Consigned to Sotheby’s London auction Russian Works of Art, Faberge & Icons on 5 June 2018, was a quite remarkable object offering unique insight into the private gifts of the last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna. I ‘discovered’ its existence whilst browsing past auctions for research. Lot 429, it was one of the Tsarina’s personal ledgers dated between 1897 and 1905. It detailed the Tsarina’s imperial shopping lists and throws fresh light on her relationships and friendships during this period. It sold for £5,250 GBP.
The ledger was presumably written by the Tsarina’s ladies-in-waiting and has 713 entries over 168 pages written in Russian, German, French and English, the first page in Russian reading ‘From the wardrobe of Her Imperial Highness Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’.
We know, of course, that the Tsarina highly prized her friendships and commissioned many private gifts for the close friends of her youth but also notably, for the godchildren to whom she stood as sponsor, the Allen twins in Harrogate being a case in point. The Tsarina’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden stated that the period before Christmas was always remarkably busy. The Tsarina was not permitted to do her own shopping and so in Buxhoeveden’s words, had to wait for the shops to send their products to her.
It was far from satisfactory for the Tsarina, who said according to Buxhoeveden: ‘They always send the same things… once I have selected a thing, they think I want it for ever afterwards. I always have to send one of the maids into town to find some novelties, but they get what is to their taste, and not to mine’. (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Before the Storm, 267). Buxhoeveden says that the Tsarina’s tables were covered with gifts, such as ‘vases, cushions, note-books, scarves and umbrellas, for the Empress liked to give practical presents’. Importantly, Buxhoeveden states that the Tsarina made up parcels for her family and friends abroad, which were to be sent by special messenger, in order to arrive in time for Christmas (Ibid, 267).
Buxhoeveden continues, giving us a useful background to the ledger, which often does not actually detail what the gifts themselves were. She writes: ‘Her family and old friends generally got one gift made by herself, in addition to the others… every present was accompanied by a card, often painted by herself… the foreign presents safely sent off, the Empress set about collecting those for her family, her household and her Russian friends…’ (Ibid, pp. 267-68).
The first entry is dated 4 December 1897. The last in the ledger is 22 December 1905, relating to the Tsarina’s mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, who was in Denmark on this date. Cross-referencing with the letters exchanged between the Dowager Empress and Tsar Nicholas II, I discovered the Dowager Empress’s response as to the gifts for Christmas 1905. Written from the Danish palace of Amalienborg, 29 December 1905, she wrote: ‘I am delighted by your beautiful presents – the little Christmas tree is really too attractive and has touched me deeply…’ (Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Marie, 208).
A great majority of the entries relate to the Tsarina’s extensive family, as well as that of her husband, Tsar Nicholas II. We see from the ledger that the Tsarina was sending to retailers across Europe, fourteen entries for which relate to Peter Carl Faberge. So carefully did she make her choices that she returned any items she changed her mind about, even sending some objects away to be mended. Perhaps significantly, the ledger is mauve-coloured, the favourite colour of the Tsarina and also the one that famously inspired what was at one time possibly the most well-known room in imperial Russia – her famed Mauve Boudoir at the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo.
The ledger reveals that she regularly sent gifts to her childhood home in Darmstadt, her beloved brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig appearing under the list of recipients as ‘Grossherzog von Hessen Darmstadt’ [Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt]. She also sent a parcel annually to the Princess Alice Hospital in Darmstadt, continuing on in the tradition of her mother’s fundraising charitable activities. She continued to send presents to her brother and sisters and their respective spouses, as well as her first and second cousins. The ledger records the jewellery retailer Wondra in Darmstadt.
The Fabergé cigarette case with enamel dragonflies which she commissioned for Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig and had engraved ‘For darling Ernie from Nicky + Alix Xmas 1900’ had a purchase date of 30 November 1900 on the original invoice and can almost certainly be matched with the entry in the ledger for 1 December 1900. Similarly, her gift to her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, a Fabergé silver case inscribed ‘Alix/ Weihnachten/ 1904’ would have been included in the parcel sent to her on 7 December 1904. Princess Louis is incidentally, also referred to in the ledger in German: ‘Prinzessin Ludwig von Battenberg, Hessen’.
Queen Victoria’s name appears as simply ‘The Queen’ in the ledger. Three parcels are recorded for the Queen, two in May and one in December. More specifically, there is an entry on 4 May 1898 for Balmoral, 5 December 1898 for Osborne and 6 May 1899 for Windsor Castle. This points strongly towards these being gifts for her grandmother’s birthday (24 May) and for Christmas, celebrated outside Russian Orthodoxy, traditionally in December. Many other entries can be explained as presents commissioned in advance for the respective birthdays of the recipients.
In later years, Queen Victoria often did not detail her birthday presents in her journal, probably because the list would have been gargantuan by this point in time and it was no longer the period when the birthday tables were regularly painted, as they had been in the past for example, at Osborne. By contrast, she often described the presents for Christmas, selecting random gifts which either she considered most important to mention, or those that clearly made the most impression.
One gift which survives in the Royal Collection from the Tsarina to her beloved grandmother is the jewelled rock crystal desk clock (RCIN 40100) crafted by Mikhail Perkhin, set with rose diamonds and rubies (1896-1900). It was presented to Queen Victoria from the Tsarina in around 1900, so movingly, towards the very end of the Queen’s life – her last Christmas of course, being Christmas 1900. The desk clock has a silver mark of 88 zolotniks (1896-1908). It remained in the Royal Collection after the death of Queen Victoria and was used by George V, who placed it on his desk at Buckingham Palace.
I have checked Queen Victoria’s journal between the years 1897 and 1900 (the Queen’s last Christmas), to see if she records any details of Christmas gifts from the Tsar and Tsarina, usually exchanged in the Queen’s family according to prevailing German custom, on 24 December, Holy Eve’s ‘Bescherung’, the presents being looked over often on Christmas Day itself.
I did discover in Queen Victoria’s journal the information that the Queen received an icon from the Tsar and Tsarina for Christmas 1897, which Queen Victoria at Osborne planned to have put in the chapel. Fascinatingly, I was able to almost certainly match this gift up with Sotheby’s description of a parcel entry for ‘Osborne’ on 18 December 1897, which must have contained this icon as the Christmas present. Touching to note is the existence of another icon in the Royal Collection in this connection. This was an icon of the Virgin of the Protecting Veil with Sts Martha and Mary. Inscribed ‘Windsor 3 July 1913/”The Lord is here & calleth thee”/St John Chapter 11 v.28/Martha Mary, House of Charity, Moscow/’, the icon was from Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and the Tsarina’s elder sister, on the occasion of her last visit to England in July 1913. It was placed in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore by the Grand Duchess, at the tomb of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The inscription read further: ‘This little icon of the Holy Virgin with Martha and Mary is a token of love from your ever grateful and devoted ‘own child’, your grandchild Ella./ THIS ICON PLACED HERE BY H.I.H THE GRAND DUCHESS ELIZABETH FEODOROVNA./ 3RD JULY 1913./THIS FRAME IS MADE FROM THE QUEEN ELIZABETH OAK’ (cit., ed. Royal Collection Trust, et al., Russia: Art, Royalty and the Romanovs, 238).
Movingly, the short entry in the Queen’s journal for Christmas Eve 1900 makes few mentions of any presents, a poignant comment that the Queen who once wrote so much, was reaching her end. There is no mention of the clock being given as a gift for Christmas 1900, which if it had been the case, Queen Victoria would clearly have had only a very short time in which to use and enjoy it. It seems more likely it was a birthday gift if it was indeed given to the Queen sometime in 1900. The Queen’s journal entry for her 81st birthday – 24 May 1900 – perhaps answers our question. Understandably from her point of view, she simply names two gifts from the Prince and Princess of Wales, then says she has no time to describe the others. Half of the Faberge entries in the Tsarina’s ledger relate to autumn 1900.
Many retailers are listed in the Tsarina’s ledger, which provides further insight into where she was sourcing her gifts. I have drawn on Sotheby’s original lot listing for the following information. These include British retailers such as Edwards & Sons, Walter Thornhill, Sir Pryce Pryce Jones in Wales (a retailer to Queen Victoria), the milliner Robert Heath, Swears & Wells who sold hosiery and gloves, as well as Romanes and Patterson in Edinburgh for tartans and cashmere and Green & Abbott, who sold chintzes in Oxford Street, London. Moscow and St Petersburg retailers were predictably in evidence, such as the jewellers Bolin and Butz, the Tsarina’s couturier Madame Brissac, the silversmiths Grachev and Pavel Bure, the watchmaker. Also included were the jewellers Koch in Frankfurt and two European retailers, Maison Spritzer in Vienna and Maison Morin-Blossier of Paris.
I was particularly fascinated to see several entries on one page alone for ‘Graefin Rantzau’. This relates to the Tsarina’s close friend and lady-in-waiting to her sister, Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia, Julie or Juliane, Countess von Rantzau ‘Juju’, with whom she corresponded regularly and about whom little is known. One entry is for the Countess addressed to ‘Holstein’, the other to ‘Kiel’. Other entries relate to the friends of her youth in Darmstadt.
One reads ‘Generalin von Pfuhlstein’, which relates to her close friend, Magarethe von Fabrice, ‘Gretchen’, whose married name was Pfuhlstein. This appears to be from the sample page for 1899, as it listed on the same page as the 6 May 1899 entry for Queen Victoria. ‘Gretchen’ was living in Danzig in late 1899, in the Paradiesgasse. I conducted my own research to find the modern-day equivalent in Polish of the former German street names for Danzig, today’s Gdansk. Whilst some streets do not correspond to their pre-1945 locations, Paradiesgasse is the modern Rajska. Further research revealed that ‘Gretchen’ was living at No. 35, Paradiesgasse. Rajska 35 Gdansk today is dominated by concrete apartment blocks, so the former home of ‘Gretchen’ has – unsurprisingly – not survived.
It seems that the main gift was sent early because ‘Gretchen’ was expecting to shortly give birth. The Tsarina wrote on 8 November 1899: ‘Sending you truly bedquilt [sic] I made with loving thoughts for [unborn child]… & small jacket’. (ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, Alix an Gretchen, 78). As Buxhoeveden tells us though, the Tsarina would send a gift made herself along with a further gift, presumably, the one entered in the ledger.
The other names on the sample page for 1899 include a ‘Frl. Carola Starck, Darmstadt’. Also listed is one ‘Frl Berbenich’, who had been housekeeper of her mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, as I discovered when researching in Queen Victoria’s journal, which describes Berbenich in the immediate period after Alice’s death in 1878. Berbenich had the unhappy task of observing the sad state of the Neues Palais after the death of the Grand Duchess, the town palace being in an atmosphere of both convalescence and deep mourning.
The ledger – now in a private collection – offers an extraordinary glimpse into the private world of the Tsarina’s family and friendships, through the gifts she gave them.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.