It’s the long weekend break in the UK, so I’m spending four days in Mid-Wales with the in-laws doing a whole lot of this:
(Learnt Monopoly Deal and then won twice in a row, just saying.) Not pictured: roast lamb and amazing homemade treacle tart courtesy of my future mother-in-law. But between all the food and scenery and aggressive card play, I’ve whipped up a little virtual Easter treat for you all. An Easter egg, if you will…(sorry).
I’m assuming most people (if not everyone) reading this have heard of Fabergé Eggs, but I thought they deserved a bit more of a detailed look (because, God knows, they don’t get enough attention…). Essentially, the Fabergé Imperial Eggs are a collection of 50 intricate, jewelled metal eggs, filled with equally intricate surprises, which were given as Easter gifts by tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II to their female relatives (predominantly their wives and mothers). The eggs were made by the world-renowned Fabergé workshop in St Petersburg, and 43 still exist, most of which are owned either by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg or the Kremlin Armoury.
I was lucky enough to visit the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg last year, where I saw 9 of the surviving Imperial eggs, as well as a whole host of other Fabergé treasures. Fun fact: although Peter Carl Fabergé is most famous now for the creation of the beautiful eggs, he also made a vast range of other trinkets. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th century, it became fashionable for the European aristocracy to gift each other “a little something from Fabergé” for almost any occasion. With Fabergé’s continuous technical innovations, cigarette cases, watches and photoframes could be had in a dazzling array of enamel colours:
And let’s not forget the stunning jewellery the workshop created (so many egg-laces):
He also made some gorgeous faux flowers, which I now desperately want for my wedding centrepieces…
But back to the eggs. Although there are 9 impressive eggs in the Fabergé Museum’s collection, these are my top picks:
First, the Coronation Egg, presented as an Easter present to Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna by her husband Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler, in 1897. Among other skills, the egg’s construction involved the use of guilloché. Like my Staffordshire Hoard blog post, researching the details of these eggs has introduced me to new metalworking techniques, and this is one of them. Basically, guilloché, originating in the 16th century, is the engraving of a repeating pattern into a base material by mechanical means (engine turning).
The egg also features a range of enamels, and the Empress’ crest set beneath a large diamond (one of many in the design). More exciting than the egg itself (at least to me), is the surprise inside: a miniature, working replica of the Empress’ coronation carriage, less than four inches long and fashioned in enamel and gold. The carriage features opening doors, moving wheels, and even tiny folding steps.
The second of my favourite eggs from the museum’s collection is the Bay Tree Egg, which I found the most impressive in terms of mechanical ingenuity.
Fashioned from jewelled nephrite (a type of jade) and enamels, this egg was presented to Nicholas II’s dowager mother, Maria Feodorovna, in 1911. As if the individual leaves and enamelled planter weren’t impressive enough, the surprise inside is incredibly impressive. When a lever disguised as a jewelled fruit is turned, the tree opens and a feathered songbird which moves and sings appears:
My final pick from the Fabergé Museum is the First Hen Egg. As the name suggests, it was the first egg presented to Empress Maria Feodorovna by her husband, Alexander III, in 1885. Although the egg is much less showy than its descendants, it makes up for that in execution and number of surprises. When the first white egg is opened, it reveals a pure gold ‘yolk’, inside which is a golden chicken with ruby eyes. The hen’s tail feathers have hinges, and the hen opens up to reveal even more surprises. Unfortunately these are now lost, but they would have been a tiny gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown, with a ruby pendant suspended on a chain inside it.
The Empress was so taken with the egg that Alexander put in a standing order with Fabergé for one egg per Easter, giving him free rein to be as innovative as he liked, as long as each egg was different.
I loved the Fabergé eggs I saw in St Petersburg, but there are three in particular in the Kremlin Armoury collection that are on my itinerary for my bucket list trip to Moscow: the Moscow Kremlin Egg, the Memory of Azov Egg, and the Steel Military Egg.
The Moscow Kremlin Egg, by far the largest Imperial egg at more than a foot tall (36 centimetres), sits within a phenomenally beautiful model of the Uspensky Cathedral, where all of the Romanov tsars were crowned, forming the cathedral’s dome. The interior of the cathedral is fashioned in gold and enamel, and includes minute enamelled icons, carpets, and a high altar. The surprise inside is a music box which plays Easter music, including one of Tsar Nicholas II’s favourite hymns. The egg is from 1906, and is considered so precious it has never travelled outside Russia, unlike many other eggs, which have toured to different museums across the globe.
Frustratingly, I couldn’t find a picture of the inside of the egg’s cathedral, which only makes me want to see it more…
The Memory of Azov Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna in 1891, is carved from a single piece of heliotrope jasper which has been richly jewelled. Inside is a perfect replica of the Memory of Azov ship, part of the Russian Navy, upon which Nicholas II (then the tsarevitch, or prince) cruised to Far East Asia in 1890. It is fashioned in red and yellow gold and platinum, and the windows are made of tiny diamonds.
The final egg I’d like to see is the most stylistically interesting, hinting at the Soviet Realism style that was yet to come, and far plainer than the other early 20th century eggs. The Steel Military Egg was presented in 1916, when Nicholas II was away fighting in the First World War. Set on four steel ‘artillery shells’, the egg is plain steel with just the Imperial crest and crown adorning the outside. Inside is hidden a tiny painting by Vassilii Zuiev, which sits on a gold and steel, enamel-covered easel. The painting shows the Tsar and Tsarevitch examining military maps, surrounded by senior army officers. The frame is filled with diamonds. With hindsight, this austere egg almost seems portentous; it was the last egg Fabergé delivered to the Tsarina before the revolution, removal of the monarchy, and nationalisation of Fabergé’s workshop.
Now, we’ve been doing dry Lent (The Goblin’s idea; never again), so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for an enormous glass of Malbec. Enjoy the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend, UK readers!