Marion Carlisle opens a box of delights that reveals much about the bygone days of the Russian imperial court
Faberge's sparkling "Mosaic Egg" tells a story as much about the close ties between the Russian imperial family and the British royal family as it does about outstanding craftsmanship.
Examining the glittering exterior reveals an array of precious stones, from rose diamonds and rubies to emeralds, topaz, sapphires and moonstones. At first glance, these stones form a colourful pattern within horizontal bands and medallions. On closer study, this mosaic of tiny squares reveals an intricate flower motif held in place by a delicate platinum cagework structure.
The interior is just as fascinating. Hidden within the hollow interior is a "surprise" - an enamelled medallion surmounted by the imperial crown and decorated with profile portraits of the Tsar and Tsarina's five children - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexis. On the reverse are their names and the date, 1914, surrounding a basket of flowers.
Eggs had a particular significance in Russian life before the revolution of 1917. Easter is the most important celebration in the Russian Orthodox calendar and during Easter celebrations, hand-dyed hens' eggs are brought to church to be blessed and presented to family and friends. In the late 19th century, this practice evolved into the exchange of costly gifts, including richly decorated eggs, among the St Petersburg aristocracy.
Russian goldsmith and jeweller Peter Carl Faberge took over his father's jewellery business in St Petersburg in 1872. Within a few years he had transformed it into a large enterprise of separate workshops, each with its own speciality and headed by a workmaster. Good financial practice, imaginative design, attention to high standards and the recruitment of the best-trained craftsmen ensured Faberge's success. This was confirmed by the appointment of Faberge as Supplier to the Court of Tsar Alexander III in 1885.
Throughout the following 30 years, the Russian imperial family commissioned no less than 50 Easter eggs of which 44 are definitely in existence today.
Although many of these have a theme drawn from the important events in the imperial household, Faberge was given artistic freedom by the Tsar to explore imaginative uses of materials and designs. In 1910 he was appointed Court Goldsmith to the Tsar, in charge of workshops producing cigarette cases, clocks, picture frames, pendants, music boxes, chimes and even richly decorated Christmas crackers.
This egg was commissioned in 1914 by Tsar Nicholas II, as an Easter gift for Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Less than five years later, it was confiscated, with other imperial property, during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Provisional Government appropriated Faberge's workshops and many of the workmen fled Russia. Faberge emigrated to Switzerland.
The design and production of the "Mosaic Egg" was a family affair. The designer, Alma Pihl, came from a family of jewellers employed by Faberge.
Her father was head of the Faberge jewellery workshop in Moscow and her uncle, Albert Holmstrom, was the workmaster responsible for the production of this egg.
Enormous trust was placed in the large group of craftsmen working on this commission to ensure utmost secrecy. According to an interview given by Alma Pihl to her niece, the inspiration for this design came to her during a quiet evening at home with her family. Noticing the light catching the embroidery that her mother-in-law was working on, Pihl sought to emulate the fragmented pattern, colour and texture on the embroidered cloth, and translate it into a 3D mosaic of metal and precious stones. It would have taken about a year to make this small work of art.
The British Royal Collection of Faberge is linked closely to the Romanov dynasty. Many pieces were given personally to members of the British royal family by their relations in Russia. As a result, large numbers of the works of Faberge in the Royal Collection are linked to people, places and even animals of significance to the royal family.
Contextual material, from the Royal Archives and Royal Photograph Collection, illustrate the close relationship between the Russian imperial family and the British royal family. Tsar Nicholas II and the future King George V were cousins. Their mothers were sisters - Dagmar of Denmark (Tsarina Marie Feodorovna, 1847-1928) and Alexandra of Denmark (Queen Alexandra, 1844-1925). A particularly poignant photograph, available on the Royal Collection's online e-gallery, shows the cousins arm-in-arm at Barton Manor, on the Isle of Wight, in 1909. Both, in their time, owned the "Mosaic Egg".
Although originally conceived as an Easter gift from Tsar Nicholas II to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorova, the "Mosaic Egg" became a birthday gift from King George V to Queen Mary when purchased in 1933 by the King, in London.
Today, the "Mosaic Egg" can be explored in the Royal Collection's e-Gallery.
* The Royal Collection's e-Gallery www.royalcollection.org.ukeGallery
* The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace Tel: 020 7766 7301
* The Treasures from the Royal Collection exhibition, at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, has examples of work by Faberge, including the "Basket of Flowers Egg" (1901) and the "Colonnade Egg" (1910).
To book tickets online visit www.the-royal-collection.comroyaltickets
* Faberge in the Royal Collection By Caroline de Guitaut Royal Collection Publications, pound;9.99 Marion Carlisle is education development manager at The Royal Collection
Peter Carl Faberge 1846-1920
Faberge was born in St Petersburg and trained in Frankfurt, Paris and Florence, where he gained valuable insight into a range of materials and techniques. In 1864, he joined his father's jewellery business in St Petersburg. After being appointed Court Supplier in 1885, he made Easter eggs for the Russian imperial family until 1916. By the time of the revolution, in 1917, his business had made some 150,000 objects and was the largest company in Russia. Faberge fled to Germany that same year, then later lived in Switzerland.
Art and design
The "Mosaic Egg" was conceived as a personal gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Using the online tools, pupils open the "Mosaic Egg" and lift out the hidden "surprise". If the "Mosaic Egg" was a present for their friend, what type of "surprise" would children choose and why?
Using the online magnifying glass, pupils look closely at the pattern of colourful stones forming a flower design. In groups, choose a motif, such as a flower, and draw its 2D outline on grid paper. How can colours and shapes be used to create depth to the design. How well would designs translate to a 3D object?
Students find out about the relationship between the British royal family and the Russian imperial family from the online contextual material.
Are the photos formal or informal? Are there differences in dress between the two families? Use the invoice, dated May 2, 1933, to discuss the change in ownership of the "Mosaic Egg". Why do collections disperse, change shape and grow?
Use the online contextual information as a starting point to discuss the role of the imperial household during events leading to the 1917 revolution. What light do the eggs throw?