Look at any of the objets d’art at the new exhibit in Norwich, England, and the name of their maker is immediately obvious: Carl Fabergé. The Russian jeweller is synonymous with the extravagant works of art created for the Russian royal family. While his shop in St. Petersburg buzzed with activity as it filled orders from the tsar and family as well as the extravagantly rich families who occupied the tip of Russian society. Today, Fabergé—who called himself an “artist jeweller,” above such “people of commerce” like Cartier and Boucheron—is far more famous than his contemporaries.
Now, the Russia Season: Royal Fabergé, an exhibit at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts opens the world of Fabergé. Timed for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and the companion show for Radical Russia, the show includes more than 60 works of Fabergé from the Royal Collection, including the Basket of Flowers Egg from 1901. It’s one of three imperial Easter eggs owned by the Queen. As the Royal Collection states, it “contains wild flowers, leaves and husks of enamel on gold. Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II as an Easter present for Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna in 1901, the Basket of Flowers Egg cost 6,850 roubles.” It was acquired by Queen Mary in 1933, after being seized by the Soviets and sold off for 2,000 roubles.
Fabergé’s extraordinary works of art
While the imperial Easter eggs were the most famous creations created by the famous firm, they weren’t all. As I wrote in 2015, “During Carl Fabergé’s 35-year tenure as head of the firm, from 1882 to the revolution, it created roughly 200,000 unique objects—everything from pins, brooches and bracelets, to umbrella handles and picture frames, as well as tiaras, opulent boxes and all sorts of objets d’art. No piece could be too fanciful or frivolous. For what set the original eponymous firm apart was an intense drive to create the most wondrous objects possible. The workshops employed 300 goldsmiths, stone carvers and enamellists, who had modern conveniences, including electricity, as well as a doctor and a canteen.”
In addition to shops in Russia, Fabergé had a store in London, where Queen Alexandra and her husband, Edward VII, loved to pick up pieces for their personal collection. Alexandra was obsessed with recreating the farm at their Sandringham estate in stone and precious metals. Only the best, most realistic animals would join the royal collection. Even more importantly, they are unique. As Edward said, “We do not want any duplicates.” So Norfolk’s rats, crows, stouts and swallows were recreated in glorious detail. The items are tiny. The opal-and-ruby stout measures a mere 1.0 x 2.7 x 1.0 cm.
Among the royal collectibles is a model of the king’s beloved Norfolk terrier, Caesar, whose likeness was sculpted by Faberge’s craftsmen, right down to the gold and enamelled collar with the inscription, “I belong to the King.”
Many of those animals are at the exhibition in Norwich, including a startlingly realistic dormouse, which Queen Alexandra purchased on Nov. 5, 1912 at a cost of £33 (the equivalent of £3,460 today). Made of chalcedony, its sapphire eyes watch for enemies while platinum whiskers twitch above straw made of gold.
Fabergé’s world collapsed with the revolution in 1917. He died three years later in Switzerland. Ironically, his works are more famous today than they were a 100 years ago, while most of the revolutionaries who destroyed his business have long since been consigned to history’s backwaters. Carl Fabergé’s works are on display in Norwich at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts until Feb. 11, 2018.