Treasures of the Royal Courts

van Herwijck: Elizabeth I: The Hampden Portrait

Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars

(Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 14 July 2013)

Along with my Murillo adventures last weekend, I also visited the V&A, to see their  exhibition about the early years of diplomacy between the English court and the Tsars of Russia. This has a (rather tenuous) Lymond connection, as it opens with the expedition of the adventurer Richard Chancellor, who my fellow Dunnetteers will remember from The Ringed Castle. Naturally, considering my enthusiasm for all things Tudor and Stuart, I would have gone to the exhibition anyway, but the Dunnett angle offered a welcome little extra dose of piquancy.

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of Lymond, Richard Chancellor was a Bristol-born explorer who set off in 1552 with a delegation from the Company of Merchant Adventurers, to chart a course around the north coast of Norway. They hoped to find a new route to Russia and, in the process, perhaps even a north-east passage that would give them access to the wealth of Asia. In the latter, they were to be disappointed; and of the three ships on the expedition, two were lost with all their men. Chancellor, however, found his way to Archangel and established contact with the Tsars, laying the foundations for what would become the Muscovy Company, and a long tradition of diplomatic interaction between England and Russia.

Those who’ve read Dunnett will remember that Chancellor made a second voyage to Russia in 1555, returning to England the following year with Russia’s first envoy, Osep Nepeja, on board (he made it to London; Chancellor got as far as the coast of Scotland before he was shipwrecked and drowned). This is a story of brave men and incredible – some might say lunatic – determination. Consider, for example, that Elizabeth I’s last gift to Tsar Boris Godunov was a coach: a full-size, crimson-velvet-draped carriage. Now imagine trying to transport that carriage, even in pieces, across the 600 miles of frozen, snowy wasteland between Archangel and Moscow. The mind boggles and, more importantly, you immediately sense that there are some wonderful stories waiting to be told.

English silverware sent to the Tsars

Examples of English silverware sent as diplomatic gifts to Russia by the Tudors and Stuarts © Dan Kitwood

That, for me, is where the exhibition struggles. In choosing such a theme, it had the potential to delve into the fascinating story of these first tentative missions; but there simply isn’t enough relevant material in the show to let it do that. The early maps at the start of the exhibition, showing Chancellor’s arduous Arctic sea route, hint at the absorbing narrative to come; but the thread is almost immediately lost as we are sidetracked with unrelated Tudor suits of armour and stained glass. This sets the scene for the rest of the show, where a small number of core objects are directly related to Anglo-Russian diplomacy; a larger number give us a picture of general diplomacy in the period; and the vast majority simply serve to give a flavour of Tudor and Stuart court culture. It makes for a slightly frustrating exhibition that never quite sinks its teeth into a promising subject.

Those few exhibits that are genuinely related to Anglo-Russian interaction offer tantalising glimpses of the wider picture. A seal-die of the Muscovy Company is displayed alongside its wax impression showing a ship under sail, but there is little more information on offer about the long and dangerous journey that had to be undertaken each time the English monarchs and the Tsars exchanged envoys or gifts. We hear that Elizabeth I sent a set of virginals to Boris Godunov (who would later receive the coach as well), but the logistical challenge of transporting a fragile musical instrument 600 miles by sledge isn’t really brought to life. Less fragile were the gifts of elaborate silverware sent to the Tsars by Elizabeth, James I and Charles I, selections of which are displayed here in a vast cabinet forming the centrepiece of the exhibition. Historically, these are the most important pieces in the show, because so few examples of silverware from this period survive in England, thanks to the ravages of the Civil War.

The silver has a typically Jacobean weight and flamboyance – not to my taste, but undoubtedly impressive. Even as mundane an item as a water-pot has been crafted on an immense scale, bristling with decoration: its spout moulded in the shape of a dragon, and its body embellished with fruit, leaves and women’s heads. Such items blended the skill of English craftsmanship with the fundamental appeal of precious metal, and the pieces that survive in Moscow are a valuable record, both of what could be produced, but also of the sheer grandeur that was considered appropriate for diplomatic gifts of this type.

Moving on, we see a modern miniature model of the famous coach which was carried across the snows from Archangel – which is a bit of a letdown if you were hoping for the real thing, which hasn’t made the return journey back from Moscow. And finally there are two glimpses of the Russian side of the story, one in the surprising form of a stuffed pelican, to represent the pair of pelicans sent to Charles II by the Russian ambassador Prince Prozorovsky (those pelicans were the ancestors of the ones which inhabit St James’s Park today). Finally there’s a Portrait of Prince Petr Potemkin, the Russian envoy in 1681, which is a copy after Kneller’s original and shows the ambassador in all the splendour of his native costume, seen through English eyes.

Complementing these few core pieces are exhibits which tell us a bit more about general practices of diplomacy at this period, which suggest the experiences that ambassadors would have had in both countries. These included some pictures I’d never seen before, which were fascinating as historical documents even if their artistic quality wasn’t always outstanding. I was intrigued by the little watercolour of Queen Elizabeth I receiving the Dutch ambassadors, executed around 1585 by an unknown artist and now in the Museumslandschaft Hessen in Kassel. This suggested that Elizabethan diplomacy was a good deal more informal than I’d always assumed: where is the enormous hall thronged by courtiers and petitioners, and Gloriana in all her splendour?

On the contrary, this shows Elizabeth receiving ambassadors in a surprisingly modest room, either painted or tapestried with a gorgeous green-ground pattern of vines and flowers. Her ladies-in-waiting sit comfortably on the floor (one seems to have fallen asleep) and a handful of courtiers stand around, but the mood is much more relaxed than I’d imagined. The label reports that the woman in black is Mary Queen of Scots, based on an inscription under her feet, but I find this troubling and would want considerably more evidence about the date and reliability of the inscription before I accept that it’s her. Even if it is her, I would want to know why the artist has included her, when there’s no evidence that she and Elizabeth ever met.

Elizabeth I receiving the Dutch Ambassadors

Elizabeth I receiving the Dutch Ambassadors (detail)

We also have a glimpse of later English diplomacy under Charles II, in a huge painting of a reception at the Banqueting House, given in 1660 for the Spanish ambassador, the Prince de Ligne (attributed to Francois du Chastel). Here there is pomp and circumstance aplenty, and I was interested to find out that this picture – which I’d never seen before – is just one of a series showing the Prince’s ambassadorial visit. All are apparently still in the family collection of the Prince de Ligne; how marvellous it would have been to see the whole set together! We also have the chance to see a Russian diplomatic reception, which looks considerably grander than Elizabeth’s informal meeting with the Dutch ambassadors. A painting attributed to Szymon Boguszowick, dating from the early 17th century, shows A Tsar receiving a delegation in the Hall of the Faceted Chamber in the Moscow Kremlin. The Tsar has a full complement of priests, bodyguards and fabulously-dressed noblemen, all assembled in a vaulted chamber where every surface appears to be frescoed with flowers or martial scenes, and the floor is covered with Persian carpets. You can well imagine what Richard Chancellor and his companions must have felt, being received with such splendour.

Virtually everything else is generically Tudor or Stuart, with no clear Russian connection (save the portraits of courtiers who were involved, more or less actively, with the Muscovy Company). Not that I’m complaining: I love this period and the exhibition offers a slice of social history to complement that in last year’s Shakespeare: Staging the World. The Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I proved to be even more stunning in the flesh than it appears on the posters and catalogue cover, with the Queen’s crimson velvet gown set off by the swathes of cloth-of-gold behind her. Many of the V&A’s early miniatures were on display, including Hilliard’s famous roundel of Elizabeth I and some beautiful Isaac Olivers, in which the finesse of a scalloped lace collar, so delicate as to have been painted with a single hair, can take the breath away. There was a fabulously detailed view of Nonsuch Palace, from a private collection; suits of armour; gorgeously-embroidered nightcaps; and a cushion cover in crimson silk-satin, worked with oak leaves, acorns, blackberries and flowers in golden and silk thread – the crimson is as vivid as the day it was made.

Beside the cabinet of silverware, another case shows examples of historical costume, including a lovely Jacobean woman’s jacket, once again embroidered with flowers and leaves and vines; and a pair of men’s gloves with wide lace cuffs. And, in a case by itself, was a delicate glass chalice, with a ruffled pattern around the body of the bowl and engraved decoration, which is so fragile it’s a wonder it’s survived. This is all beautiful to look at; but, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it doesn’t have any bearing on the supposed subject of the exhibition, and it’s hard to see it as anything but padding for the small number of core exhibits.

The show opened first in Moscow and has now moved to London. By the end of my visit, I couldn’t help feeling that it had actually been designed specifically for a Russian audience as an introduction to English culture in the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts. This would explain why so many of the exhibits served simply to give a flavour of the age. It also suggests why so many of the portraits are mere copies of the originals – these paintings aren’t here for their artistic value, but for an educational purpose, to introduce the various English monarchs and their chief courtiers. The diplomatic connection comes across as merely a useful framework on which to hang the rest of the exhibition, perhaps because it would have provided Russian audiences with a helpful context. Perhaps this worked very well in Moscow, but it doesn’t flow as smoothly in London. Many of the people who visit the V&A will already have a knowledge of English history that goes beyond the information on many of the labels and the danger is that you come to the end of the exhibition feeling that you haven’t really scratched the surface of the issue under discussion.

In short: the idea behind the exhibition is great; the exhibits are beautiful; but the concept and contents don’t really do justice to one another. I would have loved a more rigorous chronological setup, focusing more tightly on the way that relations developed between the English monarchs and the Tsars; on whether the nature of their gifts changed over time; and on the way the two countries regarded one another across this hundred-year period. Considering the scarcity of material, that would probably have made the exhibition much smaller but it might have given it a greater narrative force and cohesion. The catalogue, based on what I’ve heard, goes into the story in a little more detail and so that will probably be my next step.

Buy the catalogue

Treasures of the Royal Courts, Summer 2013

The Dacre Beasts © Dan Kitwood

7 thoughts on “Treasures of the Royal Courts

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Charlie – what I hope came across is that there are some really beautiful things to see, and the show's worth a visit just to have a look at these; but in order to get the full benefit of the story, it's probably necessary either to buy the catalogue or to do further reading of another kind afterwards. I'm ashamed to say that I know next to nothing about Russian history and my only knowledge of this period honestly does come from The Ringed Castle – so even a little extra information is a great thing!

    I don't want to sound completely negative about this, because I think it was good of them to have a go at something slightly different and I did enjoy the exhibits. The narrative just didn't quite flow, that's all.

  2. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    Seems it's very lacking, which is sad because as you've said the idea is great. It's weird, so often there is too much information given, but here not nearly enough, and there isn't much Russian history taught in school to make up for it. I'd love to see it as Tudor history is one of my favourites, but I guess it's worth noting that it doesn't quite match the title.

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