Reviews Gems & Gemology, Winter 2017, Vol. 53, No. 4

Book Review: Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition: An Empire’s Legacy

Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition: An Empire’s Legacy Book Cover
By Margaret Trombly, hardcover, 224 pp., illus., publ. by Thames and Hudson, New York, 2017, US$39.95.

Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition: An Empire’s Legacy was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the extensive Russian decorative arts collection found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. This museum has one of the finest collections of Russian enamels in the country, with pieces that date back to the 12th century. This hardbound book is beautifully illustrated, with pieces collected by museum founder Henry Walters (1848–1931), who collected the first two Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs to be brought to America. Decades later, a bequest from collector Jean M. Riddell (1910–2010) added two hundred pieces of Russian enamel work to the museum’s collection. The art collected by Walters and Riddell is featured in the exhibition and the accompanying catalog. Running until May 27, 2018, the exhibition has been produced in concurrence with the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Five well-respected decorative arts scholars contributed to this book, giving the reader an in-depth look at the Russian art market before and after the events of 1917. The introductory chapter gives the reader historical background on Henry Walters, who collected over 20,000 objects for his museum, and his father, William T. Walters, who helped develop his son’s artistic taste. Henry Walters was introduced to the work of Fabergé at the 1900 Exposition Universalle in Paris; on a trip to St. Petersburg that same year, he visited to the newly opened Fabergé shop on the fashionable Bolshaia Morskaia Street. There he purchased several hardstone carved animals and elaborately enameled parasol handles. This fueled his desire for collecting for Russian decorative arts. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, he worked with dealers in Paris and New York to acquire more pieces. In 1931 (the last year of his life), he bought the two Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs that became the most important pieces of his collection, the Gatchina Palace Egg and the Rose Trellis Egg. They are two of approximately fifty eggs that were commissioned by the Russian Imperial Family. The Gatchina Palace Egg, with its guilloché white enamel and seed pearls, opens to reveal a miniature model of the Gatchina Palace reproduced in rose gold and with exceptional detail. It was given to Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna by her son Nicholas II on Easter 1901. The Rose Trellis Egg is covered with a climbing rose vine on a diamond trellis over a light green enameled ground. Forty-nine pink roses bloom on the trellis, following the Russian tradition of favoring odd numbers. At the top of the egg is a large portrait diamond (which has a flat bottom and large table) that shows the enameled date beneath (1907). It was given to Empress Alexandra by her husband Nicholas II. Originally it contained a diamond necklace with a portrait of their son, Tsarevich Alexei, which is now lost. These two Fabergé Imperial eggs were purchased in Paris from Alexandre Polovtsoff, a member of a prominent St. Petersburg family in St. Petersburg who fled Russia after the revolution. He ended up in Paris, where he was able to make a living as an art dealer. Two chapters in this book are devoted to the fascinating story of Polovtsoff, though how he obtained the two Imperial eggs remains a mystery.

This book devotes a chapter to the Imperial Russian family’s jewelry, illustrated with prominent pieces that give the reader a sense of the grandeur and wealth of the Romanovs. Several photos are reproduced from Alexander Fersman’s 1925 publication, Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones. One photograph is a suite of 18th century diamond brooches and aigrettes created by the renowned Swiss jeweler Louis-David Duval (1727–1788) for Empress Catherine II. Another piece is a kokoshnik (traditional Russian headdress) style tiara, with large Indian briolette-cut diamonds, made for Empress Maria Feodorovna by an unknown jeweler. A full-page photo of the crown made by Swiss jeweler Jérémie Pauzié (1716–1779) for the 1762 coronation of Catherine II gives the reader a close-up view of this jeweler’s masterpiece. The crown contains 5,000 diamonds, one weighing 57 ct, two rows of large natural pearls, and is topped with a 389 ct spinel. Paintings and photographs of the royals wearing their Imperial jewels are also included. This chapter also reveals the hardships that many 18th century jewelers had to contend with while trying to make their fortune in Russia. For instance, Pauzié had a succession of fires, burglaries, and financial problems caused by clients who did not pay on time, and he eventually returned to Geneva. Duval also complained about payment delays from clients, and dealt with the depreciation of paper money and foreign currency values.

The last half of this book catalogs the pieces in the exhibition. The Russian decorative arts pieces collected by Henry Walters and donated by Jean Riddell are displayed in beautiful full-page color photos. Several of Russia’s finest jewelers are represented in this collection. The House of Fabergé is well represented with a wide array of pieces, including the two previously mentioned Imperial Easter eggs. A small menagerie of hardstone animals, purchased by Walters from Fabergé in St. Petersburg, consists of a red jasper rhinoceros, a banded agate chimpanzee, a jasper anteater, and a nephrite hippopotamus. Many unique enamel and hardstone parasol handles show off the mastery of Fabergé’s techniques. There are several boxes with painted enamel scenes of old Russian stories and decorated in the Pan-Slavic style—with bold reds, blues, and greens—by Fedor Rückert, an independent goldsmith who did work for Fabergé. There are many of these Pan-Slavic pieces, with the stylized flowers and geometric designs that were popular with the old noble families in Moscow. A kovsh is a traditional drinking vessel shaped like a boat or a bird that is uniquely Russian. There are several in this exhibition made of gold or silver and cloisonné enamel from jewelers such as Khlebnikov, Rückert, and Ovchinnikov. Notably, there are two women who were master Russian goldsmiths and enamellers represented in the catalog. There is an Easter egg, (ca.1899–1908) by Maria V. Semenovna, known for the careful fashioning of the cloisons on her cloisonné and her delicately painted enamels. Another woman known for her exquisite enameling techniques was Maria V. Adler, who is represented by a salt cellar in the shape of a miniature ecclesiastical chair (ca. 1879), made of silver and enamel. Other objects shown include a 12th century gold and cloisonné enamel temple pendant from old Kievan Rus’; a drinking cup made of silver, enamel, and coconut; and 18th century porcelain pieces from the Imperial Porcelain factory; an impressive 19th century tazza made of red marble with an elaborately carved head of Dionysus; and a marble bust of Tsar Nicholas I from 1834.

Henry Walters founded the earliest Russian art collection in America, and the breadth and depth of the collection attests to his connoisseurship and love of the Russian decorative arts. This book captures these exquisite Russian pieces in high-definition color photos, and the scholarly text takes the reader to the long-lost Imperial Russia. The text is engaging as well as historically informative, a worthy addition to anyone’s decorative arts library. 

Timothy Adams is an independent art historian specializing in the work of Carl Fabergé, jeweler to the Russian Imperial Court, and a member of G&G’s editorial review board.