escaped with British help, to die in Switzerland in 1920.

‘Royal Fabergé’ is curated by guest curator Ian Collins with the Sainsbury Centre and will be accompanied by a new publication Fabergé from St Petersburg to Sandringham, which will expand on the exhibition’s themes.

The Sainsbury Centre’s Russia Season will be completed by the permanent installation of the dramatic model of Tatlin’s Tower conceived as the most iconic architectural project of the Soviet era, though never built. With an immense impact on subsequent architects and designers, not least the architects of the University of East Anglia, the 10-metre tower will now rise in the sculpture park alongside the Sainsbury Centre.

The Russia Season runs from October 14 to February 11.

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