Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Moscow’s Petrovsky Palace and Khodynka Field

There have been many articles, books and photographs published on the Moscow Coronation of Nicholas II in May 1896.

It was stunning to realize when viewing a series of photographs how close the Khodynka Field was to the Petrovsky Palace (below).



Photographs (below) as follows: Empress Alexandra’s Carriage, Grand Duchess Victoria Melita’s Carriage, Grand Duke Mihail Nikailovich, Imperial Tent, Nicholas & Alexandra leaving St. Sergius of Radonezh, Nicholas II drinking health of the Regiments.








Monday, 27 February 2017

A Tunnel to the Winter Palace?

On Sunday, February 13th, 1911 Nicholas II wrote “… At 7:15PM I departed for St. Petersburg, had dinner with Mama, and then I went with her to see Kshesinskaya’s jubilee performance. There were lengthy greetings and a mass of gifts …”

Matilda Kshesinskaya’s fame was not only as a ballerina but for her ménage à trois of Grand Dukes: mistress to Nicholas, Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich. Discarded by the first for his marriage to Alexandra and later married to the third, Sergei is the enigma.

In 1904-06, the architect Alexander von Hohen built an Art Nouveau (Style Moderne) mansion for Matilda on the Petrogradsky Island near the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Photograph (below) of Ksheskinskaya’s Mansion c1906


Sergei financially supported Matilda’s opulent lifestyle in St. Petersburg, including a villa in Strelna. The Mikhailovich were the richest branch of the Romanov family. Alexander Polovtsov was amused by Olga Feodorovna, Sergei’s mother, pleading poverty. On Monday, January 28th, 1885 he wrote “… [Olga] said if the Empress Marie asked her to give a ball, she will answer that she has no means to do so because she has to save for her grandchildren …”

Gossip within all classes of society was widespread regarding Matilda for over thirty years before the revolution. A persistent rumor, then and after, was that Nicholas II had a tunnel built connecting Matilda’s mansion to the Winter Palace. It is beyond absurd. By 1906, Nicholas had long departed the Winter Palace and the mansion was in direct sight of Sergei’s New-Mikhailovsky Palace across the Neva.

Drawings (below) of Ksheskinskaya’s Mansion: Plan, Façade 1, Façade 2, Interior Drawing Room, Interior Hall, Interior Staircase, Interior Dining Room and Interior Nursery




On Wednesday, February 29th, 1912 Nicholas wrote “… went to Sergei Mikhailovich’s and had lunch …”

Nicholas and Sergei were members of the ‘potato’ club formed in the 1880s with the Vorontsovs and Sheremetevs. Grand Duchess Xenia had Fabergé design small gold brooches for the ladies and pendants for the men with an image of a potato. In c1920, Xenia sent from England Sergei’s pendant to Matilda. Nicholas had used his potato pendant as a keychain. On Friday, April 28th, 1900 he wrote “… After dinner I sorted out a sea of papers from St. Petersburg, which came in an old Danish suitcase for safekeeping …”

On Tuesday, May 12th, 1915 Empress Marie wrote “… I visited Sergei, who is not well at all [rheumatism] … It stinks in his bedroom, where the air is awfully warm and unhealthy …”

Photograph (below) of Sergei Mikhailovich

 Photograph (below) of Sergei Mikhailovich on Khodynka Field during the coronation in 1896


Friday, 24 February 2017

Olga’s Cicerone in Goethe’s Weimar

After the funeral on June 7th, 1840 of her father Friedrich Wilhelm III in Berlin, Alexandra, Nicholas and Olga traveled to Weimar. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna had married the Hereditary Grand Duke Karl Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1804.

Only two of Nicholas’ six sisters were still living in 1840: Anna, Queen of Holland and Maria of Weimar. In her memoir, Olga wrote in 1835 that Anna ‘...with her arrogant face and cold eyes did not like Papa. I think she was in a bad mood … while Aunt Maria Weimar was respected by all …” In 1842, Anna’s daughter Sophie married Maria’s son Karl Alexander!

In her memoir of the year 1840, Olga wrote that Aunt Maria “… seemed to incarnate duty. Married for 35 years to a funny husband … [who] was brought up in the presence of Goethe and his brilliant surroundings … did not retain anything but anecdotal memories … Aunt heard all these stories a hundred times, does not even pay attention to them … while we are dying with laughter …”

Olga continued “… Uncle Karl was a cicerone to show me his capital. In the house of Goethe, where he led me first, I found a bust of Mama … among antique casts … In the library, I saw there 30,000 folios …”

Photographs c1905 and today (below) of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s House, Frauerplan, Weimar 




 Photographs (below) of the Interiors of Goethe’s House c1905





In the autumn of 1795, Goethe rented his Gartenhaus in the Park an der Ilm in Weimar for the children of Grand Duke Karl August to play. In 1797, Friedrich Schiller wanted to rent the Gartenhaus but Goethe prevaricated with the demolition of the veranda and loss of the wood-stove and laundry!

In 1829, Maria Pavlovna’s daughter Auguste married Empress Alexandra’s brother Wilhelm I of Prussia. Auguste frequently returned to Weimar during her difficult marriage and reminisced of the idyllic scenes with Goethe tutoring her and her siblings. Did Goethe read to the children his essay ‘Uber das Blau’ derived from his experiments at Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha?

Photographs c1905 and today (below) of Goethe’s Gartenhaus in the Park an der Ilm



The Schloss in Weimar was rebuilt by Grand Duke Karl August and Goethe c1797. On October 14th and 15th, 1808 a large gathering met Alexander I and Grand Duke Konstantin in the Schloss, among them were the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Princes of Prussia - Oldenburg, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

Photographs and Panoramas c1900 and today of the Schloss in Weimar








Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Potted Walls in the Winter Palace

After the fire on December 17th, 1837 destroyed the Winter Palace, a Commission was formed to restore the palace. The wooden walls and partitions, installed in the 1820s-1830s, were a contributing cause of the fire.

To prevent further fire hazards, the Committee under Kleinmikhel used a new technology called ‘potted’ for the interior walls and ceilings.

The potted method lessened the weight of the vaulted ceilings and walls. Up to five million clay pots were produced by May 1838, allowing the walls to quickly dry for finishing.

When the Hermitage Museum restored the former rooms of Nicholas I on the 3rd floor of the Winter Palace, they left open one of the potted walls.

Photographs (below) of the potted wall on the 3rd floor




For a long time, the potted walls were a mystery to me when reading descriptions of the walls. Six years ago, I discovered photos of the interior staircase on the 2nd floor showing the pots exposed. One architectural detail finally solved!


Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thursday, 16 February 2017

‘The Fickle Neva’

Although flooding from the Neva in St. Petersburg occurred yearly, there were two catastrophic floods a century apart: 1824 and 1924

On September 23rd, 1924 in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg), strong winds and heavy rains continued from the day before and intensifying during the day of. At 1:20PM, cannon shots from the Peter and Paul Fortress, warning the public of the fast rising Neva water, were repeated every 15 minutes.

By 3:00PM, the flood waters were surging rapidly over the Palace and Admiralty Embankments, reaching within half an hour the Nevsky Prospekt and beyond.

Photograph (below) of the northern side of the Winter Palace facing the Neva 1924


Photograph (below) of St. Isaac’s Cathedral area 1924


The peak of the flood was at 7:15PM with waters receding by midnight and the end was announced at 7:00AM on September 24th.

The flood caused massive damage and losses: 19 bridges demolished, 550 trees in the Summer Garden uprooted, 5072 buildings flooded, 15,000 homeless, 208 deaths.

Photograph (below) of Palace Embankment 1924


Photographs (below) of Nevsky Prospekt



Photograph (below) of Sadovaya Ul.


Photograph (below) of the Mariinsky Theatre where a witness wrote “… in the water swam violins, basses, cymbals … two valuable harps worth 15,000 rubles each …”


Were the first sales in the Winter Palace, held on July 16th, 1925, of Imperial property of  ‘...no museum value...’ a result of the flood the previous autumn in the palace basement and first floor?

In 1927, M. Zoshchenko wrote an amusing short story ‘Royal Boots’ about buying boots during the 1925 sales and having them disintegrate within four days. He probably had attended the sale on July 20th of the court livery for 2000 servants: coats, jackets, shoes, caps, gloves, underwear.


Cover Page of Royal Boots [Царские Сапоги]



Monday, 13 February 2017

Empress Alexandra’s Bathroom

In 1828-1829 the court architect Monferrand decorated Empress Alexandra’s bathroom in the Spanish Moorish style. A. Briullov recreated the design for the new room on the 2nd floor of the Winter Palace after the 1837 fire.

Hau’s 1870 watercolor (below) of Alexandra’s bathroom


Gambs’ workshop had made the furniture for the bathroom from Montferrand’s sketches in 1830 as part of a large order of Gothic furniture for the Cottage in Peterhof. The ‘...fickleness of fashion trends and artistic tastes...’ in the 1820s creates the juxtaposition of Moorish and Gothic within this small space.

On the right in the watercolor, beneath the large mirror, water from the crystal hot and cold taps flows first into bowls and then cascades into the marble bath. After visiting Italy in 1845, Alexandra would import large quantities of sea salt from Palermo for her baths: 1145 kilos in 1848 and 1,022 kilos in 1849.

On the left, Briullov designed the Moorish style stained glass window above the white Italian marble fireplace.

In 1895, the room was redesigned by Meltzer for Alexandra, the wife of Nicholas II. The Moorish window was replaced with an Art Nouveau stained glass that has not survived.

Photograph (below) of the Inner Courtyard with the large plain glass bathroom window (the first window from the left on the 2nd floor next to the long narrow window)


Alexandra’s bathroom has been preserved today: while and blue tiles, panels, wallpaper, staircase door with mirror, toilet. In my collection of photographs, one shows a porcelain toilet with wooden seat reflected from a mirror near the light blue fireplace.

In Hau’s watercolor above, the door next to the curtained sofa was retained in 1896 and led to Nicholas II’s valet room. The wooden door is still there behind the screen in the photo below. That is the door through which I was able to view Alexandra’s bathroom twenty years ago!