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A little known painting of Russia’s last Tsarina?

Tsarina Alexandra
By Boasson and Eggler, Public Domain, Wiki Commons

A chance listing on the Public Catalogue Foundation Art UK, for an oil on canvas painting (35.8 x 30.7 cm) said to be of Russia’s last Empress, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, when she was Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918) led me to investigate this extraordinary artwork further. Because in the many years I had researched on Princess Alix, I had never seen anything like it. It does not resemble any of the portraits made of her which are today in any of the British or German collections that show her before her marriage, to Tsar Nicholas II, in 1894. Indeed, it so little resembles her that I even doubt the identity of the sitter, a seemingly far older woman than Princess Alix of Hesse, who was aged sixteen in 1888.  From the outset, the work was unusual because of its abundant use of light and shade and its atypical placement of the sitter, who avoids the artist’s gaze. The painting is the property of the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre and was made by the Irish artist John Lavery. (1856-1941).

The dating of it is listed by Art UK as from 1889; although when I investigated John Lavery’s autobiography, he included a footplate of a ‘Study’ of Princess Alix of Hesse, listing it as 1888. This period is both interesting in Lavery’s life as well as that of Princess Alix of Hesse. John Lavery had been commissioned to paint Queen Victoria’s visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888, which Lavery similarly describes – and illustrates – in his memoirs. As a result of this, Lavery moved to London shortly afterwards, no doubt owing to the success of the painting and the hope of securing future commissions in the capital. Princess Alix of Hesse was with Queen Victoria as part of a family visit to England in 1888; Princess Alix and Grand Duke Ludwig IV were with the Queen at Balmoral in late summer 1888. So, I wondered where it could have been made.

The ‘painting’ owned by the Glasgow Museums clearly identifies it as representing Princess Alix of Hesse; physically, it resembles more to my mind, another Alix, who Queen Victoria always referred to as ‘Alix’ in her journal, in contrast to Princess Alix of Hesse, who she usually always named ‘Alicky’. This was Alix, Princess of Wales; this Alix was born in 1844 and would have been forty-four in 1888. The Princess of Wales received the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert First Class (which the above painting may show) on her marriage to the Prince of Wales, in 1863 – her Order survives in the Royal Collection – she also received, for example, the Order of the Crown of India. The Princess of Wales did not attend the Glasgow Exhibition; however, Princess Alix of Hesse did.

Princess Alix of Hesse, by contrast, only received the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert in 1896 – after her marriage to Nicholas II; she did receive the Hessian Order of the Lion in 1888 – the year of her confirmation. So, it raised a mystery.

I initially wondered if the painting – if it did show Princess Alix – could have been made whilst she was in Scotland with the Queen, as there was certainly enough time to create the image, with Princess Alix spending over a month at Balmoral. But there was no mention of any artist making her likeness in Scotland, nor do Queen Victoria’s journals contain any single reference to John Lavery that I have found. This prompted the investigation further for me, because I realised that the sketch then could not have been made in England, as I had previously thought. Looking again at Lavery’s autobiography, I felt that if a study of Princess Alix was important enough to include as footplate, it must therefore surely, be described in his memoirs. It was – in 1888, John Lavery recorded that he went to Darmstadt.

Examples of Lavery’s art may be found within the Royal Collection, where most notably, he even produced miniature portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – the former Princess of Wales – for Queen Mary’s Dolls House between the years 1921-23. His work may also be found at a variety of other national museums and collections, including The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, the Royal College of Music and Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, just to name three. Perhaps significantly, Lavery presented King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra,  when Prince and Princess of Wales, with an artwork of Mary Queen of Scots at Langside; the work was dated 1888 and given to the Prince and Princess of Wales by the Lord Provost when the Prince of Wales opened the Glasgow International Exhibition on 8 May 1888.

Queen Victoria’s correspondence to Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg contains a reference to the Glasgow Exhibition: ‘I hope that Ernie & Alicky [Princess Alix] will arrive abt. the 1st or 2nd August: as we must leave on the 21st to go to Glasgow…’ (Quoted in Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 95).

I have managed to establish that Princess Alix obtained a catalogue of the International Exhibition held in Glasgow in 1888; this bore the inscription ‘Alix, Glasgow, 1888’ on the first page with her book plate and was acquired after 1917 from the Imperial Libraries of the State Hermitage Museum, so she obviously took it with her to Russia. The volume survives and was exhibited in an exhibition on the Russian imperial family in Edinburgh in 2005 by National Museums Scotland. It still contains Princess Alix’s annotations in the catalogue, with words such as ‘fine’ and ‘beautiful’. The Royal Collection contains a copy of the fine art catalogue for the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888; similarly, there are two other volumes which contains a series of illustrations and pen and ink notes for the Glasgow Exhibition and a report by the Senior Secretary on the Queen’s visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition ‘of Industry, Science and Art’ on Wednesday 22 August, 1888. A watercolour in the Royal Collection records the Exhibition’s Grand Entrance by the artist James Sellars.

Queen Victoria’s journal entry for her visit to the International Exhibition is extremely lengthy and detailed. She mentioned that Princess Alix of Hesse was in her carriage en route to Glasgow and also described her place in the procession.

Lavery went on to describe his visit to Darmstadt, painting the Grand Duke’s daughter, Princess Alix. He wrote that his studio was set up in a reception room in the Darmstadt Residenzschloss. Princess Alix came to the artist half an hour later. The sitting clearly made a deep impression on Lavery, who wrote later that the Grand Duke Ludwig was so delighted with his picture of Princess Alix that he begged him to return to Darmstadt to paint a full-length portrait of her before she went to Russia, but he never did so. Lavery wrote in his memoirs of the sad look in Princess Alix’s eyes and the look of fear he thought he identified in them. We must accept this impression as that which Lavery had when he was making his picture; what we know of Princess Alix’s character suggests that she was inherently shy by nature. A look of sadness would be understandable in Alix’s eyes; her mother, Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, died when Alix was only six-years-old, as did her youngest sister, Princess Marie when a wave of diphtheria swept through the palace in Darmstadt.

In his autobiographical ‘Study’ of Princess Alix of Hesse, she depicted entirely in black in a costume not unlike the winter outfit she wore on her winter trip to St. Petersburg in 1889, complete with muff and hat, when she visited her elder sister, Elizabeth Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Sergei, with her brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse. This ‘Study’ resembles Princess Alix of Hesse more than the painting given by the artist to the Museums in Glasgow.

Lavery presented a work of ‘Princess Alix’ to the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in 1935, six years before his death, along with over 100 other sketches. By this point, it was, of course, some seventeen years since the 1918 murder of the Russian Imperial Family. Lavery may have reminisced on the young woman he painted in an oil sketch back in 1888, some six years before she married Tsar Nicholas II, when she had sat before him as a princess, with an imperial life ahead of her. Indeed he had already reminisced in his memoirs, which was published in 1940.

Perhaps significantly though, Lavery referred to the picture of Princess Alix in his memoirs, as a ‘study’; the Glasgow Museums has a ‘painting’, but not the same one as in his autobiography, so perhaps he made a ‘painting’ based on his ‘study’. The ‘Study of Princess Alix of Hesse, Last Empress of Russia, 1888’ appears as an illustration in his memoirs, after a plate of the ‘State Visit of Queen Victoria to Glasgow, 1888’ and a ‘Study of Queen Victoria’. Having scrutinised the illustrations in the Appendix as ‘Pictures in Public Galleries 1888-1939’, the ‘Study of Princess Alix of Hesse, Last Empress of Russia, 1888’ was not listed under those listed in England and Wales, or Scotland. The only picture that was listed was that of the ‘State Visit of Queen Victoria to Glasgow, 1888’, which was listed in his autobiography as being in the Corporation Gallery, Glasgow and having been ‘painted for the Executive Council of the Glasgow Exhibition’. Was then, this ‘study’ among the 100 ‘sketches’ presented to Glasgow Museums Resource Centre? The quest continues.

Glasgow Museums told me that the three paintings it owns – of Princess Alix, her brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig and their father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV, were all made to help Lavery make his great painting of the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888-89. Princess Alix of Hesse is listed as ‘Princess Alice of Hesse’ – an incorrect rendering of her name, perhaps another cause to question the attribution, given the fact that her name was never spelt this way and she was in fact, christened ‘Alix’ at the behest of her mother, Princess Alice, because ‘they murder my name here’, meaning the way that the pronunciation was rendered. Perhaps though, it is merely what it says, and the likeness is unusual and less successful than his ‘study’, but this is merely to doubt this attribution within the realms of connoisseurship, until more evidence comes to light.

I think this painting is fascinating on many levels, because it captures the future Tsarina – if it does represent her – at a time when she was still six years away from her momentous engagement to the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the year before her second visit to Russia, which would again further cement the bond between them which had been made on her first trip, back in 1884. Alix would return to Russia in 1890, although this time she did not see the Tsarevich. They would not meet again until 1893 at a family wedding in Berlin.

The existence of the Glasgow painting also led me to find a little-known autobiography with a study which undoubtedly shows Princess Alix, dated 1888, painted by Lavery. This I have been unable to include here, because the copyright image would not expire until 2040, despite my applying to Little, Brown and Company to reproduce it.

The following year – the engagement between them finally took place, at Coburg, during the wedding celebrations of her brother, the young Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh. It marks then, in a way, a step towards that life I think, when that life was still very much far off. Most importantly, too, we know it was taken from life and that out of all of the portraits that Lavery painted of royalty, it was this one – by his own admission – which truly stood out for him in his artistic career. As he wrote in his memoirs long after Alix’s death, it was she who stood out most in his memory.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She joined Royal Central in 2015 and wrote a blog as Historian/History Writer for the site until 2020.