[Until 3rd November]
This well-researched exhibition puts into perspective over 300 years of relations between the monarchies of Britain and Russia, through turbulent times in history as well as diplomatic relations between both empires. We see how relations may have been strengthened by the Napoleonic Wars, but took a dip during the Crimean War, yet what comes through strongly in this exhibition is family. At first glance, you might assume there are no Scottish connections in this exhibition. But you might be wrong. Much like the Faberge eggs on display, this exhibition has a few surprises inside.
Over 170 Russian-themed artworks and objects, owned by the Royal Collection, are shown here, many on display for the first time in Scotland. We can marvel at the expert detail of luxury, designed objects such as Faberge eggs, Russian-inspired outfits and jewellery as well as paintings commissioned or gifted.
Diplomatic relations between the two royal dynasties began over 300 years ago when Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) arrived in Britain in 1698 to meet William III. This connection is later strengthened by the formidable forces of Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) in the 18th Century and, through marital family connections, by Queen Victoria in19th Century. Both women were responsible for creating a lasting cultural and personal exchange between the two empires. Such familial connections are knitted into history in a complex pattern.
Despite the trappings of royalty, every family encounters tragedy, mortality and estrangement. Add to this an extreme unsettling of the traditional status of royalty across Europe following the French Revolution.
But what of the Scottish connections? There are a few. Catherine the Great’s interest in the Scottish Enlightenment brought her attention to the skills of Scottish architects. Scottish neoclassical architect Charles Cameron designed Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk, two of Russia’s finest 18th Century palaces. Catherine’s close friend Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova, a major figure of the Russian Enlightenment, spent a few years (1776-9) living at the Palace of Holyrood House while her son attended Edinburgh University.
As you might expect, Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland meant that family reunions sometimes took place at Balmoral Castle. In 1896 Nicholas and Alexandra (the Queen’s granddaughter) visited at Balmoral, documented by a watercolour by Orlando Norie. Queen Victoria also appoints Nicholas II as colonel-in-chief to the Scots regiment now known as Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
After the tragic and dramatic executions of Nicholas and Alexandra’s family during the 1917 Russian revolution, the 20th Century portraits and artworks highlight a more modest and approachable representation of royal figures compared to the earlier grandiose paintings of Peter and Catherine.
Portraits of the Duchess of York (later known as the Queen Mother) and Queen Elizabeth II gaze directly at the viewer. The Queen Mother commissioned these portraits by Russian artist Savely Sorine. This is the antidote to the pomp of Faberge and more formal royal portraits. An oil painting A Winter’s Day by Igor Grabar presented to the queen in 1956 brings us back down to earth. Seen through this filter, the mask of royalty slips away revealing the heart and soul of family underneath.