From (and to) Russia with love

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An exhibition at the V&A reveals how the golden age of relations between the British monarchy and the Russian Tsars led to the exchange of the greatest gifts the world had seen

When Elizabeth I sent an ambassador bearing gifts to Ivan the Terrible, it was part of a process of ambassadorial gifts between the two countries that resulted in some fabulous treasures being exchanged between the two courts. It also gave a moment's excitement to Ivan the Terrible. He wanted to marry the virgin queen and assumed that the ambassador was bringing him that offer.

In the event, Elizabeth tried to palm him off with a lady of the English court to soothe him, but he was already on his seventh wife and got over the disappointment.

The two monarchs did though continue their relationship in diplomacy, with Elizabeth at one point offering him sanctuary in England, though cannily insisting that he be responsible for his own expenses. Ivan the Terrible may have been terrible for the Russians but he was the most friendly Tsar to the English. When he died, the Russian foreign minister said to the English ambassador: “Your English Tsar is dead.”

Elizabeth also, in 1601, made sure that a performance of Twelfth Night was staged for the Russian ambassador. This was a period of remarkable closeness between the two countries, and it's significant that Love's Labours Lost has a whole scene in which characters turn up dressed as Muscovites. Russia fascinated England then.

Now, for the first time, an exhibition is to be mounted in Britain showing some of the greatest ambassadorial gifts from this period. It will be put on at London's Victoria & Albert Museum and follows a similar exhibition staged in the Kremlin at the end of last year by the Kremlin's director of museums, Elena Gagarina, daughter of the first man in space Yuri Gagarin. Dr Gagarina told me when I went over to see it that the V&A was one of her favourite museums and she anticipated an increasingly close cultural relationship.

Indeed, the V&A exhibition next month is just part of its efforts to cement closer ties with Russia. As well as touring exhibitions and a sharing of expertise, the general galleries of the V&A are now showing the silver-gilt gates from Kiev and other objects ranging from a 19th-century Mother and Child triptych to 200 20th-century posters and a collection of 19th-century photographs of people associated with the theatre in St Petersburg. The museum also has Russian toys and revolutionary ceramics as well as jewellery from the Russian Royal collections amid much else.

But this new exhibition of the Treasures of the Royal Courts with its story of ambassadorial gifts from the founding of the Muscovy Company in 1555 is the biggest venture yet involving unprecedented loans from the Kremlin's own museums. Comprising more than 150 objects, the exhibition will chronicle the ritual and chivalry of the royal courts with heraldry, processional armour and sumptuous textiles, paintings and miniatures. At the heart of the exhibition will be spectacular British and French silver that was given to the Russian Tsars.

As the show's curator Tessa Murdoch points out: “These are the best ambassadorial gifts ever given in the world. As for the silver, it's amazing that these treasures survived the turbulence of the 20th century in Russia. In England, silver would have been melted down in the Civil War.”

The important role of heraldry will be stressed with such items as The Dacre Beasts, a group of red bull, black griffin, white ram and crowned white dolphin that bear the medieval arms and armorial crest of the powerful Dacre family (Dacre fought alongside Henry Tudor in the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth) will be on display with the “Kynge's Beeste's” stone lions – the only beasts known to have survived from Henry VIII's royal palaces. The heraldic emblem of the pelican will also be represented. A pair of pelicans were given to Britain in 1662 by the Russian ambassador and nested in St James's Park where their successors remain today.

A particularly remarkable example of cultural diplomacy through gift-giving at court is the lavish chariot presented in 1604 by British ambassador Thomas Smith to the Russian Tsar Boris Godunov. It reflected Britain's technological advances and can be seen in the Kremlin Armouries Museum. Too delicate to travel, it will be represented by a specially commissioned film and scale model.

Martin Roth, director of the V&A, says: “This exhibition tells us about Britain's longstanding relationship with Russia as well as highlighting similarities of diplomacy and exchange between both countries, then and today.”

So when and why did the diplomacy and this exchange of treasures falter? It stopped in 1649 with the execution of Charles I. The Russians quite simply wouldn't deal with regicides. Even back in the 17th century, they didn't like the sound of that. And though there was a resumption when Charles II ascended the throne, the momentum had been lost. The Dutch had overtaken the English as Russia's favoured trading partner, the Old English Court (an example of medieval civil architecture in the historical centre of Moscow, which can still be visited and which was the first English embassy in Moscow, centre of trading and diplomatic activity between England and Russia) was closed to diplomats. Indeed, after the execution of Charles I, Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich expelled all English merchants from Russia. The golden age of cultural diplomacy was over.

Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars, supported by the Friends of the V&A with further support from Summa Group, at V&A, London SW7 (www.vam.ac.uk/treasures) 9 March to 14 July

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor