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‘For my darling Nicky’: A gift for the Tsarevich

On 29 May 1894, Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia wrote to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna, that he could see the sea from the room in which he was writing, in the imperial palace of Peterhof and that he had ‘such a longing for the yacht and want to fly there to join my betrothed’ (Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Marie, 81). He planned to leave for England on 31st June, which he wrote would take some five days across the Baltic and North Sea (Ibid, 81). His fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse, was finishing her cure in the fashionable Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. He hoped to see her at Walton-on-Thames, where her eldest sister Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, had rented a house near the river ‘and then I shall have to go to Windsor’ (Ibid, 81). An intensely romantic gift from this time appeared at Christie’s, London in 2012.

The time spent in England would be a happy continuation of the blissful period of their engagement, begun at Coburg. The days spent together were an imperial summer, glorious and short-lived. By November 1894, the Tsarevich’s father, Tsar Alexander III had died at the old Livadia palace, in the Crimea, whither Alix had journeyed. The fiancé, who was so unprepared for the business of ruling, had become Tsar Nicholas II through the shock death of his awesome father, a pillar of monarchical and physical strength, the latter being legendary – he could bend iron pokers and plates, even on one occasion, tying a silver fork into a knot at dinner.

The Tsarevich’s arrival in England was eagerly anticipated at Walton-on-Thames, not least by himself. In his own words, he was ‘met’ at Waterloo Station by his future brother-in-law Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Battenberg and Staal. He was transported to Walton, ‘a veritable idyll’, where he and Princess Alix spent lazy days on the Thames and were even permitted later at Windsor by Queen Victoria (‘Granny’) to ‘go out for drives without a chaperone!’ These were treasured days, reading under a chestnut tree, boating on the river, walking. In the telegram they sent Queen Victoria at Windsor, the couple said how much they would have liked to have spent ‘only one more day here’.

Nicholas describes that he went ‘into the arms of my betrothed who looked lovely and more beautiful than ever’ (cit., Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 35). But she was not in fact, at Waterloo Station to meet him, but waiting at Walton-on-Thames. Nicholas had travelled from Russia in the imperial yacht Polar Star, up the Thames. Nicholas wrote to his mother: ‘I hope to see Aunt Alix [the Princess of Wales], who I thought had meant to come with Victoria and Maud [daughters, Princesses Victoria and Maud of Wales] to the Polar Star. But this didn’t happen…’ (Ibid, 82). The imperial yacht would in fact, later become the official yacht of his mother, as Dowager Empress, from 1896 until 1914. In busy Waterloo Station today, it is difficult to perhaps imagine the future Russian Tsarevich here, flushed and eager to see his fiancée. Happily, though, South Western trains still leave from Waterloo for Basingstoke or Woking, calling at Walton-on-Thames. In 1894, the Tsarevich went to Walton by carriage.

The imperial yacht Polar Star was lent to the Tsarevich by Tsar Alexander III for the journey, as Princess Alix informed Queen Victoria in a letter so that he could undertake the entire trip by water (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 71). Nicholas confirmed this in a letter to Queen Victoria in June, showing that he had brought the departure date forward, saying he would leave on 3 June on his father’s ‘new’ yacht (Ibid, 71). Nicholas wrote to Princess Alix that he was particularly glad to make this journey, even though it took two days longer than by train because it was in his father’s ‘lovely’ yacht, and he could, therefore, avoid calling on the German Emperor, Wilhelm II at Berlin (Ibid, 72). He wrote in his diary on board the beautiful yacht, of the unpleasant weather at sea but of his ‘pleasure’ (Ibid, 73) at travelling in the yacht that had been lent him by the Tsar.

On 5 June, there was an Orthodox service celebrated on board, to mark the feast of Trinity Day; we must imagine the evenings were somewhat long because Nicholas spent them playing games on deck and later, dominoes (Ibid, 73). By 7 June, the yacht had crossed German waters and his diary shows his mounting excitement at soon being reunited with his fiancée. He wrote: ‘Tomorrow I shall see my beloved again… I’ll go mad with joy’ (cit., Robert K Massie, 35). Finally, the next day, he recorded in his diary, sighting the Galloner lighthouse and the Thames estuary (Ibid, 73). Sailing up the Thames, he lunched on board and arrived at Gravesend, ‘having said goodbye to the Polar Star’, he landed and was taken in a carriage to Waterloo Station. A guard of honour was there to receive him. The excited Tsarevich even notes the exact time that he saw his beloved Alix again at Walton-on-Thames – quarter-to-four in the afternoon (Ibid, 73).

Later in July, it would be the splendid yacht Polar Star, which would transport Nicholas from Osborne, where he took leave of Queen Victoria and Princess Alix, bound for Russia. Alix painted a watercolour at the head of one of her letters to him from Osborne, with the words Separes, mais toujours unis!’ [Separated, but always united!], showing a boat out at sea (ed. Alexander Bokhanov et al, The Romanovs, Love, Power and Tragedy, 76). Nicholas wrote to his fiancée, that one of her letters was handed to him when he went on board and that romantically, he followed her figure until it disappeared when the landing stage went out of sight (Ibid, 81). In his diary, Nicholas recorded that they went at a rate of 15 knots along the English coastland (Ibid, 82) and that, of course, he had written to Alix.

The separation was a painful one. On board the Polar Star, Nicholas described his sudden urgent need to go ashore and get a train to Portsmouth and thereby get back to Osborne, where Alix was (Ibid, 82). En route back to Russia, Nicholas docked at Copenhagen, where he was met by his maternal grandparents, King Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark at Tolboden and taken to the Amalienborg Palace, where he stayed for some days, on one of the uppermost floors of the palace complex, as he told his diary (Ibid, 82).

Much later in Russia, even the word ‘Walton’ brought happy tears to Alix’s eyes, everything from this time of their engagement being so deeply treasured by her (Robert K Massie, 35).

A deeply romantic gift was given by Princess Alix to Tsarevich Nicholas at this time, which I encountered as part of an auction held at Christie’s, London, Sale 6769, An Important Collection of Russian Books and Manuscripts with Imperial Provenance (2012). Lot 110, it was a brown leather portfolio blotter, lined in burnt orange silk, probably for Nicholas to use on his writing desk. The cover had a pen and ink sketch of the Russian imperial yacht, Polar Star [Poliarnaia Zvezda], a blossom branch and ribbon, with the name of the yacht, Nicholas’s imperial cypher and the inscription ‘1894, A’. This is not unlike the correspondence of the couple, which often contained pressed flowers in its pages, such as Russian bluebells (ed. Bokhanov, 74). Its pre-sale estimate was GBP £6,000-GBP £8,000, but it finally realised a sale value of GBP £12,500.

Touchingly, there was an inscription on the blotter in Alix’s handwriting: ‘For my darling Nicky dear from yr own ever very loving Alix, 1894’. As there is no precise date, it was almost certainly given prior to Nicholas’s departure at Osborne, bound for Russia. It may even have been given at Windsor, but the nature of the present seems to have departure in mind.

It is, therefore, a unique find from a time that was surely the happiest of their lives and tells its own part of that romantic story.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019