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Treasures of Catherine the Great (London)

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Catherine the Great (1729-96) was probably the greatest collector of all time, accumulating over 4,000 Old Master paintings, medals, jewels, antique sculpture and other works of art. This exhibition will give an intimate picture of her personal possession

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      15.04.2001 01:15
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      The Hermitage Rooms on the South (Embankment) side of Somerset House have been designed to recreate the ambience and imperial splendour of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, as an extension to the Winter Palace, for her private enjoyment, and the collection grew enormously during her reign, and grew further in the reigns of succeeding Russian royalty, up until the Revolution of 1917. As a result, the Hermitage has around 3 million pieces of art work, and only the space to display about 5 per cent of that figure in its 10 kilometres of galleries. So, in order that as many of the collection's treasures as possible remain on display, at least somewhere in the world, the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House have been built to house small temporary collections from the Hermitage's collection. The inaugural exhibition in the Hermitage Rooms, 'The Treasures of Catherine the Great' will run until 23rd September 2001, and includes a fascinating cross-section of pieces that Catherine acquired during her reign. The collection includes a broad selection of paintings and statues, furniture and silverware. GALLERY I The first gallery of the Hermitage Rooms is more of an introduction to the Hermitage Museum in general, rather than part of the temporary exhibition. The walls are lined with columns of watercolours of the interior and exterior of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the New Hermitage, which were commissioned by Catherine's grandson, Nicholas I, and his son, Alexander II, in the 19th century. The detail in these watercolours is remarkable, and it is therefore a great pity that so many of them are displayed so high up the wall. Only the lower paintings can be really closely examined, and the higher ones are made even more difficult to examine by the reflection of the lights. The first galle
      ry also has a bank of six computers, by which you are able to tour the full collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and get an impression of the full range of antiquities and treasures in the collection. A good selection of guide books, both to the State Hermitage Museum, as well as to the temporary exhibition at the Hermitage Rooms, are available for reference in the first gallery, and an audio guide can be hired for £3. It's also worth picking up a plastic magnifying lens here, which is free, and can be worn around the neck, because many of the exhibits in the rest of the exhibition merit closer examination. A projected video on one of the walls of the first gallery shows a tour of the State Hermitage Museum, showing some of the architectural highlights of the building. While an attempt has been made to recreate the opulence of the Museum in the Somerset House Hermitage Rooms, the result is nothing like as impressive as the St. Petersburg museum itself, which is truly amazing. Probably the most interesting thing in the first gallery, however, is a simple sign with gold lettering on a black background, detailing Catherine's rules for behaviour in the Hermitage. A similarly coloured sign in English is displayed alongside the Russian one, allowing us to see the impetuous ruler's sense of humour. For example, the third rule is that visitors should "Be merry, but neither spoil not break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything", which conjures up amusing images of visiting dignitaries setting about furniture with their teeth. Even more amusing than the rules themselves is the punishment for failing to adhere to them – drinking a glass of cold water and reading Telemachiades! GALLERY II The second gallery is the first part of the temporary exhibition proper. Catherine, apparently, was a German princess, who arrived in Russia in 1744 to marry the heir to the Russian throne, Peter II
      I. For much of the following eighteen years, Peter ignored her, leaving her to spend her time in the study of philosophy and history, and to learn more about the Russian people. When Peter did finally accede to the throne, his rule lasted but six months, before an uprising deposed him, and forced Catherine to take up the throne. Under Catherine's rule, Russia became a great power in Europe, and she herself was admired both in Russia and throughout Europe. She soon became one of the world's greatest art collectors, and even used her purchasing as a political weapon. For example, she once humiliated Frederick the Great of Prussia by buying 225 paintings acquired for him by the art dealer Johann Gotzkowski, but which he could not afford following the expense of the Seven Years' War. There are several paintings of Catherine herself around the walls of the second gallery of the exhibition, painted before she took the throne. However, the majority of the gallery is filled with display cabinets. The first set of display cabinets is mainly filled with medals, made of silver, gold or pewter, and commemorating various noteworthy events in the history of Russia. Pretty much any event seemed to merit the production of commemorative medals, from Catherine's coronation, birthdays and death, to the marriage of Russian nobility. Even the introduction of smallpox inoculation to the Russian people in 1765 is commemorated by a large silver medallion. Alongside the medals is a wig, made from strands of silver in the 18th century. One wall of the gallery bears a large painting of 'The Hermitage Library', painted in 1826, which hangs above busts of Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire. Opposite this painting is an amazingly detailed table clock with rhinoceroses for legs, designed by James Cox, an English watch and clock maker, in 1771. Cox also designed the exuberant Peacock clock, which is one of the best known treasures of
      the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum. The second set of display cabinets contains several stunningly elaborate snuffboxes, inlaid with precious gems, gold and silver. Several watches with glass bodies, revealing the intricately carved wooden parts inside, are also on display, alongside table "necessaires", which are tiny chests of drawers, containing make-up items. GALLERY III The third gallery contains some of Catherine the Great's most prized possessions – a collection of engraved gems (sardonyx, cornelian, chaledonyx, jasper and onyx) depicting figures from biblical stories, mythology and history. Catherine's full collection runs to some 10,000 engraved gems, and 32,000 copies, of which only a tiny fraction is on display here. There are two types of piece in the collection – cameos and intaglios. The cameos, which constitute the greater part of the collection, have the image carved in relief, and were used for personal adornment. The intaglios, however, are more interesting, and more unusual – the image is concave, generally carved on the inside of the stone, and were typically used as seals. Several of the intaglios have been lit from behind, which more clearly shows the intricacy and beauty of the work that has gone into them. Some of Catherine's copies of engraved gems are on display in the gallery too. These are made of glass, coloured to resemble the originals, and displayed alongside the casts taken from the original. When Catherine admired gems in other European collections, she would often commission the production of replicas for her own collection. Alongside the engraved gems in the gallery is a dinner service made by the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, embellished with tiny cameos, which was a gift to Catherine from her (alleged) lover Prince Gregory Potemkin. GALLERY IV The fourth gallery reveals Catherine's interest in arts and crafts, an
      d her support for Russian craftmanship, as well as recognition of the abilities of several foreign craftsmen. Probably the most impressive pieces in the fourth gallery are the steel furnishings made in the city of Tula, which had been a centre for the manufacture of arms in Russia from the 16th century. Of the 500 recognised Tula steel objects remaining in the world, the Hermitage owns over 300, several of which are on display in this exhibition. The Tula craftsmen soon expanded beyond the simple construction of weaponry, and produced some amazing pieces – everything from tables and chairs to umbrellas were fashioned from Tula steel! The Tula pieces are easily identifiable by the skillful inlay of gold and silver, and by the presence of hundreds of tiny "steel pearls". Possibly one of the most impressive of the Tula pieces in the exhibition at the Hermitage Rooms is a cushion made of steel, covered with hundreds of tiny steel beads, and bearing steel "diamond" tassels. Also in the fourth gallery is the Wedgwood "Green Frog" service, which Catherine commissioned on her way to her summer residence in Kekerekeksihen ("Frog marsh"), and which bears the image of a tiny green frog on each piece. A display cabinet in the centre of the room contains toy swords and pistols that she had made for her grandchildren, Alexander and Constantine. GALLERY V The fifth, and final, gallery holds a collection of china and 'chinoiserie' (Chinese objects, and imitations of their style) collected by Catherine in the late 18th century. The room itself has a been decorated in a faux-Chinese style, and is dominated by a large hexagonal chinoiserie chandelier, which originally hung in the Chinese Room of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The central display cabinet in the room contains some of Catherine's collection of Chinese hairpins, depicting mythological creatures, and someti
      mes, whole scenes. The hairpins of this intricacy can only be found in two collections in the world – the Hermitage, and the Palace Museum at Taipei – which implies that they may well have been gifts from the Emperor of China himself. A silver cabinet in the fifth gallery displays gilded wine vessels, which were used as coffee pots by the Russian aristocracy. Numerous intricate silver filigree figures, in the shape of crabs and peacocks, can also be seen in the silver cabinet, and are truly remarkable. Another particularly noteworthy item in the fifth gallery is a beautiful 1770s card table, bearing an marquetry top inlaid with ebony, ivory, rosewood, pearwood, lemonwood, walnut, palm, maple and mother-of-pearl. CORRIDOR The corridor between the first three, and the last two, galleries, reveals Catherine's interest in Classical Greek and Roman art, and includes a collection of Classical marble sculptures, purchased by Catherine from John Lyde Brown, then director of the Bank of England, in 1787. The busts are affixed to the wall alongside romantic Italianate gouaches by Charles-Louis Clérisseau. NOTES ON AN EXHIBITION Tickets for the exhibition are sold for timed slots (on the hour and half hour), though if you go on a weekday, it is unlikely that you will have to wait long before being admitted. Only 25 people are admitted to the Hermitage Rooms in each half-hour period, to prevent overcrowding in the galleries. Admission is relatively dear at £6 for adults, and £4 for concessions, however, the price includes a £1 donation to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. To get your ticket, either go to the Hermitage Rooms themselves, book via Ticketmaster (020 7413 3398), buy your tickets from a Ticketmaster ticket centre (e.g. at Tower Records), or visit Ticketmaster's website (www.ticketmaster.co.uk). Getting to Somerset House is relatively easy. Take the Undergr
      ound to either Embankment or Charing Cross, and head north (away from the river) towards the Strand. Head east along the Strand (away from Trafalgar Square), and Somerset House is just on the right, after passing Waterloo Bridge. There is a small (but dear) restaurant and café in Somerset House just outside the Hermitage Rooms, and a shop selling souvenirs of both the Hermitage Rooms and of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. A poster bearing Catherine's Rules of behaviour in the Hermitage translated into English is available to buy for £2.25, which is quite a fun gift. CONCLUSIONS The Treasures of Catherine the Great proved to be much more interesting than I had expected, and took just over an hour to tour. The cross-section of art on display was surprisingly impressive, from the intricate and beautiful carved gems, to the amazing craftsmanship of the Tula steelwork. Certainly, touring the exhibition is a lot cheaper (and safer) than flying out to St. Petersburg, and whetted my appetite for future exhibitions in the Somerset House Hermitage Rooms.


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