RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
‘Treasures of the Royal Courts’ at the V&A
A new show at the V&A displays royal gifts exchanged by Britain and Russia. By Giles Waterfield
Attributed to Steven van Herwijk or Steven van der Meulen, 'Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I', c.1560. © Phillip Mould Ltd. A celebration of the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Romanov dynasty would not have been a priority in Soviet Russia. This year, though, it provides the impetus for a spectacular exhibition that explores cultural links between England and Russia, from Henry VIII’s reign to the late 17th century.
‘Treasures of the Royal Courts’ is the result of years of collaboration between the Kremlin Historical Cultural Museum and the V&A. Concentrating on the court culture of Britain, it draws on diplomatic and trading relations that began with the foundation in 1555 of the Muscovy Company. Based in England, this trading company developed at a time when England was seeking new allies against the great Catholic powers. Central to the displays in the show are the magnificent silver vessels, presented to the Tsars as ambassadorial gifts or sold to them by Muscovy Company merchants. A highlight is the Leopard Ewer, c.1600, possibly owned by Elizabeth I and in excellent condition (Kremlin silver traditionally was never cleaned, which helped to preserve it). As Tessa Murdoch, curator for the exhibition, comments, ‘The silver that would otherwise have been melted down in England to fund military campaigns in the 17th century, or sold from Russia during the Soviet Era, survives in remarkable condition – thanks to heroic Russian curators.’
These trophy objects are presented in the context of the magnificent Tudor and Stuart court culture, alongside the Dacre beasts (massive oak carvings of heraldic animals holding banners), textiles, jewellery and miniatures, armour and clothing. The show provides additional context by illustrating early ambassadorial court receptions, and paintings of monarchs, including a rarely shown full-length portrait of Elizabeth I.
Only parts of Hampton Court and St James’s Palace today recall the splendour of the Tudor and Stuart era. This show provides a rare chance to gain a broader perspective on a dispersed and shadowy culture.
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