Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts & the Russian Tsars (Exhibition at the V&A Museum, London)

Back in July I went on a daytrip to London to visit the V&A and to see their exhibition called “Treasures of the Royal Courts” before it closed on 14th July. I must’ve been to the V&A before, but it’s been a long time – I didn’t have much time on this visit because of train times, but I did manage to have a little look at a couple of galleries as well as the exhibition which I’ll talk about in another post. Sadly no photos for this post because photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition.

The subtitle for this exhibition had struck me as somewhat strange, in advance – Tudors, Stuarts and Russian Tsars? One of these things is not like the others! However all became clear – the centre piece of the exhibition was a collection of silverware that had been gifted to the Russian Court by the English. Most of the silverware of this period that remained in England was destroyed, either to make more fashionable pieces in a later time or after the Civil War when the Monarchy was abolished. So these pieces from Russia are the best surviving examples of English silverware from this period. With this as the focal point of the exhibition the rest of the items explored what the Tudor & Stuart courts were like (materially speaking) and how & why these gifts were made to Russia.

The first part of the exhibition gave a picture of the splendour & symbolism of the English Court during this time period. It started with arms, armour & heraldry – including some of Henry VIII’s armour. I particularly liked the four Dacre Beasts – painted wooden standard bearers in the shape of four beasts that symbolised Lord Dacre’s ancestry & allegiances. Which included a dolphin, I hadn’t realised that was a heraldic beast back in the 1520s! As well as the pageantry of the military world there were a lot of items from the civilian side of court life. These included minatures, jewellery, clothes and larger portraits of monarchs and members of the court (with a particular emphasis on people who’d been envoys to Russia).

Diplomatic relations between Russia & England had started accidentally in 1553. A small flotilla of English ships was trying to find a route to China via the north, caught in bad weather the surviving ship landed on the coast of Russia and the crew were escorted to Moscow to meet the Tsar. This was an auspicious time for both nations to start direct diplomatic relations. Europe at the time was divided between Protestant & Catholic countries, and this both limited options for trade and disrupted the safe passage of merchants & diplomats by land. Russia was outside this conflict, as the form of Christianity in the country was Orthodox. Russia was also relatively new as a country – the Duchy of Muscovy had only recently “upgraded” itself to being the rulers of Russia. So they were looking for trading partners & diplomatic contacts to set themselves up as part of the “civilised” world.

Symbolism, pageantry & protocol were important in both courts, so despite the cultural differences there were similarities in their styles of diplomacy. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Diplomacy broke down completely during the Commonwealth (between the two Charleses, when Oliver Cromwell was in charge). This was because the Tsars did not approve of the overthrow of a monarchy. There were also problems that arose from the diplomats being as much (or more) merchants as courtiers, which some of the Tsars felt was an insult. England was also little inclined to get involved in the wars Russia fought, in particular Tsar Ivan (the Terrible) had hopes of much more involvement from Elizabeth I’s England in his wars than he ever got.

This info (and more, I’m summarising from memory so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff) was illustrated in the exhibition with not only the silverware but also portraits from the Russian Court, other gifts between the courts, and even paintings of the diplomatic events. I was particularly struck by a portrait of Prince P. I. Potemkin, who as part of his diplomatic career was an ambassador to England in the time of Charles II. (It’s currently used as the picture of him on his wikipedia page.) I think he looks both completely different to the English court of the time, but also part of that same sort of world of showing off your status by what you wear. In terms of the other gifts the standout one was a coach presented to the Tsar. They had a model in the exhibition, and a video about it (which is on the exhibition website. It was taken across to Russia by boat in pieces then reassembled in Moscow before presentation.

As I said, the silverware was the main focus of the exhibition, and was laid out in the centre of one of the rooms so you could see all round it. These weren’t just some dishes to eat your dinner off, they were display pieces to be laid out on a cupboard or buffet at the side of the room. Or perhaps put on the table as a centrepiece. As such they were large and heavily decorated pieces. I particularly liked the ewer in the shape of a leopard – posed much like the standard bearing Dacre Beasts from the start of the exhibition, with a shield rather than a standard. I also liked a water pot with both handle & spout shaped like toothy grinning snakes. The decoration was obviously full of symbolism & meaning and then for the Tsars it had the added meaning of demonstrating international trade & diplomatic connections.

It was a good exhibition, and I’ve got the book to read at some point 🙂