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A chandelier and the fate of the Romanovs

Currently displayed in the special exhibition at London’s Science Museum, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution – exploring the role of medicine in the lives of the Russian Imperial Family as well as the use of modern science involved in the investigation concerning their murder – is a chandelier, but no ordinary one.

I first encountered this chandelier nearly twenty years ago, as a black and white illustration in the 1975 publication by the author J. C. Trewin, The House of Special Purpose: An Intimate Portrait of the Last Days of the Russian Imperial Family compiled from the papers of their English Tutor, Charles Sydney Gibbes, now in the possession of George Gibbes (Scarborough Books/Stein and Day). This important book was based on the private papers of Charles Sydney Gibbes, who had taught English to the children of Tsar Nicholas II, first to the four Grand Duchesses and then famously, as tutor to the young Tsarevich Alexei. My second-hand copy of this book was autographed by Gibbes’ adoptive son, George Gibbes: ‘To Derek Hill with warmest regards, George Gibbes, 7.3.1985’. By this time, the St. Nicholas House in Oxford had been split into flats.

In 2016, a colleague of mine photocopied me the same page in his copy of the book, which had the chandelier reproduced in colour. As Gibbes lived out his later life in the eastern suburb of Marston in my local city of Oxford, it led me on a whole journey of enquiry of my own. The chandelier came to be something of a symbol of this personal quest. In the centenary of the death of the Russian Imperial Family, revisiting this seemed appropriate, all the more so because I finally got to see it in the current exhibition. It hung in the bedroom occupied by the four Grand Duchesses in the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg.

When the Tsar and Tsarina, together with their third daughter, Grand Duchess Maria, were moved in April 1918 from the handsome, white two storey mansion known as the ‘Governor’s House’ at Tobolsk, they were temporarily separated from the rest of their family, who remained behind at Tobolsk, whilst they were transported on to Ekaterinburg, where they were housed at the Ipatiev House, formerly owned by N. N Ipatiev, ominously also designated as the ‘House of Special Purpose’. A floor plan of the Ipatiev House, in Indian ink on prepared cloth, is preserved in the State Archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow.

The Imperial Family were allotted five rooms. These rooms assumed their full uses once the rest of the imperial children arrived, the reunion with which was the cause of great joy for all the family. Prior to the arrival of the rest of the children, the Tsar, Tsarina and Grand Duchess Maria had slept in one ‘cosy white room with four large windows’, as Grand Duchess Maria wrote to her sister, Grand Duchess Olga, from Ekaterinburg, in a letter partly also drafted by the Tsar (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 618). Grand Duchess Maria noted in her letter to her sister that they were at that time, living on the ground floor and that the crosses of the cupolas from the churches on the square were visible from the windows, above the high fence which had been built around the Ipatiev House (Ibid, 618). These windows were whitewashed to obscure the view from inside on 2/15 May, as the Tsar noted in his diary (Ibid, 622).

When the remaining imperial children arrived, the family moved to the upper floor of the house as the guard, Pavel Medvedev noted: ‘the whole of the top (floor) being occupied by them, with the exception of one room (to the left of the entrance) which was reserved for the commandant and his assistants’ (Quoted in Ibid, 625).

Medvedev continued: ‘The Tsar’s daughters were lodged in the room next to the Tsar’s bedroom. For the first few days there were no beds in the room, but afterwards beds were brought in…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 625). Tsarina Alexandra confirmed this in her diary for 11/24 May: ‘The four girls next door, not all beds brought yet…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 625).

When the whole family was reunited on 10/23 May, the four Grand Duchesses were assigned one room that they shared, which was located between the room in which the Tsar, Tsarina and Tsarevich Alexei slept and the room of the imperial family’s maid, Anna Demidova.

Two views of the room occupied by the Grand Duchesses exist; in one of these, the aforementioned glass chandelier can be clearly seen, hanging from the ceiling. This image was taken during the official investigation of 1918; a copy print from the original negative is in the Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Russian Federation. In this picture, the floor of the Grand Duchess’ bedroom is strewn with broken objects as well as with ashes (Galina Komelova and Alia Barkovets, Nicholas & Alexandra: The Last Family of Tsarist Russia, 373). There is a large, painted fire screen, three chairs of varying sizes, and the wallpaper appears to have been floral, matching the chandelier (Ibid, 371).

When at the Governor’s House in Tobolsk, the Grand Duchesses had occupied a corner room on the second floor, which had been described by their French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, as a ‘real ice house’ in the depth of a Siberian winter, which in 1917 had measured some 68 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (Quoted in Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 457). In the Alexander Palace, the private residence of the Imperial Family at Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg, the bedrooms of the Grand Duchesses had been split between the elder pair, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana and the younger, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia. A notable feature of both had been stencil-type friezes on the bedroom walls.

In the pink bedroom shared by Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, we can see dragonflies in flight above the cornice in 1920s photographs of the palace, taken when it was a museum. The Grand Duchesses slept on camp beds, according to Russian imperial tradition. In the case of Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, their bedroom walls were painted grey, and there were stencilled butterflies in roses. According to the website, the Alexander Palace Time Machine, the hard camp beds used by the Grand Duchesses seem to have gone with them to Tobolsk and then onwards to Ekaterinburg, never returning to the Alexander Palace, where they had formerly stood. If so, they would, therefore, have been set up in the same room as the glass chandelier.

Given the later Gibbes connection, it is perhaps poignant in hindsight to note, that one of two classrooms at the Alexander Palace used by the Grand Duchesses, featured a large chandelier with pendant tear-drop shades of red and white glass, with a light in the middle that could be dimmed or brightened over the table on which they studied. The Ipatiev House Murano glass chandelier consists of white and red glass tulips, supported by wires – a strange parallel.

The Imperial Family were shot in the cellar of the Ipatiev House by the Bolsheviks on the night of 16/17 July 1918, together with their faithful retainers, the maid Anna Demidova and the former court physician Dr Botkin. Unlike at Tobolsk, Gibbes had not been permitted contact with the Imperial Family. Desperate for news of them, he had taken to walking past the heavily guarded and double fenced Ipatiev House until the middle of June, hoping to have a glimpse of them from a window. Less than a year after the murder of the Imperial Family, Gibbes went from Omsk to Ekaterinburg to aid the lawyer Nicolas Sokolov, who had been charged as Investigating Magistrate for Cases of Special Importance of the Omsk Tribunal, to help with the enquiry into the fate of the Imperial Family.

The extensive list compiled by Sokolov details charred items discovered in the stoves of the Ipatiev House and its outhouses, as well as in the House’s latrine pit, the icons numbering fifty-six. A large number of books were found in the Ipatiev House and its outbuildings. A considerable amount of looted items were also recovered from the Ekaterinburg homes of those soldiers who had guarded the Tsar and his family, including one Michael Ivanov Letemine, whose magpie trove poignantly included the diary of the Tsarevich between March and November 1917. Letemine also possessed one of the Tsarina’s black silk umbrellas with a black wooden handle and silver top, engraved ‘Alix, 1891’, from the time when she was Princess of Hesse – the year after her 1890 visit to Moscow – a sad, Russian full-circle. A large array of pathetic fragments was discovered by General Dieterichs; a faded photograph shows three items which are ringed around with a circle, to indicate they later found their way into Gibbes’ collection. Gibbes took his own selection of items with him across Siberia and they accompanied him to England.

Gibbes enrolled in an ordination course at St Stephen’s House in Oxford’s suburb of Marston in 1928; the House still exists and is on the same road as the house which he later purchased. He was later received into the Russian Orthodox Church taking the new name of Father Nicholas, after the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, whose memory Gibbes considered sacred. Gibbes returned to Oxford in 1941 to establish a congregation in the medieval chapel of St Bartlemas on the edge of the grounds of Oriel, Jesus and Lincoln College. It was to Oxford that Gibbes came back after the close of the Second World War when he was looking for a place to live. He found it on Marston Street, in the two storey late Victorian brick building which until 1945 had housed the central A.R.P telephone station for Oxfordshire, which he bought together with three cottages in 1949. Once a structure to dispense medicine to Oxford’s poor, its blue door still reads the words ‘St Nicholas House’, painted out in gold.

Gibbes converted one of the ground floor rooms into a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker, where the murdered imperial Russian family were mentioned at every service which was celebrated there. Gibbes was by now a familiar figure in Oxford, in his black Orthodox robes and gold pectoral cross. In this chapel, Gibbes displayed some of the relics he had carried within him across half of the world, from Siberia to an east Oxford suburb. These included a pair of felt boots which had belonged to Tsar Nicholas II, which Gibbes placed near the altar.

Gibbes also established a library in the St Nicholas House behind the chapel, where he preserved – poignantly for the English tutor that he had once been – examples of exercise books which belonged to Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, together with some photographs. Also at the St Nicholas House, Gibbes kept other relics he had salvaged, which included an icon which had been given to him by Tsarina Alexandra at Tobolsk which she had signed and a handkerchief, bell and pencil-case which had formerly belonged to Tsarevich Alexei (J. C. Trewin, The House of Special Purpose, 145). There was also a coat of arms from the imperial yacht Standart and a collection of sleigh bells.

The red and white glass tulip chandelier that had once hung in the last bedroom shared by the Grand Duchesses at the Ipatiev House was hung in the chapel at the St Nicholas House, as a faded photograph attests (Ibid, 28). It may be seen hovering above the altar. For the first time since 1918, it hung in a house again – although this time in Oxford, not distant Siberia.

Gibbes died on 24 March 1963 and was buried at Headington Cemetery in Oxford, next to the John Radcliffe Hospital, under a tombstone in the shape of the Russian Orthodox cross, with its three staves. A memorial service took place at Headington Cemetery to mark the 50th anniversary of Gibbes’ death in 2013, attended by the Russian Orthodox Community. The photographs appropriately look as if they could have been taken in Siberia, under deep snow.

The present Russian Orthodox chapel on Marston’s Ferry Road Oxford was established much later and is a beautiful building with a dedicated congregation. Icons of the Russian Imperial Family grace its niches, and an engraving of an elderly Father Nicholas [Gibbes] hangs in the entrance hall. The Orthodox chapel is fittingly, dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker and comes under the Patriarchate of Moscow, Diocese of Sourozh.

The St Nicholas House was later split into flats; Gibbes’ adopted son George Gibbes had been its Warden and from 1967 onwards, wished that the building be preserved, and its Orthodox services continue (Ibid, 148). The chapel was also converted into a ground floor flat. There is no trace of Gibbes today at the St Nicholas House, other than the original blue door with the words ‘St Nicholas House’. It was nominated as a heritage asset in 2015.

When I revisited the St Nicholas House some years ago, it was up for sale with a signpost outside, as a series of flats available to purchase. I looked through the letterbox of the house at an empty hallway, with a dead pot plant on a shelf. It was extraordinarily poignant to imagine Gibbes shuffling down this hallway in his long Orthodox robes or picturing which room off of the hallway would have been the chapel, which housed Gibbes’ imperial relics, including this fateful chandelier. Looking at it again in 2017, it appeared to be occupied. I wonder if the present occupant of the flat that once contained Gibbes’ chapel realises that their room once housed items which belonged to Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Ekaterinburg – in Oxford.

Much of the Gibbes collection was later sold to the Wernher Collection at Luton Hoo where a memorial chapel was made to house them, consecrated by Archbishop Anthony of Sourozh. Luton Hoo became a luxury hotel, whereupon the Wernher Collection moved to Greenwich. The Gibbes collection, however, is now in private hands.

To see the glass chandelier in the exhibition was a startlingly moving experience. This fragile object, beautiful in itself, witnessed the last days of the Grand Duchesses and hung in their room on the night that they were murdered, together with their family and their loyal retainers. It was not an object that had been owned by the Imperial Family or been added to their list of belongings during the time of their imprisonment, so doesn’t feature in Sokolov’s extensive inventory. As stated earlier, it was photographed in situ as part of Sokolov’s investigation, during the White occupation. Related objects listed amongst the items found in the stoves of the Ipatiev House included stems of artificial flowers, which fell away to ashes when touched, various glass fragments and the burner of a small lamp.

Also displayed in the London exhibition is the last diary of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, open at its final, tragic entry for 3/16 July 1918: ‘Played bezique with N[icholas]. 10 ½ to bed. 15 degrees’. Her handwriting twists on the blank opposite page, dated ‘4/17 July’ – a day that she would never live to see. The diary is heart-breaking in its simplicity and immediacy. It is bound in lilac cloth – the Tsarina’s favourite colour and the colour of her famous Mauve Boudoir at the Alexander Palace – lined with silk and embroidered with a white swastika as a symbol of faith, in the right-hand corner. It was a present to the Tsarina for New Year’s Day 1918 from her second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, who embroidered the cover (Komelova and Barkovets, 377). Like the chandelier, which it is displayed near in the exhibition, it has come a long way from Ekaterinburg. On the date of the Tsarina’s arrival in Ekaterinburg, she had made the sign of the swastika on the window frame of her room and dated it: ‘17/30 April 1918’ (Ibid, 369).

I wonder precisely how Gibbes transported this fragile chandelier across Siberia and how it remained intact on its traumatic peregrinations. He probably had packed it in a crate, perhaps stuffed with straw. The chandelier had ended up in a suburban house in East Oxford, a silent observer in the house where the Russian Imperial Family were murdered. It was listed in the London exhibition as ‘L 2018-187; ‘lent by courtesy of a private collection’.

I was finally able to study it at first hand – it had a bunch of bronze flowers underneath the glass tulips, above leaves of green and gold, as the author J. C Trewin described it (Ibid, 148). Astonishing to consider was the fact that it survived its journey, its glass perfectly intact.

Why though, did Gibbes choose to take this object? Perhaps it held a particular poignancy for him because it hung in the bedroom of the four Grand Duchesses, who had been his pupils. Clearly, the English tutor in him remained because he preserved some of the exercise books of the imperial children behind the chapel at the St Nicholas House. An old photograph shows him engaged in one of his lessons with the fourth imperial daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Like the author J. C Trewin in his epilogue to The House of Special Purpose, the present author would agree that this beautiful chandelier, which hung once in the bedroom of the four Grand Duchesses, provides a living link with the onlooker to the Ipatiev House and the murder of the Imperial Family, even though it no longer hangs in the chapel of a house in Oxford’s eastern suburb of Marston.

It spans the divide between beauty and brutality; an innocent object in itself.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution runs at the Science Museum in London from 21 September 2018 until 24 March 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life based on original research in Vienna and Geneva and spoke about the Empress on the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. She joined the team of History of Royals magazine in 2016 and was History Writer at Royal Central (2015-20). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.