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The Tsarina and her English governess, Miss Jackson

By Albert von Keller - Art Tattler, Public Domain,

“For dear Miss Jackson, with loving Xmas wishes from Alix, 1900”.

With these words, inscribed as a dedication in pencil and today preserved in a frame of its own, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia (1872-1918) sent her Christmas gift of 1900 to Miss Margaret Hardcastle Jackson, her former governess from her days as a Princess of Hesse in Darmstadt. The gift came in a box, with its customary Faberge Cyrillic markings and an assay mark of 1899-1908. In wider Faberge terms, the present was commissioned in the year of the Imperial Cuckoo Egg, which was given by Tsar Nicholas II to Tsarina Alexandra in 1900. The Tsarina’s gift to Miss Jackson was a paper-knife by Faberge. It was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2017.

How was it that an imperial gift from Russia, intended for its sender – resident in England – as a memory of a childhood in Germany, come to reside in the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design?

The inscription is typical of the kind of dedication that Alexandra used to send Christmas greetings to close friends, however, this calm greeting concealed many of the sad events of the year of 1900. Alexandra referred to the year in a postcard greeting from Spala, the imperial hunting lodge in Poland to a friend, as “What terrible sorrows this year has brought us…”

As Miss Jackson was not only her former governess but also a friend from her youth in Darmstadt with whom she retained correspondence, it is possible that the Tsarina may have gone into more detail as to the difficulties of that year, although no letter appears to have survived from 1900 from the Tsarina to Jackson. The year 1900 had brought with it the deaths of three of the Tsarina’s uncles, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who died on 30 July 1900 at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg and two paternal uncles – Prince Heinrich of Hesse and Prince Wilhelm of Hesse. Tsar Nicholas II had fallen ill with typhoid – the disease which caused the death of her maternal grandfather, Prince Albert and also threatened the life of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII in 1871.

The Tsar fell badly ill at Yalta with the disease on 1 November and remained ill until 28 November, nursed back to health by the Tsarina, who must also by this point have been roughly two months pregnant with the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna, born the following June. On the return to health of the Tsar, Princess Bariatinsky and two other ladies presented the Tsarina with an ikon, for which she wrote a letter of thanks on New Year’s Eve 1900, echoing the sentiments of her postcard from Spala: “Dearest Mary… what sorrows this last year brought us…

As it happened, the choice of gift to Miss Jackson was a most appropriate one, given the fact that the Tsarina maintained contact with her former governess by letter until at least three years before the latter’s death; perhaps Jackson used the gift whenever opening these letters from her former, now imperial, pupil. At the time, Queen Victoria had demanded regular and detailed monthly reports from Miss Jackson as to every particular of the education of her Hessian grandchildren, for whom she felt doubly responsible since the death of her their mother, her second daughter Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse in 1878. Jackson was present at the Hessian family’s last holiday together in the summer of 1878, when she was a member of the suite which went with the ducal family to Eastbourne. She is captured as part of the large group in the photographs made at the Eastbourne villa of the Duke of Devonshire, Compton Place.

Even when she left the service of the Hessian ducal family, Miss Jackson still kept in touch with her pupil, who she had christened in her babyhood as her “Poppet Queen No. 3”, a name which the future Tsarina continued to use as a token of affection, unfailingly signing letters to Miss Jackson, even on the day of her engagement to Tsarevich Nicholas as “Ever your very loving, P.Q No.III, ALIX”. This letter was evidently a reply to a letter of congratulation which Miss Jackson had sent her, as she wrote from Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg on 28 April 1894, “Darling Madgie, most loving thanks for your dear letter, which touched me deeply… you must come and see me, as soon as you can…” Alexandra clearly did see her former governess again because she referred in a letter to a close friend as having visited her for tea in her house, whilst on a visit to London in October 1892.

Alexandra wrote to Jackson during her trip to Italy in 1893, sending her “a few lines from your beloved Venice” and continued to write to her on her return to Darmstadt, thanking Miss Jackson for a letter, so it is clear that the correspondence was mutually maintained. It seems that Miss Jackson had the habit of sending reading material to Alexandra: “I enjoy the little books you send me always so much…

Miss Jackson’s sister had been in the service of the Duchess of Buccleuch, and she had been part of Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia’s household. When she had been in the service of the Hessian ducal family for ten years, Miss Jackson received a bracelet of miniatures of Princess Alice and her children as an acknowledgement. Miss Jackson left the service of the Hessian ducal family in 1887 when Alexandra was aged fifteen. The Tsarina wrote to Jackson from Balmoral in 1896, during the Russian imperial visit to Queen Victoria, sending the letter to London, “not knowing your Eastbourne address…”

The Tsarina’s letters to her former governess give a window onto her private family life, but also contain interesting observations about books, to appeal to Miss Jackson’s known intellectual tastes, marked from the Tsarina’s childhood, with a nod to her own daughters, the four Grand Duchesses: “If you know of any interesting historical books for girls, could you tell me…”

Incredibly, the Tsarina managed to maintain contact with Jackson even following the outbreak of the First World War – at least two letters written from Tsarskoe Selo in the early part of 1915 survived and were reprinted in the biography that Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden wrote of the Tsarina: “We did not send you any present, not being sure with these abominable times whether a parcel would ever reach you…”

The Faberge letter-opener sent to Miss Jackson has a poignant epilogue. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Imperial Family’s removal to Tobolsk in Siberia, it was the imperial children’s English tutor Sydney Gibbes, who chose to write a letter – ostensibly harmless, but on closer inspection a desperate cry for help – to Jackson, whom he had never met – in England. The letter contained talkative references to the life that the Imperial Family led in Siberia but made careful uses of private names which Miss Jackson would have understood. It asked after “David[’s]… father and mother” – which actually meant an enquiry about the Prince of Wales and his parents, King George V and Queen Mary. No record of this letter has ever been found in the Royal Archives at Windsor. The author Charlotte Zeepvat concludes that the truth gives the most simple, tragic reason for this – 82-year-old Jackson was by then ill. She died on 28 January 1918. Zeepvat theorises if the letter – which left Tobolsk on 15 December 1917 – had reached Miss Jackson, she would have been beyond taking any necessary action that could have helped the situation.

It was not the first time that Alexandra had sent a paper-knife as a personal gift to a close friend. A gold-mounted nephrite paper-knife probably Russian, late 19th-century and apparently unmarked, with a facsimile inscription ‘For my darling Papa from his loving Alix’ appeared at Christie’s in 2010, thought to be a gift from Alexandra when Princess of Hesse to her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse.

As Grand Duke Ludwig IV died in 1892, over two years before Alexandra became Empress, it is likely that – if the paper-knife was indeed from Alexandra – (on closer inspection, the signature could appear to be more similar to that of the future Queen Alexandra, lacking the classic looping ‘A’ of Tsarina Alexandra’s customary signature) then it would likely have been purchased during her visit to St Petersburg in 1889 or her visit in 1890. Alexandra certainly sent a paper-knife to the close friend of her youth, Margarete von Fabrice in the autumn of 1914 – probably the last gift that she sent this particular friend. This gift – unquestionably from Alexandra and still preserved by her descendants – was made of wood, bearing the initials of the Tsarina and dated 1914. It also has a small, gold-mounted white enamel egg and was made by Faberge, St Petersburg.

The paper-knife which was given by Tsarina Alexandra to Jackson is a particularly attractive example of Faberge paper knives. It is of polished rock crystal, has rounded ends with a red and yellow gold laurel leaf, is tied in a bow knot with a red-gold ribbon and has a drop pendant consisting of one brilliant and four mounted rose diamonds, set in silver. The rectangular case is of holly wood and lined with cream velvet. At some point, the pencil dedication must have been within the box lid, but today is in its own glazed frame. The inner silk bears the gold stamp of the imperial Russian eagle and the letters ‘K FABERGE’ in Cyrillic, together with ‘Moscow’ and ‘St Petersburg’ in Cyrillic.

It was exhibited and published at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung Munich, entitled “Faberge, Hofjuwelier der Zaren”, which showed from 5 December 1986 – 8 March 1987. Enquiries by the present author have identified its illustration within the Munich exhibition catalogue, where it is described as “204. Letter-Opener”, with a provenance as having been a gift from Tsarina Alexandra to her “nurse” [sic]. It has a length of 195mm and width of 25 mm. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, it also was exhibited and published at “Fabergé: Imperial Jeweller, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, V&A, London, 1993-4, no. 137.”

It was illustrated in the book ‘Carl Fabergé; Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia’ by Kenneth Snowman. The reference to Snowman relates to an important final puzzle piece in the paper knife’s subsequent history. Kenneth Snowman, former chairman of Wartski and known collector of Faberge, also at one time, owned this paper-knife. It did form part of a small collection of treasures including some nine pieces by Faberge which were donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from the Estate of Kenneth Snowman by his son, Nicholas Snowman, under the tax-saving Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government, allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2017. (Kenneth’s father Emanuel married the daughter of Morris Wartski, Harriet Wartski and had close links with the Victoria and Albert Museum, having curated a major Faberge exhibition there in 1977, to honour The Queen’s Silver Jubilee). Snowman appears to have had the paper-knife in his collection until at least 1979 when the reference to it was made in the Kunsthalle exhibition catalogue of 1986-87. Snowman referred to the paper-knife as being: “an eloquent example of Carl Fabergé igniting a bright spark of pleasure between people, a function to which he appears to have dedicated his life” (cit., Bright Sparks of Pleasure: Victoria and Albert Museum Newsletter, Richard Edgecumbe, et al. Autumn/Winter 2017, 74).

The paper-knife appeared in an exhibition at Wartski in 1992 and was described but not illustrated in its exhibition catalogue. Since 2003, it has been on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until the Victoria and Albert Museum’s acquisition of it as a Cultural Gift. It is now on display in the William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, in the Faberge case in Rooms 91-93, catalogued as ‘case 56, shelf 8’.

This presentation shows the twofold importance of this piece – as an artwork of outstanding craftsmanship and beauty, but also, as a personal gift to a close friend – itself a testament to a Russian Tsarina’s childhood in Darmstadt.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2017-2019

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 British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC.