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Expensive things...

...from St Petersburg to Sandringham

Is that it? And We've done it all were the two disheartening comments of the day. It seems that in these days of excess even three or four rooms of the most exquisite artistry are not enough to satisfy everyone. Fortunately, I was standing in one quite corner by what will be for most the centrepiece of the exhibition when I was as startled as the utterer was embarrassed by a heartfelt Wow!

Wow, indeed.

The Basket of Flowers Egg from 1901 is undoubtedly stunning. As these things go it is not the most opulent. For all its guilt and diamonds in the basket work, what stuns isn't that or the bright royal blue enamel base (a repair following damage some time round about the piece's escape from revolutionary Russia) – no what is truly awe-inspiring is the detail in the flowers. I'm not sure they could all have been gathered on a single spring ramble through a Russian woodland: snowdrop, hellebore, and lily, cornflower, poppy and pansy, daisy, columbine, wild rose and jasmine are unlikely bedfellows for even a golden bed of moss, but the homespun nature of their ensemble is delightful, set off by corn and grass that might be precious metal but look real enough to make you want to touch.

For those who know Fabergé only for the eggs this is the undoubted star of the show. For me it was just the taster.

Exquisite artistry – when talking Fabergé you cannot get away from those words. They're almost tautological with the name of the firm. And as the exhibition makes clear 'Fabergé' was named for its founder and its greatest artist, but it was a factory, an enterprise with many artists and craftsman coming together to produce these fabulous pieces. The design is all very well, but unlike a painter's masterpiece, totally within his control, these objets d'art required collaboration, they needed artists and craftsmen, but also artisans to keep the firing kilns operating, miners to source the gems and other stones, cutters, and placers and polishers. No one piece could be said to be the work of a single man.

But that doesn't make them any less masterpieces.

My favourites of the show are the flowers. Five delicate pieces are on display: the orientalism of the Japanese Garden and of the Pine Tree in their onyx- and jade-coloured vases are nothing compared to delicacy of the single sprig of daphne, the pear blossom branch (presented by the Countess of Dudley to the Queens Own Worcestershire Hussars), and my personal favourite Violet posy, all of which appear to sit in water-filled vases of glass. There is no glass and no water, merely the skilful carving of rock crystal to create the illusion. The flowers themselves are enamel on stems of gold. Brilliant diamonds so subtly used as to be easily misses.

Fabergé is quoted as saying "Expensive things interest me little, if the value lies merely in the quantity of diamonds or pearls" No doubt these were expensive pieces – although it is reckoned that the house of Fabergé were underpaid by comparison to some of their competitors, Tiffany and Cartier, among them…but is it not the fate of artists to only be truly appreciated so many years later. The enamelling is the true star of these pieces, the layering of coating and firing and polishing again and again to create such translucence is something that would give pause, were one not already stunned by the simple beauty that results.

So what has Sandringham to do with all of this, you may be wondering. In 1907 a suggestion was made that Fabergé be asked to produce hard-stone carvings of a few of the Royal family's favourite animals. "A few dogs and horses" was the original vision that quickly morphed with regal exuberance to cover ''the whole farmyard''. (Henry Bainbridge as quoted in the book accompanying the exhibition).

Alongside the horses and dogs, there are sheep, cats, rats, a guinea-pig, numerous birds. Along with the perfect selection of stone for the carving, the banded agate capturing pigeon plumage to perfection, there is life and humour in the smallest of pieces. A donkey looks as sad as any Eye-ore, while the Dormouse shredding grass for its nest must make you smile. The colouration is lifelike in many of the pieces, but in others – as with the dove – more suggestive of a quality – innocence in that particular case. To be fair, not all of them are of the standard of the best among them…and I am not convinced by the preference for using rubies for eyes in many cases, but the best more than make up for the weaker pieces.

Then there is the metalwork…ceremonial cup and kovsh and silver samovar do nothing for me. Let me get to the desert course to handle those fruit & cheese knives and forks with their shibuichi and shakudo decoration in elegant japonisme. Like the silver Art Nouveau cigarette cases of simple clematis and poppy designs, these things beg to be handled, touched, caressed.

 

It is all opulence. Of course it is, but in many cases the opulence is understated, allowed to stand back just far enough, just quietly enough, for the art to speak.

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The exhibition "Fabergé: from St Petersburg to Sandringham" runs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts until 11th February 2018. Full details on the website: https://scva.ac.uk/art-and-artists/exhibitions/the-russia-season

The accompanying book by Ian Collins puts the collection and the wider work of Fabergé in their historical context of the lead-up to the Russian revolution and in particular how this played out in the royal families of Europe. https://www.amazon.co.uk/FABERGE-Petersburg-Sandringham-Ian-Collins/dp/0946009716

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