royal treasures from England and Russia at London’s V&A

The Dolphin basin, V&A, London

What did the courts of Henry VIII (England) and Ivan the Terrible (Russia) have in common?  No, this isn’t the lead to a joke, but the theme of wonderful exhibition at Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) on through 14 July 2013. Titled Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars, the exhibit seeks to show us the disparate worlds of these two nations from the 16th through 17th centuries through their diplomatic gifts and court objects (paintings, silver, gold, armor, textiles and tapestries).

Silver gilt lion, Kremlin Museums, Moscow
The magnificent English silver dating from the Tudor period are all loans from the Kremlin.  Why you ask? Well, these are among the best examples of this type of silver existing today because they were sent to Russia as diplomatic gifts.  Had they remained in England, they most certainly would have been lost to history during the English Civil War when the cash strapped Charles II melted much of the Royal treasury and asked his aristo supporters to pitch in their family silver as well.  Amongst one of the highlights is this leopard statue – and at almost three feet high, it commands my respect! But my personal favorite is the Dolphin Basin made by the van Vianen workshop in London.

Armor of Henry VIII, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London

The great suits of armor on display are a reminder that the Middle Ages were only just ending with the reign of Henry VIII.  What a difference the next century would bring with the advent of firearms and cannon fire, which forever changed the chivalry of warfare.

Portrait of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich on a horse (detail), State Historical Museum, Kremlin, Moscow

The paintings exhibited show a great contrast in the traditions of art in each country: this detail of a portrait of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich (1670-80) could almost be a Byzantine icon with its gold ground and naive rendition.  The portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) done a century earlier in England, also has a gold ground and is depicted with similar naiveté, but in comparison to the Tsar’s portrait, the Elizabethan painting is way more progressive by additionally showcasing the Monarch’s rich drapery and wonderful background foliage.

Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I: Philip Mould, Ltd., London

On a curious historical note, a kind of sad, but interesting object, is a pelican (now stuffed) that was part of a pod given by the Tsar to Charles II in 1662.  Apparently the pelicans liked London because they took to breeding in St. James’s Park where their descendants are still resident today.  An example of a gift that keeps on giving.
Today it’s easy to think of all corners of the globe as being relatively the same, but this exhibit reminds us that once upon a time this was most certainly not the case!