Hermione Eyre: Fabergé eggs: exquisite and completely naff

The thing is...

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:01

The thing is Fabergé Eggs are basically very, very expensive Kinder Surprises. These opulent knick-knacks have just gone on display at Buckingham Palace alongside the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress. Everyone seems to think they are charmant, eggsquisite. But these are tragic toys, the modern equivalent of Nero's violin – playthings for people completely out of touch with reality. They are cloyingly hideous, with all the artistic merit of flying ducks on a suburban wall, except made out of the most precious materials known to man.

Take the Mosaic Egg of 1914, which resembles a tapestry sampler, except every stitch is made out of precious stones. A perfect Easter present for the Empress who has everything. Then there is a miniature gold Louis XV-style escritoire, for the autocrat with tiny fingers. It makes you want to say: Bring on the Five-Year Plans.

Now, little lifelike animals that sit on mantelpieces are all very well. My grandma had several. But when they are carved in chalcedony and set with ruby eyes, like Edward VII's Norfolk terrier Caesar, they start to become slightly icky. We all make errors of taste– a crystal teddy here, a lava lamp there – but the very rich make them in perpetuity, and then the rest of us end up buying tickets to look at them.

Eggs made for the Imperial family are now on display inside the Kremlin. About a hundred years ago, the Russian army was mutinying and Bolsheviks were everywhere. "I know," said Tsar Nicholas. "I'll get that Fabergé chap to make me a teeny, tiny neo-classical pavilion in pink and green, with gold cherubs representing each of my family members. That'll make me feel better."

They are fascinating and important artefacts, so they should be. But that does not make them right. One egg celebrates a new royal yacht with a gold replica sailing upon a crystal sea, set with lapis lazuli dolphins. It's enough to make even an oligarch blush.

There are powerful exceptions. The Queen's collection includes a simple, lifelike Fabergé of cornflowers and oats given to the Queen Mother in 1944, who kept it in her shelter room at Buckingham Palace and described it as "a charming thing and so beautifully unwarlike". No one could deny her that, or find it unbeautiful. But many of the Imperial things are mental more than ornamental: oh-no-bibelots.

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