Fabergé Museum: The jewels in St Petersburg's crown
Emily Laurence Baker enjoys a dazzling collection of Russian heritage
Saturday 05 July 2014
My jewelled, silk gown tickles my ankles as I climb the marble staircase of Shuvalov Palace and ascend towards the glittering chandeliers of a bygone age. As I near the top, I see a muscular security guard with an earpiece and am shot back to the reality of my trainer-clad feet poking out from blue jeans.
It's easy to dream in St Petersburg, where pastel palaces evoke Russia's imperial age. During the festive White Nights period – which runs until the end of this month, when daylight is nearly perpetual and the city's residents welcome summer with cultural events – it's even easier to imagine 19th-century Russian nobility alighting from carriages to attend grand parties.
Perhaps nowhere is the wealth and finery recalled better than at the newly-restored Shuvalov Palace on the banks of the Fontanka River. The silk-lined walls and glassy parquet floors of the Fabergé Museum are the vision of Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire who has been busy repatriating Russian decorative and fine art that was sold by the Soviet government in the 1920s and 1930s. Vekselberg has amassed some 4,000 pieces of 19th- and early 20th-century collectibles to preserve for his compatriots. The centrepiece is the Fabergé collection of American publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes, which Vekselberg swooped up privately for over $100m just before it went to auction a decade ago.
I am here to see nine imperial Fabergé eggs, the largest number in a private collection, that once belonged to the royal Romanov family. Tsar Alexander III and later, his son, Nicholas II, would each year give their wives jewelled Fabergé Easter eggs, totalling 50 imperial eggs which are now scattered around the world. Ten are in Moscow's Kremlin Armoury; three grace our own Royal Collection; seven are missing and others are in private collections and museums. The first Fabergé Museum, founded by fellow Russian billionaire, Alexander Ivanov, in Baden-Baden, Germany, owns the famous Rothschild Fabergé egg, as well as the final Fabergé egg. It was made for Nicholas, but he was deposed before he could give it to his mother. There are 15 other non-imperial Fabergé eggs made for private clients; five of them are here, including one made for the Duchess of Marlborough.
I am giddy at the prospect of viewing so many eggs in their homeland and in an appropriately opulent setting. I'm also glad I didn't rush to St Petersburg when the museum opened last November. Then, entry was restricted to private group tours, bookable only through one tour company at a staggering 16,000 roubles (£265). Just before Easter, restrictions were quietly lifted and admission now costs just 300 roubles (£5). Visits are even easier now, with more English-guided tours and the addition of audio guides in the evenings. I failed to book ahead and have to join a Russian-language tour, but as my guide jabbers away, I decide that it adds to the authenticity.
My egg quest is fulfilled early, in the silk-lined Blue Room, still garnished with gold gildings and mouldings, as it looked when it was the palace's dining room. Each egg has its own clear case and because tours are limited to about 15 people, there is plenty of opportunity to scrutinise each one. Vekselberg's collection has several masterpieces, not least of which is the Hen Egg, the first in the series of 50 jewelled eggs made for the imperial family. The tradition began in 1885, when Tsar Alexander III commissioned local jewellers, the House of Fabergé, to craft an Easter gift for his Danish wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. The first egg was such a success, that Carl Fabergé was given artistic freedom, with the only stipulation being that each egg contain a surprise.
After Alexander's death in 1894, Nicholas II continued the tradition, giving his wife, Alexandra, and his mother, an egg each year. Perhaps the most magnificent of these (and the most valuable) is the Coronation Egg, made to commemorate his 1896 coronation. The diamond and ruby-encrusted shell is beautiful, but the true joy is the egg's interior: an exact replica of the coronation coach of Catherine the Great, now in the nearby Hermitage Museum. The miniature coach reportedly took 15 months of 16-hour days to craft. Meanwhile, the Fifteenth Anniversary Egg of 1911 is a mini family photo album of sorts. Royal portraits surrounded by diamonds and 18 hand-painted scenes of Nicholas and Alexandra's reign give no hint of their grim demise just seven years later.
I reluctantly leave the Blue Room but my pulse quickens when I see the array of treasures, including cigarette cases, jewellery, figurines, clocks and belt buckles that were produced by the House of Fabergé during its heyday as imperial goldsmith in St Petersburg, at that time the imperial capital of Russia. The guide pulls me aside to explain some of the exhibits in English. Not all the items are Fabergé; other esteemed Moscow silversmiths are represented and an entire room is dedicated to glittering domestic icons. In a warren of small rooms that serve as the picture galleries, huge Russian masterpieces are floodlit. My eye wanders to a Renoir, another delightful surprise.
The museum is more than its contents. It opens a window to the opulence of the imperial world and the sharp contrast of subsequent years. Many rooms have photos of the six-year restoration process, which portray the neglect of the Soviet era when Shuvalov Palace served a variety of purposes, including as the "House of Friendship and Peace", when the building hosted events and cultural festivals. Now, as we wander through the lavish rooms, I can easily picture the 19th-century grand balls for which Shuvalov was famous.
And so I descend the grand staircase, trailing my imaginary silk train and feeling pleased that at least a few of the imperial eggs have come home.
St Petersburg is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.
The Fabergé Museum (007 812 333 26 55; fsv.ru) opens daily except Fridays from 10am-6pm for guided tours and from 6-9pm for audio tours (150 roubles/£2.50). A one-hour tour costs 300 roubles (£5)pp or 9,000 roubles (£155) for a pre-booked, private group of up to 15. Pre-book tours via email on firstname.lastname@example.org at least one week in advance.
British travellers to Russia require a visa, which is available from the Russia Visa Application Centre in London or Edinburgh for £32.40 (ru.vfsglobal.co.uk).
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