Monday, 30 January 2017

A Saxe-Coburg / Romanov Marriage in 1840?

On August 22nd, 1840 Prince Albert wrote to his brother Ernest “… Papa again speaks about [Grand Duchess] Olga … For Papa she has everything he wants – great authority, a great deal of money, great beauty, and besides, for Mamma [step-mother Marie of Württemberg, niece of Empress Maria Feodorovna], dear remembrances of Russia …”

Later in the letter, Albert returns to the topic “… The enquires the Empress [Alexandra] made and which seem so important to Papa and Her von Stein, appear to me to be only dictated by her well known politeness and friendliness. Ladies in such high positions, who are received at strange places by strange people and are bored, cannot do anything else but enquire after the nearest relations, if they wish to be polite. When they have at length found something to talk about, they extend such a conversation for a long time …”

Daguerretype (below) of Grand Duchess Olga c1840s


Lithograph (below) of Ernest II c1842


Photograph (below) of Ernest II c1857


After the funeral of her father King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia in June 1840, Empress Alexandra journeyed to Weimar with her daughter Olga. Nicholas I, who had joined the family in Berlin, went with them to visit his favorite sister Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna and then left for Warsaw.

Meanwhile, Empress Alexandra and Olga traveled the road from Weimar to Bad Ems, stopping in Gotha, the duchy a part of the Saxe-Coburg lands since 1826. Alexandra’s visit  with Ernest I at Schloss Friedenstein prompted his hope for a marriage with his son.

In her memoir, Grand Duchess Olga writes extensively of her suitors yet does not mention Ernest. Was she aware of the conversations between her mother and the Duke or failed to remember when writing her memoir in the early 1880s?

The lives of Olga (1822-1892) and Ernest II (1818-1893) paralleled in many ways. Both sets of parents had married in July 1817. In 1846, Olga married Prince Karl of Württemberg, becoming Queen in 1864. Ernest married Princess Alexandrine of Baden in 1843, becoming Duke in 1844. Both had no direct legal descendants to inherit their thrones.

The marriage between a Russian Grand Duchess and a Coburg Prince in 1840 would have mirrored the marriage between the Coburg Princess Julia and the Russian Grand Duke Konstantin in 1795. The affection Albert had for his brother Ernest and Alexander I for Konstantin is understandable; the fate of the wife is untenable.

Photographs (below) of Karl and Olga von Württemberg c1890s



Photograph (below) of Ernest and Alexandrine of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha c1890s



Friday, 27 January 2017

Fabergé & Nabokov - 1903 Costume Ball in the Winter Palace

Vladimir Nabokov’s grandfather, Dmitri was dismissed as the Minister of Justice by Alexander III and restored to favor by Nicholas II. Of the youngest daughters, Elisaveta was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Marie and Nadezhda, appointed on April 23rd, 1901, was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra.

Nadezhda, who later married Dmitri Wonlar-Larsky, attended the 1903 Costume Ball in the Winter Palace.

Photographs (below) of Nadezhda at the 1903 Costume Ball



Her old-Russian style gown was designed especially for her by Serge Diaghilev in the World of Art manner, which was then at its height, with edgings and patterns of precious stones on the broad collar and high cloth peak by Fabergé.

Photograph (below) of Dmitri Wonlar-Larsky at the 1903 Costume Ball


Photograph (below) of Elisavata Sayn-Wittgenstein nee Nabokova in Court Dress

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Gold Toilet Set in Empress Alexandra’s Bedroom

During the reign of Empress Anna Ivanova (1730-1740), the Augsburg craftsman, Johann Ludwig Biller, was commissioned to make a gold toilet set of 47 pieces.

In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘The Romanovs 1613-1918’, he described Empress Anna Ivanova’s reign as terrifying with her caprices and cruelties. From the 1750s, Imperial brides used the toilet set for the ceremonial dressing of hair and jewels.

Photograph (below) of Empress Anna Ivanova's Gold Toilet Set


After the death of Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1828, the toilet set was deposited in the Diamond Room in the Winter Palace.

On March 18th, 1839 the Minister of the Court sent a letter to the Chief Marshal that Nicholas I ‘has deigned to command the gold toilet set … to move to Her Majesty’s bedroom …’ Officials transferred both Anna Ivanova’s set and Catherine the Great’s 61 piece toilet set as the order did not specify which set was to be placed in the bedroom.

Hau’s 1859 watercolor of Empress Alexandra’s bedroom with Anna Ivanova’s gold toilet set visible on the left.


In March 1867, Empress Marie Alexandrovna agreed to the temporary use of the gold toilet set by her daughter-in-law Marie Feodorovna in the Anichkov Palace. On January 6th, 1868, the Empress ordered the immediate ‘delivery of the set to the Winter Palace’ for the marriage of Duchess of Leuchtenberg. After the wedding, the set was placed in the Diamond Room again.

Prince A. Vasilichikov, the director of the Imperial Hermitage, requested persistently for the removal of gold toilet set from the Winter Palace to the Hermitage’s Jewelry Gallery. In January 1882, he spoke personally with Alexander III during an Imperial Ball about the issue and on February 24th, 1882, he received official permission.

Photographs (below) of Empress Anna Ivanova’s Gold Toilet Set in the Hermitage Museum




It is difficult to comprehend why it became the custom for Imperial brides to use the toilet set; a symbol of the terror Empress Anna Ivanova and Ernest Biron unleashed on the country. Was the animosity Nicholas I had for his grandmother Catherine the Great the reason when he had the opportunity to change the old tradition in 1839 rather than allowing the use of Catherine’s 61 piece set?


In Rachel Corbett’s ‘You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin’, I was intrigued to discover that Alexander I stayed at the Duc de Biron’s mansion at 17 rue de Varenne in Paris. Was the Duc a descendant of Anna Ivanova’s Biron? Did the friendship between Alexander and the Duc influence Nicholas I?

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Dear Beloved Rosenau

Schloss Rosenau, northwest of Coburg in Germany, was the childhood summer home of Prince Albert. His father, Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, renovated the schloss during the Napoleonic years under the supervision of the architect Karl Schinkel.

Aerial view (below) of Schloss Rosenau


After the Duke’s death in 1844 and until the death of Albert in 1861, there are numerous memoirs of visits to the beloved Rosenau, most notably Queen Victoria. After 1861, there were additional visits to Coburg and Gotha by the Queen and her family but, beyond the published letters, there is little in English on Albert's brother Ernest's life at the Rosenau.

Photograph (below) of Rosenau c1857


After Alfred’s marriage to the Grand Duchess Marie in 1874 when in Germany, they lived in the Palais Edinburgh in Coburg and were given the Rosenau for their summer home. Marie wrote in 1893 “… It is like a beautiful dream writing to you from our beloved Rosenau on a heavenly hot morning …”

Photograph (below) of Rosenau c1890s


In Diana Mandache’s ‘Dearest Missy’, Grand Duchess Marie wrote on October 3rd, 1897 “… I really enjoy my solitude at the Rosenau and will be in despair to leave this dear place, where I am so free to walk about and do exactly what I like. I am really not dull as I generally have somebody to luncheon and go in the evening to the theatre. I dearly like also a quiet evening by myself with a good book …”

On Sunday, October 5th, 1897 Nicholas II wrote “… arrived at Coburg at 9am … [afternoon] we all went together to dear Rosenau – it was so beautiful under the marvelous, shining autumn sun … We looked over the orangerie and had tea in the dining room …”

On October 22nd, 1897 Grand Duchess Marie wrote “… The Imperial visit went off very well, but was too short. The weather was very fine and all were in very good spirits, especially Nicky who seemed to enjoy this little trip …”

The difference in the interior styles, between the 1820s Biedermeier and the later Victorian, is evident in the following examples. It is curious that Grand Duchess Marie installed bathrooms but not electric light.

Painting (below) of Queen Victoria’s Drawing Room in 1845

 Photograph (below) of Queen Victoria’s Drawing Room in 1894

Monday, 16 January 2017

Comfy Camp Bed?

In Nicholas I’s memoir of his childhood, he wrote “… We slept on iron beds which were surrounded by the usual curtain … the iron triangle in such a way that a child, standing in the bed, hardly possible to peek out …”

The Emperors continued to sleep on the short, folding iron camp beds with straw mattresses after their marriage. Nicholas I was 6’2” yet he preferred his camp bed!

Photograph (below) of Nicholas I’s camp bed


Photograph (below) of Nicholas I’s camp bed in his study c1917


My book will reveal the location of Nicholas’ camp bed prior to his moving to the 1st floor study in 1850 and details about the various items seen in the above photo: the furniture, the carpet, the bed, etc.

When visiting Alexander II’s study/bedroom on the 2nd floor of the Winter Palace, Polovtsov wrote on Wednesday, March 18th, 1892 “… the second part of the room was the bed where Alexander II died … Botkin [doctor] told me that he would knock on the door at 9 AM and the Emperor’s answer is usually ‘still resting’...".

Botkin's comments on the night of Saturday, February 28th, Alexander II’s diary entries, contemporary accounts of March 1st and the autopsy report will be in my book.

Hau’s 1850 watercolor (below) of Alexander II’s Study/Bedroom in the Winter Palace


Photographs (below) of Paul’s Camp Bed in Gatchina Palace c1938




Photographs (below) of Alexander I’s Camp Bed in Catherine Palace, Tsarskoe Selo



Alexander III and Nicholas II did not continue the practice of sleeping in their camp beds when at home but continued the practice when with their troops.


Photographs (below) of Alexander III’s Camp Bed exhibited in the Alexander Palace and the full camp paraphernalia c1877



Saturday, 14 January 2017

Such a warm, friendly place!

Under Alexander I, Ropsha Palace was administered by the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty. In 1826, Nicholas I gave the Ropsha estate to his wife Alexandra who loved this ‘quiet place’. In 1857, the estate was transferred to the Department of Principalities and reconstructed. Ropsha was used primarily for hunting and fishing.

Aerials (below) of Ropsha




Photograph c1900 and Plan (below) of Ropsha Palace




Plan (below) of the Ropsha estate in 1853


On Tuesday, August 3rd, 1899 Nicholas II wrote “ … Having said goodbye to Mama and my two older daughters, we went to Ropsha, where we arrived towards 7 pm. I went around the whole park. For dinner: Uncle Vladimir, Aunt Mikhen and Elena. It was a warm evening. We unpacked in Papa’s and Mama’s rooms. The youngest daughter also arrived ...” The next day he wrote “We woke up to a divine morning; it was marvelous all day. Ropsha – such a warm, friendly place, especially in good weather …”

On Thursday, June 29th, 1906 Nicholas wrote “… At 7:15 Alix, Stana, Orloff, and I went off to Ropsha … had dinner at the palace; Kuba provided the meal. We took a walk for while in the Pheasantry …”

On Friday, April 30th, 1910 Nicholas wrote “… After lunch I went with Irene [Alexandra’s sister], Olga and Tatiana to Ropsha by automobile. We showed her the palace and park …”

During our first visit, when driving from Krasnoe Selo to Strelna, we had difficulty finding Ropsha. The trees hid the palace and lake from the road!


Photograph (below) of Ropsha’s reconstruction


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Sentry Box Illusion

The Winter Palace had one main entrance, on its north side facing the Neva, called the Jordan Entrance.

There were also five ‘small’ entrances along the palace embankment façade that led to basement vestibules as well as private staircases to the Imperial family and Minister of the Court’s apartments on the 2nd floor.

Photograph (below) c1850 showing the five ‘small’ entrances


All entrances around the palace were vigilantly guarded by palace grenadiers and police. In the 1860s, reports of unauthorized access to the palace resulted in more stringent procedures that are fascinating to read in the archival documents. One proposal would have made it almost impossible for even the Emperor to enter his own entrance!

The ‘small’ entrances have been described as ‘ridiculous’ for marring the baroque façade of the palace and creating difficulties for its protection.

There were two sentry boxes on the Neva embankment side: the northeast Ministerial entrance and the northwest Emperor’s Own entrance.

Photograph (below) c1906 of the northwest sentry box


Painting of the Changing of the Guard at the northwest sentry box


The public had open access, walking close to the palace and the ability to peek through its windows, causing security headaches for Court officials.

Photograph (below) of a sentry box in Palace Square


The sentry boxes provided an illusory protection.

Photograph (below) of Nicholas II and his brother George’s room in Gatchina Palace with its ‘toy’ sentry box



My 2008 photo (below) of the sentry box on Gatchina’s Arsenal mezzanine 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Merry Christmas to my Greek and Russian Orthodox family and friends!

Merry Christmas to my Greek and Russian Orthodox family and friends!

Καλά Χριστούγεννα - Ελλήνων και Ρώσων μου ορθόδοξη οικογένεια και τους φίλους σας! 

С Рождеством Христовым - Мой греческий и русский православный семья и друзья!


Thursday, 5 January 2017

Crinoline Hazards in the Winter Palace

The three-day Sissi movie marathon with Romy Schneider over Christmas was enchanting.

The castle used in place of Possenhofen reflected the Starnbergersee ambiance that I remember. Does anyone know what Austrian castle was used in the film? Bad Ishcl's Imperial Villa, Esplanade and Schönbrunn’s garden staircase brought back many memories.

Romy and the ladies appeared as if they had just stepped out of the House of Worth. When Archduchess Sophie stepped through half of the double door in Schönbrunn, it took forever for her gown to follow. From then on, I was fixated on crinolines.

How did the Empress and her ladies sit without sliding off the chairs in the Winter Palace? In their overstuffed rooms, how many delicate items were broken as they brushed against tables?

C. Robertson’s Portrait (below) of Empress Alexandra in the Winter Palace c1851


I need to revisit my research on Empress Alexandra’s wardrobes, as more space would be needed for her enormously wide gowns and crinolines than I have uncovered so far. I had once stayed in a (former) princess’ room - the old wardrobe was so high I had difficulty reaching the rod and the hangers.


Photographs (below) of Empress Alexandra c1850s


Photograph (below) of Empress Marie c1850s


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Empress Marie’s Hidden Tears – Hidden Longing

Alexander III lived in the Winter Palace from his birth in 1845 until his marriage in 1866 when he moved to the Anichkov Palace. I had written of his ‘disgusting memory’ of his childhood. Alexander’s diaries, during the 1860s-1870s, contain his discontent with having to attend daily ‘useless’ functions at the Winter Palace.

The Kamer-furersky journals for February and March 1881 reveal extensive details about the death of Alexander II and its aftermath. On March 1st, 1881 Alexander III and Empress Marie returned to the Anichkov. On March 4th, they moved into the Winter Palace, living in the rooms of his grandmother Empress Alexandra on the 2nd floor. After the funeral, they left for Gatchina Palace on March 27th.

Of all the large, opulent rooms in Gatchina Palace, Alexander III chose the mezzanine floor of the Arsenal Wing for his family with its low ceilings and small rooms.

Empress Marie wrote to her mother Queen Louise in Denmark that Gatchina was ‘cold, disgusting and full of workmen. This uninhabited, big empty castle in the middle of winter cost me many tears, hidden tears, for Sasha is happy to leave the city”.

Photographs (below) of the Alexander and Marie’s bedroom in Gatchina Palace c1938




It is well-known that Empress Marie excelled in public ceremonial events. How did the second-tier living arrangements – Anichkov, Gatchina, Peterhof Cottage – impact her temperament within the family jealousy dynamics?

I discovered a hint of the Empress’ hidden longing in the diary of her son Mikhail. He wrote on Tuesday, January 6th, 1915 “… we all went to Gatchina palace; at first we were in the Arsenal and in Mama’s rooms down below …”’ On Wednesday, February 3rd, 1916 Mikhail wrote “… arrived at the palace … First, we showed our guests the church … the arsenal, from  there to Mama’s lower rooms, then my rooms, Xenia’s and Olga’s …”

After the death of her husband, Empress Marie had the opportunity to move from the mezzanine floor to the larger apartments of the former Empresses on the 1st floor of the Arsenal.

Watercolor (below) of the bedroom on the 1st floor of the Arsenal Wing


In 2008, I was incredibly fortunate to meet two Gatchina Museum curators who opened the Arsenal mezzanine floor for me. I am in awe of their kindness to take time out of their work to speak for hours with me, of the depth of historical information they shared and the expertise of the museum staff’s restoration of the palace.


A selection (below) of my photographs of the mezzanine in 2008