Treasures of Catherine the Great in the Hermitage
Rooms at Somerset House in London
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 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 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
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.
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.