Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Museum Junkie: Hermitage Amsterdam launches grand opening

A branch of Russia’s famous Hermitage museum opened to the public last weekend in Amsterdam. The giant Hermitage Amsterdam houses treasures from St. Petersburg including costumes, jewelry, furniture, and art from the time of the Tsars.

The museum’s opening was done with appropriate pomp and circumstance. Fireworks, a full orchestra, and a visit by the Dutch royal family entertained a vast crowd lining the Amstel canal just to the east of downtown Amsterdam.

The museum itself made a more lasting impression. The two wings are dedicated to the Tsars’ court and the exquisite balls for which it was famous. Some of the most sumptuous displays are of court costume, like this red velvet and satin dress embroidered with gold, made for the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna sometime between 1880s and 1890. Other displays included ornate jewelry, gold tableware, thrones, and even musical instruments.


Some of the most interesting items were the minor ones, like the menus for state banquets, showing images from Russian history printed in brilliant colors. The working toy guns for the Tsar’s children brought a few looks of horror from parents, and a series of early black and white silent films from Russia in the 1910s gathered a large crowd.

What the displays didn’t talk about was as interesting as what they did. There was barely a mention of the Soviet Union, and not a word of how the Romanovs lost power–by being lined up against a wall and shot by the Bolsheviks. With this grandiose display the new Russia is trying to put its unseemly past behind it and highlight its role as a European power in the grand tradition. While museums shouldn’t shy away from inconvenient history, the Hermitage Amsterdam certainly fulfills its objective. Add it to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum as the artistic highlights of one of Europe’s great art capitals.