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Treasures of Catherine the Great in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House in London
November 25, 2000 - September 23, 2001

The passion of Catherine the Great for science and fine arts resulted in a real treasure the world acquired - the collections of the Hermitage Museum. Diversity of Catherine's interests is reflected by the collections of prints and drawings, antique sculpture, engraved gems, coins and medals. She also purchased the richest libraries of Diderot and Voltaire and the cabinet of minerals. Her numerous commissions for articles of daily use from porcelain, precious metals and stones became the basis for the decorative arts collection.

The first gallery will provide a visual presentation to introduce the Hermitage itself. Golden Telecom (Moscow) is the firm providing telecommunication with St. Petersburg. The visitors of the Somerset House will have a chance to look across Palace Square to the Winter Palace in real time. A six-minute video will take the visitor through the most dazzling interiors of the Hermitage while computer screens will allow everybody to explore the Hermitage website.
The gallery houses the Portrait of Catherine the Great by Alexander Roslin loaned from Houghton Hall, Norfolk, built for Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister. Catherine bought the finest pictures from Walpole's important collection from his grandson in 1779 and presented him, in return, with this magnificent portrait which is still in its original frame. The walls are decorated with replicas of the 19th century watercolours, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I and his son Alexander II, of the interiors of the Hermitage wings and Winter Palace.

The second and largest gallery will evoke Catherine's life. Above the mantlepiece at one end will hang a visiting masterpiece, which will change every three months. The first of these masterpieces will be one of Catherine's purchases: Moses Striking the Rock (1649) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Apart from the paintings representing Catherine the Great, including the equestrian portrait of the Empress by Vigilius Eriksen, the gallery will feature a Meissen equestrian figure of Catherine modelled by Johann Joachim Kaendler.
The showcases and other cabinet furniture in the Hermitage Rooms will replicate the furniture made from the designs of the German architect Leo von Klenze. Klenze was commissioned to create the designs of the public museum called the New Hermitage by Nicholas I. Two original cabinets are used to display jewels, portrait miniatures, gold medals and other small treasures among which are a miniature portrait of one of Catherine's most famous lovers, Count Grigory Orlov, painted in enamels on gold by Andrei Chorny, snuff boxes with childhood portraits of Catherine's grandsons Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine and a diamond badge with the monogram EII (for Ekaterina the Second).
There are forty medals represented on display including one commemorating the introduction of the smallpox vaccination to Russia in 1768. Of interest for the public will be clocks one of which with rhinoceroses and a musical mechanism is made by James Cox of London in 1772. The most extraordinary item in the display cases will be Catherine's wig made entirely of silver thread, never before publicly exhibited.
The exhibition will also feature a portrait of Prince Grigory Potemkin of Tauris by Johann-Baptist Lampi the Elder; a portrait of Alexei Bobrinsky, the natural son of Catherine and Grigory Orlov, by Christineck. Prints are also of particular interest, for example, one representing a portrait of Peter III made from the original by Georg Grooth; a bronze bust of Grand Duke Paul, son of Catherine the Great, the future Emperor Paul I by Rachett.

The third gallery shows Catherine's passion for collecting engraved gems and cameos. Visitors will have a chance to see 12 ancient Greek and Roman gems and 50 gems dating from the period of time starting from the Renaissance to the reign of Catherine the Great. One of them made of jasper by Grand Duchess Maria Fiodorovna, wife of Paul I, in 1789, shows Catherine II as Minerva. Catherine also commissioned glass copies to be made from the gems in the collection of James Tassie in London. Nearly 40 gems from Tassie's collection, with the Medusa among them, are a part of the exhibition . On display is also one of the boxes made by Roach which contained the Tassie's gems on the way to Russia. The most significant purchase of Catherine the Great was acquisition of the Duke of Orleans' collection of gems in 1787. From 1786 to 1796 nearly 200 works of this visual art created by the English carvers brothers William and Charles Brown were added to the collection. The German furniture master David Roentgen who visited St.Petersburg in 1786 was commissioned by Catherine the Great to produce mahogany cabinets decorated with ormolu for gems and medals.
A pride of the Hermitage collection is the Green Frog Service produced by the outstanding English ceramist Josiah Wedgwood in 1774. Among a number of pieces from this service displayed for the public is a plate with a view of Somerset House. Another Wedgwood article is an unusually large plate representing Catherine the Great Awarding Arts and Patronizing Commerce made in 1785.
Of particular interest in this gallery are the articles from the Sevres porcelain Cameo Service commissioned by the Empress for Prince Potemkin in 1788.

The topic of the fourth gallery is Catherine the Great as a patron of decorative arts and crafts. On display there are the items made at the Tula Small Arms Factory. These include gilt and inlaid tables, mirrors, chandeliers, an umbrella, a pillow, a chess set, a box and also small pistols and sabres made for the grandsons of Catherine Alexander and Constantine, a hunting gun of Catherine the Great.
The Gardner Factory, one of the first and best Russian private porcelain factories, was founded by the English merchant Francis Gardner in 1766. Catherine commissioned from this factory four services for the receptions held in the Winter Palace in honour of the cavaliers of the four highest orders of the Russian Empire. Some items from these services decorate the gallery.
The Berlin Royal Manufactory is represented by dishes from the Potemkin's Service presented to Prince Potemkin by Friedrich the Great.

Gallery five demonstrate Catherine's taste for Chinese objects and chinoiserie. Some of the pieces in this room are of the utmost rarity such as the 23 ornamental gold ‘hairpins' believed to have been a gift to Catherine from the Emperor of China. The only similar examples known to exist are in the Palace Museum in Taiwan. There are also extremely rare Chinese pieces from two silver filigree toilet services, including a life-like silver box in the form of a crab which stands on a gilded filigree leaf plate. Two apparently unique Chinese filigree silver toilet sets dating from around 1750 came to light at the Hermitage only recently thanks to detective work by the curator of Chinese applied arts and will have their first public showing in this London exhibition. The fact that Chinese filigree silver of this type is virtually unknown makes this a particularly exciting discovery.

Antique busts and reliefs, most of which come from the collection of antiquities acquired by Catherine the Great in 1787 from G.Browne, Director of the Bank of Englang, are on display. Of interest are eight gouaches representing monuments of ancient Rome by the French architect and painter Chales Louis Clairissot that once decorated the boudoir of Catherine in the Winter Palace.
The wide scope of the exhibition enables the visitors to fully appriciate the collection of Catherine the Great, one of the greatest collectors of all time, and recreates the atmosphere of magnificent interiors of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the New Hermitage.

 


Portrait of Catherine the Great
Vigilius Eriksen
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Snuff boxes with childhood portraits of Catherine's grandsons Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine
Paris
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Nero as Jupiter
Ancient Rome
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Plate with a view of Somerset House
Piece from the Wedgwood Green Frog Service
England
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Objects made of Tula steel
Russia
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Figure of Catherine the Great on the throne
Berlin
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Crab-shaped box
China
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