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Finding a ‘lost’ photograph of Princess Alix of Hesse

Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, visited the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate in 1894 to take a cure for sciatica, during which time she became godmother to the Allen twins, born in the house where she was staying, to her landlady, Mrs Allen. These twins were the recipient of christening gifts and presents from Princess Alix even after she became Tsarina, with presents being sent as late as 1915, for the twins’ 21st birthdays, when Russia had not yet reached the halfway point of the First World War.

I had the enormous privilege of viewing the christening set given to the goddaughter, Alix Allen as a first birthday gift – an imperial silver gilt cloisonné christening set by Grachev – before its being consigned to auction in 2017. Whilst researching for an academic article on the subject of Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Harrogate, I encountered a photograph signed in Harrogate by Princess Alix, which intrigued me.

Princess Alix spent her birthday in Harrogate in 1894 and was later joined by her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, who later remembered in her private reminiscences: ‘Alix had been suffering for some time from attacks of sciatica and took a cure in Harrogate against it. I spent a couple of days with her there; we had great fun going about in tricycle bath chairs, worked by a man sitting behind us. We used to urge them to race each other…’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 236).

Most interestingly, I had found whilst researching on Alix’s visit to Harrogate that the man who had pulled her chair was named Mr Rochford, and he was given an autographed photo as a keepsake (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 1/2018, 42). Nor was it, however, the only signed photograph which Alix gave in memory of her visit. She also gave one to a Miss Shoesmith, who had attended her during her cure (Ibid, 42).

The signed photograph reads in pen: ‘Alix, Princess of Hesse. Harrogate. 1894’. Over more than ten years that I spent researching on this theme, I have never located a photograph made of Princess Alix at Harrogate in 1894. The closest we have to a photographic image from this time exists in the Royal Collection and is a grouping from August 1894, containing not only Princess Alix of Hesse, but her close lady-in-waiting, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice and also Mlle Catherine Schneider, both accompanied her to Yorkshire.

This signed photograph too is telling because it is clearly not taken in England but belongs to the series of pictures made by the fashionable photographer in Coburg, Eduard Uhlenhuth, at the time of her engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia. The image is unmistakably made at the same time as those that include the Tsarevich and is possibly be a detail of one of these, or more likely, simply a solo portrait on the same occasion, as it is taken in the identical ivy-framed doorway. This is probably at Schloss Rosenau, the birthplace in 1819 of Princess Alix’s maternal grandfather, Prince Albert, consort to her beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria.

I managed to track this photograph to Bonham’s Russian Sale in London in 2006, as Lot 163. The Bonham’s photograph is mounted on a photographer’s card, reading J. Russell & Sons. It must, therefore, have been one of those photographs recorded in a contemporary account of her stay, given personally by Princess Alix before she left Harrogate – to either Miss Shoesmith or Mr Rochford. Its pre-sale estimate was £2,000-£3,000.

It is a fascinating find. Importantly, during Princess Alix’s stay in Harrogate, she was corresponding regularly with her fiancé, Tsarevich Nicholas, who sent a bracelet for her birthday and a telegram. Princess Alix later wrote to Queen Victoria, to thank her for sending her eldest sister to Yorkshire to spend it with her, because she had never been alone for her birthday before (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 71). It is appropriate then that Princess Alix should choose to give a personal memento that was made in Coburg at the time of her engagement to Nicholas.

The image remains as a poignant remnant of that visit to Yorkshire. There must be a second signed photo somewhere if it has survived. When she left Harrogate, Princess Alix went to the house her eldest sister Victoria, Princess Louis had rented at Walton-on-Thames, where she was joined by Tsarevich Nicholas, who arrived in England in the splendid yacht Polar Star. After a few idyllic days, the couple went to Windsor, where they stayed at Windsor Castle as guests of Queen Victoria. The period of their engagement was to be the happiest of their lives. Princess Alix carefully treasured everything from this time when she became Tsarina and memories of the Coburg engagement fill their wartime correspondence on the relevant anniversaries.

1894 was surely the most crucially significant in Alix’s life. In this year, she became the fiancée of the Tsarevich and his wife before the end of the year, with the shattering shock of the death of Tsar Alexander III at the imperial residence of Livadia in the Crimea. This dreadful death (diagnosed as nephritis) stunned Russia and made her young inexperienced fiancé suddenly an autocrat, with no idea – by his own admission – of either the business of ruling or how to talk to government ministers. This photograph was made before all these events and given as a token of gratitude to one of two people in Harrogate, prior to her historic wedding a mere five months later.

The house in Harrogate was not forgotten. Cathcart House still stands proudly on West Park Stray; a plaque was unveiled there in 2007. I was given kind permission to visit inside the house in 2004; a plaque was placed inside the house in 2000 but does not commemorate the building’s history, instead by Sanctuary Housing Association to officially mark the opening of the new flats, into which the property had been split.

Remarkably as recent researches of others have revealed, Cathcart House was identified as one of the miniatures on the spectacularly crafted ‘Revolving Miniatures’ Egg by Faberge, presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife – now Alexandra Feodorovna – in 1896, the year of the coronation, with watercolours by Johannes Zehngraf. I was astonished to identify amongst the papers in the album sold with the Grachev christening set I viewed in 2017, two handwritten letters from Carl Faberge himself to Mr Allen, still living at Cathcart House in Harrogate. Carl Faberge requested from Mr Allen an image of his home: ‘His Majesty the Emperor has charged me to make a rich album containing views of all the places where Her Majesty lived in her youth. Would you be kind enough to send me a photo of your house in which the Princess lived in 1894.’ (cit., Elizabeth Jane Timms, in Royalty Digest Quarterly 2018/1, 43). The historic discovery of this letter finally confirmed in Faberge’s handwriting the earlier researches of Cathcart House’s identification within the miniatures of the egg and was therefore of quite extraordinary significance both to myself and all of those who were involved with this part of that quest.

The photograph then is a small piece in that royal jigsaw of 1894.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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