After all the magnificent presents she’d received from his workshop, Queen Alexandra was eager to meet the most famous jeweller in Russia. ‘If Mr Fabergé ever comes to London,’ she said to Henry Bainbridge, a manager of the design house, ‘you must bring him to see me.’ Peter Carl Fabergé paid a rare visit to the capital to inspect his new shop — the only one located outside the Russian empire — at 48 Dover Street in 1908. ‘The Queen wants to see me! What for?’ he asked an exasperated Bainbridge. ‘Well, you know what an admirer she is of all your things.’ Insisting that she would not wish to be troubled, Fabergé demurred, polished off his lunch and requested the time of the next train.
Fabergé, whose work for both Edwardian and Romanov society goes on display at the V&A this week, was by most accounts a modest man of immodest creativity. Of Huguenot heritage, he grew up in St Petersburg, where his father had established a traditional jewellery business, and trained as a goldsmith before completing the Grand Tour. Inheriting the family company in 1872, Fabergé fils proceeded to transform and enlarge it until he stood at the head of 500 innovative workers, among them his younger brother, Agathon, and four sons.
While the ‘soul’ of the firm remained in St Petersburg, a second branch had opened in Moscow and a third in Odessa when Fabergé began to weigh up Paris and London as possible locations for an international outpost. His choice of London in 1903 was influenced by both its growing reputation as a meeting point for buyers, and the connections between the British royal family and his patrons in Russia.
Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII, was the sister of Emperor Alexander III’s wife, Maria Feodorovna, and Edward’s niece, Alexandra Feodorovna, was married to Emperor Nicholas II. It was at Alexander’s instigation that Fabergé began to produce his famous line of Easter eggs. The first and, to my eye, the most beguiling, consisted of an outer shell of white opaque enamel encasing a gold ‘yolk’, which contained a pretty golden hen with ruby eyes, concealing a diamond crown and pendant. Almost every year after Maria received it as a present, Fabergé took orders for eggs from the court, to which he had been appointed Supplier and Appraiser of the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty, permitting him to mark his stationery with the state emblem, and enter the palaces.
Each egg was to be more extraordinary than the last, the challenges of which are only too obvious. It became less about the egg than the surround and the surprise. After the simple white hen’s egg of 1885 came an egg forming part of a model of Uspenski Cathedral, complete with chiming clocks and a wind-up mechanism to play Easter hymns, and an egg split across the top as if scalped in an eggcup to reveal a miniature model of the entire Alexander Palace. Both are among more than 200 pieces going on display at the V&A. Mirrored ceilings have been installed at the gallery to show off the glitz from all directions. Only the eggs made during the first world war broke the cycle of extravagance. Those made for 1915 were adorned with the Red Cross in honour of the Romanov women’s medical work. They split open to reveal painted religious iconography rather than the usual baubles or automata.
Although, surprisingly, Fabergé was not involved in crafting the objects, he oversaw the work, and organised his employees into groups under workmasters he hired himself. These workmasters, chief among them Michael Perkhin, a Russian, and Henrik Wigström, a Finnish-Swede, were allowed to initial their pieces. In addition to crafting eggs, they made a wide range of decorative objects, such as clocks, cigarette cases, letter openers, model animals and all manner of what Kieran McCarthy, the exhibition’s curator, calls ‘nonsensical objects to delight’. Who doesn’t need a silver cigar-cutter in the shape of a Japanese carp?
The London items are among the most unusual. Scenes of the British countryside and houses, including Sandringham, were presented in gold, enamel and nephrite. Statuettes of famous figures from British culture were modelled from a rich variety of stones. It is quite something to behold a hoary Chelsea Pensioner in black jasper trousers and boots. It is still more startling to stumble upon a portly and, dare I say it, rather toylike John Bull. While the former was purchased for £49 15s by King Edward for Alexandra, the latter was snapped up by Emperor Nicholas II before it even reached our shores. It is hard to say who had the perkier sideburns, the tsar or flame-haired Bull.
The real wonder of Fabergé lies in the ingenuity of the creations. As McCarthy says, the craftsmen could ‘take a piece of quartz and turn it into a quince’. Many of the materials they used were peculiarly stubborn and difficult to piece together. Often, the techniques have been lost, or prove impossible to recover working backwards from the finished objects. The seamless coherence of the gold, which like their other materials Fabergé sourced principally from the Ural mountains, defies comprehension.
The Fabergé workers were quite literally at the cutting edge of new developments in materials. They carried out so many experiments with coloured enamel that Bainbridge likened their workshops to research laboratories. One of the young female employees, Alma Pihl, achieved prominence within the firm as a designer and worked wonders with platinum, which had only recently started to be used for jewellery. After designing a range of brooches inspired by snowflakes, she conceived the transparent, ice-like rock crystal and platinum Winter Egg adorned with 1,660 diamonds surrounding a platinum and diamond basket of quartz spring anemones.
During the war, many of the workers were conscripted, and the emphasis fell away from luxury items in favour of necessities. To Fabergé’s manufacture of cooking pots were added orders for components for hand grenades and artillery plugs. Worse was still to come.
The confiscation of jewels by the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution of 1917 saw many of Fabergé’s masterpieces destroyed. With the workshops no longer able to supply it, the London branch closed, and remainder stock was sold off to a French jeweller on New Bond Street. Two of Fabergé’s sons were imprisoned before one of them lent his assistance to the state treasury in examining and breaking up jewellery — very likely some of his family’s own handiwork — for the raw materials.
The penultimate room of the exhibition, the darkest in what the curator describes as a ‘glittery, wonderful, joyful’ show, follows Fabergé’s flight from Russia in the wake of the Romanov assassinations. Having reached Riga, he reunited with the rest of his family, before proceeding surreptitiously to Finland. Finally, in 1920, he reached Lausanne. ‘Such a life is not a life any more,’ he would say, ‘when I cannot work or be useful.’ He died later that year of liver cancer. For all that he had lost, hundreds of his creations had been preserved, some so well that it is believed that at least two of his eggs may still be out there, ready to be hunted.