From (and to) Russia with love

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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

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