A set of silver gilt and cloisonné enamel which stirred interest in the antique world since it was recently consigned as going to auction, sold today for £20,000. This champlevé cutlery set told a story that links the future Tsarina of Russia’s visit to the Yorkshire town of Harrogate in 1894, where she had gone to take a cure.
Princess Alix of Hesse and the Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia, an official photograph in Coburg at the time of their engagement, 1894.
Princess Alix of Hesse was advised to take a ‘cure’ in Harrogate in 1894 for sciatica, a complaint from which she had been suffering for some time. One of Queen Victoria’s favourite grandchildren, the Queen was present in Coburg in April 1894, for the wedding of Alix’s beloved brother, the Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernst Ludwig, to Princess Victoria Melita “Ducky” of Edinburgh, daughter of her second son, Prince Alfred, Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and his wife, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia. Among the many guests, at what was one of the great gatherings of European royalty in the last years of the 19th century, were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Tsarevich Nicholas, the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The couple became engaged while at Coburg after which the Tsarevich Nicholas returned to Russia and Princess Alix left for England. It was agreed that she would begin to undertake Russian lessons while in Windsor and visit a spa town to use the sulphur baths so as to as to try and alleviate her sciatica. Quite why Harrogate was chosen is not entirely clear; however the Yorkshire town was famous for its healing waters, and its popularity for the visiting aristocracy had grown considerably during this period, also becoming highly fashionable with the British elite. Alix left for Harrogate in late May 1894, accompanied by the Russian lectrice, or ‘reader’ to her sister, Elisabeth, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia and her lady-in-waiting, Baroness von Fabrice.
Alix spent her time at Harrogate quietly, using the baths, visiting the surrounding towns, during which she also took her Russian lessons. She stayed at Cathcart House, a 19th-century boarding house which allowed her a certain degree of privacy as she was staying incognito, under the alias of ‘Baroness Starckenburg’ – Starkenburg being one of her lesser titles as Princess of Hesse, referring to the historical area surrounding Darmstadt, the regional capital. Cathcart House still stands today and is split up into flats – a brown plaque was unveiled in 2007 by the Sanctuary Housing Association to commemorate the house’s history and its links with Princess Alix. Despite travelling incognito, her identity was guessed by the townsfolk of Harrogate, and the interest in her, especially in the light of her recent engagement to the Tsarevich, made it difficult for her to go out unobserved.
The brown plaque on Cathcart House, Harrogate, unveiled in 2007
During Princess Alix’s stay in Harrogate, her landlady Mrs Allen gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, whose names were chosen by the honoured guest who was to become their godmother – Nicholas and Alix. Princess Alix attended their baptisms in the close-lying St Peter’s Church. She bought little gifts in Harrogate for the christening of the babies, but the commitment as godmother was not forgotten, even after her marriage. The following year, she sent two little cutlery sets for the boy and girl for their first birthdays, and it was thought that the gifts for the girl Alix could no longer be traced. Until now.
The cutlery sets were made by Grachev, and each contained a knife, fork, spoon, napkin ring, salt cellar and spoon. The godmother of the two Allen children was now since November 1894, the Tsarina of Russia and the gifts that were sent to the children were fittingly imperial.
Alix took her role as godmother remarkably seriously, and her gifts did not cease as the children grew older. Presents from Russia continued to be sent, with special occasions being remembered, such as confirmations and 21st birthdays. The boy Nicholas’s son, Michael Allen, gave the gold Faberge cufflinks that his father had received from the Tsarina in 1910 for his confirmation to the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate, together with the gold pins that he had kept. The gifts continued, even into World War One.
On her return from Harrogate, Princess Alix went first to the house her sister Princess Victoria of Battenberg had rented at Walton-on-Thames, where she was joined by the Tsarevich Nicholas; shortly afterwards, they continued to Windsor Castle as the guests of Queen Victoria. It was an idyllic time for them both, probably the happiest of their lives. The Harrogate visit coincided with the period of her engagement, and both she and Nicholas would reflect on this happy time in their lives, for the rest of their lives.