Once, while bored with trade school drudgery, I asked a few friends to help me choose an arbitrary combination of letters and numbers. Fashioning a random Dewey decimal code from their responses, I then read all the books on the corresponding shelf at the trade school’s library. Luckily, I now know a fair bit about the Opium War and Charles “Chinese” Gordon. Today’s selection was chosen in similar fashion.
Title: Fabergé’s Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire, by Toby Faber
Motivation: Entirely serendipitous–I asked a colleague to select a topic at random. He chose “Fabergé Eggs.”
Completed: April 3, 2012 (#26)
Recommendation: An engaging history of the waning days of the Romanov dynasty, told through the Czar’s annual Easter gifts to his wife and mother.
Between 1885 and 1917, Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II purchased approximately 50 jeweled eggs from the renowned House of Fabergé under the direction of its scion, Karl Gustavovich. Barring intervening events (e.g., Bolshevik firing squads), the Czars would present one egg per year at Easter to each of the women in their lives, namely, the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna. Each egg contained a “surprise,” an often mechanical and always ingenious device to amuse the recipient.
Of these exquisite, only occasionally crass “Imperial Eggs,” the majority survive, having over the years made their way into a variety of Western collections, including those of Armand Hammer–whose name cannot fail to provoke thoughts of baking soda–and the Forbes family. (Recently sold to a Russian oligarch, the Forbes collection is the source of the lavish photographs accompanying this post.)
As the appropriately named Mr. Faber demonstrates, Fabergé’s art deepened along with his relationship to the Romanovs. What was initially a mere bagatelle for the Czarina’s diversion over time matured into a something like an annual chronicle of the events of the Romanovs’ reign. The World War I era eggs are stark, steely, gritty, and (relatively) appropriate to a time of grave national crisis. Some eggs emphasize the “Window to the West” culture of St. Petersburg; others, the authentically Slavic onion domes of Muscovy.
Mr. Faber’s art history is unpretentious and enthusiastic, which lends the book real charm. Consider, for example, the below passage on The Lillies of the Valley Egg (1898), pictured at left:
In 1898 Alexandra received an even more gratifying Easter gift: the Lilies of the Valley Egg. Of all Fabergé’s creations, this is one of the most beautiful. Something about it is immediately beguiling. Perhaps it is the way its pink enamel takes on a golden tinge when seen in a certain light. Perhaps it is the delicacy with which the pearls hang on its side, each a stylized lily of the valley. This was one of Alexandra’s favorite flowers, and she would have recognized and appreciated, too, the art nouveau style in which the egg was made—a new departure for a jeweler more used to seeking inspiration from the French eighteenth century. Fabergé would presumably have known that Alexandra’s brother, Prince Ernie of Hesse, had turned his capital at Darmstadt into one of the European centers of this new design philosophy, which sought to replace the rigidities of classicism with curves and natural forms. Alexandra herself would go on to use an art nouveau theme when redecorating in the Alexander Palace.
As popular history, the book both educates and delights. Strange as it may sound, Fabergé’s studio provides a fine vantage point from which to view intimate portraits of the ancien régime, including of that great enigma of Russian history, Rasputin:
The mysterious Philippe Vachot had died in the summer of 1905, but not before prophesying that after his death there would come another, bearing his spirit. Later that year Nicholas and Alexandra met Rasputin for the first time. As with Vachot, the introduction came from the Montenegrin sisters, Militsa and Anastasia, but the peasant also came with a recommendation from Alexandra’s former confessor, the Archimandrite Theophan. Here was a mystic carrying the church’s blessing, a holy man, or, in the Orthodox tradition, a starets, who already had a reputation as a healer. All who met him were struck by his good humor, by his evident sincerity, and—above all—by his piercing, mesmeric eyes.
The Revolution, of course, put paid to all this finery, but the history of the Imperial Eggs did not end with the rise of the proletariat and the “withering of the State.” While not as romantically appealing as the twilight years of the Russian empire, the story of egg-mania in the United States, where collectors such as Hammer and Forbes drove the auction prices of eggs into the stratosphere, provides an interesting coda to the book.
Strongly recommended–if you are like the proprietor of A Superfluous Man, you probably do not realize how little you know of the Romanovs or Fabergé, and you will not be disappointed with Mr. Faber’s book.